In the spirit of this edition's Literary Britain, I'm dedicating Around Town to specific places from novels set in the capital.
Rather than feature a single district this month, I thought I'd look at some of London's most beautiful buildings, spanning a moment in time that changed Britain's heritage forever: the reign of Queen Victoria. Sir John Soane was one of Britain's most influential architects. He represented everything that was magnificent about Georgian architecture and introduced radical designs that made the most of available light—ideal for art galleries and grand assemblies in the days before electricity. Soane died in 1837, the year of Victoria's ascension, but his ideas reached far beyond his lifetime. There is no better place to enjoy Soane's genius than his former town house, the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, just behind Holborn station.
Christmas has been celebrated in Merry England for more than a thousand years. Some customs melt back even further to pagan traditions. At a time of year when twilight falls mid-afternoon and frost hovers on the breath, the joy of nighttime sparkle, mulled wine, music and entertainment is as welcome to a modern, city-hardened Londoner as any rustic medieval reveler.
The south side of London’s river has historically played second fiddle to its sophisticated northern counterpart, always pampered with patronage, transport and money. Years of regeneration projects and downright lack of space, however, have slowly chipped away at the South Bank’s shabby image, and it has finally found its place in the sun. To walk from Tower Bridge to Putney would take the best part of a day, and that’s without stopping off to enjoy the sights you’re passing. Just as no one sensible would lump the City in with Westminster, Embankment and Chelsea, so Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Bankside, the South Bank and beyond are all destinations in their own right. London’s south side warrants several visits. Since medieval times, “south of the river” was the place Londoners went for fun, a legendary no-man’s land cab drivers refused to visit. The theaters, bearbaiting and brothels of Shakespeare’s day, the notorious Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens of the 18th century and the famous 1951 Festival of Britain, built on a bomb site, all promised escape. The festival’s site now forms the epicenter of a modern London pleasure zone. The Royal Festival Hall was, as the name suggests, built for the expo. It’s an extraordinary piece of postwar architecture, well worth enjoying. It has recently been renovated, stripped back to its original modernist lines. The hall hosts classical, contemporary and high-class pop events, and is a real treat to visit. It has a varied foyer program and a rather nice restaurant, the Skylon (named for the sadly lost centerpiece of the festival) boasting great food and an even better view of Westminster, the Embankment and the Thames. Its younger, quirkier sister, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is sadly closed for muchneeded renovation until 2018, but her roof garden, which softens the Brutalist architecture, is still open and worth a (free) visit. Another love-it-or-hate-it Brutalist masterpiece, the National Theatre, is most definitely open for business. A sprawling labyrinth of cast concrete, it’s actually much softer than it first appears, and the choice of productions in its three main spaces is wide, challenging and usually excellent. Backstage tours are available, but I’ve never been on one. The entire complex may be reached via the Thames Path, which at this point is a wide promenade, with fairy lights in the plane trees and dozens of eateries of varying quality. Skateboarders have been whizzing round the undercroft below the buildings since the 1970s. If you’re walking across the delightful Hungerford Bridge, do look down at the southernmost pier at their secret skateboard graveyard. Each broken board has its own memorial, lovingly posted online. Run the sculpture-garden gauntlet of living statues in the walk up to the London Eye, still one of my top picks for any visit to the capital. On a clear day (or night), there really is something special about this most touristy of landmarks. Even I love being a tourist sometimes. Unless you have children with you, another tourist mecca, the former County Hall, is probably not one for the must-do list. It houses attractions such as the London Dungeon, Sea Life London Aquarium and Dreamworks’ Shrek’s Adventure, all squarely aimed at the family market. As you pass under Waterloo Bridge, however, a large market of second-hand book stalls makes for entertaining browsing, after which you might enjoy a coffee in the lobby of the British Film Institute or visit one of their four cinemas, always showing something offbeat. If you prefer your screens big, the massive, cylindrical IMAX cinema fills the entirety of Waterloo roundabout, now cloaked in tumbling Virginia creeper; it is rather beautiful to behold. Coming out of the underpass the other side allows one of the best (and only) ways to experience the grand, Art Nouveau entrance of Waterloo station, obscured from most angles by later construction. There are some curious things to see in the station itself, as there are in any London terminus, and I often nip up to the modern mezzanine to enjoy a coffee in Benugo, a decent chain, overlooking the bustle below. The former Eurostar line to Paris (now removed to St. Pancras) is being redesignated as a local line, so is currently under wraps. Behind the station, Waterloo turns into a different beast. Traditionally rather scruffy, the Cut is a funny little street full of curious, single-interest shops, though these are, like the rest of the capital, one by one, being swallowed and turned swanky. A lovely survivor, I Knit London describes itself as a “sanctuary for knitters,” and it is, indeed, more like a club than a store. It’s certainly the only yarn shop I know of that boasts a licensed bar. At the end of the Cut, in Westminster Bridge Road, a rather dull entranceway labeled Westminster Bridge House is worth scouting out for sheer novelty value. Looking up, you’ll see a grand Victorian edifice, the sole remnant of the Necropolis Railway—a railway for the dead. Well-to-do Londoners would bury their loved ones in the leafy, suburban Brookwood cemetery, traveling by train with the coffin. The railway was bombed in World War II and never rebuilt.
IT MIGHT BE JUST A FEW STOPS on the Northern line, but Hampstead has more in common with Cheltenham, York or Harrogate than the grimy city it overlooks. The London village has never stopped being fashionable since the 18th century, and its quiet flagstones, Georgian shopfronts and Victorian streetlamps still see their fair share of celebrities, from Tim Burton to Ringo Starr. The winding alleyways, picturesque pubs, tiny boutiques and fabulous architecture are worth a wander, even if you don’t visit one of the top notch historic proper-ties—but do try at least one. Hampstead is not a place for anyone who doesn’t like hills. Even the high street is sloping, and to get anywhere truly interesting, climbing is required.
Greenwich has played host to royalty, and especially female royalty, since time immemorial. Queens, consorts—and the occasional mistress—have all been welcomed and indulged by a riverside town that takes most things in its stride. Queen Elizabeth I was born at Greenwich Palace and, in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II recognized Greenwich as one of just six Royal boroughs in the land.
THE FIVE HISTORIC ROYAL PALACES in the capital are a joy to visit, but there’s no doubting it’s an expensive experience to visit them individually. If you’re visiting London for a little while, though, and you plan to go to all, or at least most, of the properties, it’s well worth taking an annual membership. You can join on the spot or in advance; they’ll send packs overseas at no extra charge. It works out considerably cheaper, you can forget queues and, my favorite tip, you can take advantage of awkward times in the day.
THE EPICENTER of modern Royal London has to be the area around St. James’s. It wasn’t always so, of course; William the Conqueror built his castle at the east of the City for protection against river-borne foes. As security became less of an issue, though, palaces were built for splendor, further west, where prevailing winds whisked away the city smells. Whitehall Palace is long-gone. The last and only survivor of a Royal residence once more like a town than a castle is Inigo Jones’s extraordinary Banqueting House, now reopen after a long refurbishment program, but two great palace complexes do survive.
March is a month of exhibitions, as London staggers out, blinking, into Spring, and people start going out for pleasure again. An extra-long Around Town this month, everyone, as there’s just so much going on I can’t decide what to leave out…