Music Roundup 02: 16 April to 5 May 2023

Featured this time: Stanley Dee, Aladdin Sane, Kyle Eastwood, Indigo Sparke, Tara Lily, Matt Schofield.

Tara Lily at the Boulevard Soho

Six concerts to report in this period, with something of a jazzy theme. The delights of a comfortable seat, a glass or two of wine and some high quality music. What’s not to like? Is the era of standing, watching loud bands, view usually restricted by the tall people in front of you, distracted by all the people talking rather than listening to the music, coming to an end. Is age catching up with me? Not entirely, but I think this is likely to be a year of transition towards a better quality of experience. That is exemplified by the fact that Jon G and I have decided to glamp at both the weekend festivals we are going to this year: Latitude and End of the Road. Adds to the price, improves the comfort and convenience. We’ll see if it’s worth it.

Onto the concerts, starting with a tribute act, but a very good one, who I was seeing for the third time. For some of our number it was pretty much double figures…

Stanley Dee at the Half Moon, Putney, 16 April

The day got off to a good start with West Ham coming back from 2-0 down to Arsenal after about ten minutes to draw 2-2. Arsenal missed a penalty, but we had the chances to win. A real confidence-booster for West Ham in the fight to avoid relegation; a real confidence-drainer for Arsenal in their bid to beat the remorseless Man City to the Premier League title.

Straight after that, over to Putney for a very nice pre-concert meal at the Holy Cow Indian restaurant on the Upper Richmond Road – highly recommended. We were six tonight: me, Dave, Jon, Tony, Colin – he of the double figures for Stanley Dee! – and a friend of Colin’s. The crowd for Stanley Dee at the Half Moon seemed bigger and livelier than ever – they have built up a strong reputation and an enthusiastic following. The formula? Play great songs by a great band really well. And show you’re enjoying it – it catches on!

One big change to the band – a new guitarist. The previous one, who was very good, was poached by rivals Simply Dan apparently. It’s brutal in world of Steely Dan covers bands! His replacement was also very accomplished technically, which you have to be, playing Steely Dan, especially some of those early guitar-driven rockers like My Old School, Reeling in the Years and Bodhisattva – all of which got an airing tonight. He was playing off an iPad screen, which suggests he’s still fairly new to the world of the Dan. But he certainly seems to have mastered all the songs.

As ever, the two sets ranged across the classic Steely Dan albums – essentially the 1970s canon. And Steely Dan were imbued in jazz as well as American soft rock. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number borrows a bass line from Horace Silver’s Song for my Father; Aja classics like Black Cow and Deacon Blues gave me an entry into jazz music back in the day. All rendered impeccably tonight. And what a rousing finish: Do it Again, Kid Charlemagne, Bodhisattva and Reeling in the Years! We were buzzing. Enough for me, Jon and Colin to stick around in the pub for another hour analysing the performance and talking music generally. Got one of the last trains home, but it was worth it!

Aladdin Sane Live at the Royal Festival Hall, 21 April

Anna Calvi sings

This concert was part of the celebration of 50th anniversary of David Bowie’s iconic album Aladdin Sane at the Southbank Centre. Along with the concert there’s a photo exhibition on Level 1 of the RFH, called Aladdin Sane: 50 years. That’s well worth a visit – only £5 entry. I really enjoyed it; lots of photos and memorabilia of the early 70s; a selection of the work of photographer Brian Duffy, who took the photos for the album cover; and a variety of photos from that shoot as well as some earlier shots of Bowie for the Ziggy Stardust album, which weren’t used. He also took photos for The Lodger and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps albums. In the case of the latter, his work was partially painted over for the final cover, which led to a falling out between Duffy and Bowie. Those artistic differences!

I decided to go to the concert at the last minute, and bought the last available ticket online. Decent view, about half way up. The songs were performed by a variety of artists, backed by an orchestra – there was a guitarist, but he didn’t exactly do a Mick Ronson! The show was enjoyable, slick, but ultimately a bit underwhelmimg. The songs weren’t sung in the order on the album; I assume each artist was assigned – or chose – two songs, and the order was determined that allocation. The last song of the set was Jean Genie, which is understandable – the only problem was that it was performed rather feebly by the electropop singer Lynks, in one of his masks and an extravagant outfit based on the one the V&A featured in its Bowie exhibition a few years ago. A missed opportunity that, when Anna Calvi could have picked up her guitar and given us something in her trademark visceral style.

As well as those two the cast included Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters, who bounced around enthusiastically, and two modern soul singers: Tawiah, who I saw recently at the Barbican, and Roxanne Tatei, who was new to me. I’m a big admirer of Anna Calvi, but felt she was wasted somewhat, confined to singing Lady Grinning Soul and Time in a cabaret style. You could say Aladdin Sane is a fusion of cabaret and rock’n’roll; tonight’s show erred towards the cabaret and never really gave us the rock’n’roll, though Jake Shears did his best on Let’s Spend the Night Together.

The highlights for me came in the second half, with a soulful Aladdin Sane by Roxanne Tatei, backed by some lovely piano, and an unexpectedly anthemic rendition of Drive In Saturday by Tawiah. A reminder of where Radiohead drew the inspiration from for Karma Police! There was an encore of Rebel Rebel, featuring the whole ensemble. Again it didn’t really rock, but it was a nice way to end the evening.

So, I’m glad I went, but it was a bit of a 6/10 show. The photo exhibition though – a must for any Bowie aficionado. It’s on until 28 May.

Kyle Eastwood at Ronnie Scott’s, 27 April

OK, let’s get it out of the way: Kyle Eastwood is the son of actor Clint Eastwood. He is also a very fine jazz bassist and bandleader, which I didn’t know until Dave suggested going along to one of his shows at Ronnie’s. We caught the 6.30 show, which gave us time for dinner afterwards. The music was mostly from Kyle’s 2019 album, Cinematic, which features jazzy interpretations of film soundtracks. I listened to the album afterwards and liked it; but is live that this music really comes into its own – in particular, Kyle’s bass sounds, which were strong and vibrant live, but much more mixed down on the album recording. He played an electric double bass, with the bottom third scooped out. What the idea behind that is, I don’t know – maybe it just makes it lighter to bring on tour. Anyway, it sounded great, and our table was in a good position to study his playing.

He was joined by a very accomplished band: Andrew McCormack on piano, Quentin Collins on trumpet, Brandon Allen on sax and Chris Higginbottom on drums. All British, I think, working with him while he is over here. I didn’t know this beforehand, and could have sworn that when they were playing a version of Taxi Driver, the trumpet and sax players were straight out of Little Italy, New York. They really had a feel for the tone of the music. I loved their duetting throughout the show; another highlight was some pretty wild improvisation during a rendition of the Bond theme tune, Skyfall. Kyle mentioned his father a couple of times, but only in the context of the music – one piece was a take on an early Clint Eastwood film, The Eiger Sanction. The most fun was when they launched into the theme from The Pink Panther. Who doesn’t love that tune?

This was music of the highest quality and the hour and a quarter whizzed by. I think we would all have enjoyed more. But there was another show at 8.30. The six of us went off to a very good Italian restaurant called Bocca di Lupo on Archer Street in Soho. Not been there before, but will definitely return. Lovely regional dishes, and a very interesting wine list. Pretty noisy on a packed Friday evening, but, hey, this is the heart of London. Good food, good wine and good music – what more do you need?

Indigo Sparke at the Slaughtered Lamb, Clerkenwell, 28 April

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that Indigo Sparke is one of my favourite singers at the moment. She’s Australian, but based in New York. Her last album, Hysteria, was my No1 in 2022, while its predecessor, her debut Echo, made No2 in 2021. It’s classic indie-folk, singer-songwriter music, but performed with a subtle power. The instrumentation is sparse, but the melodies are rich, the emotion is strong. She’s just done a few dates in the UK supporting Weyes Blood, and took the opportunity to play this solo show at the Slaughtered Lamb. It’s a pub in Clerkenwell, just north of Farringdon. It’s a lively pub, with a music space downstairs. Holds around 150, I think. I’ve been there once before, to see Faye Webster in 2018. It’s a nice place to enjoy an acoustic show.

I went along to the gig with my friend Shane. We got there quite early and had a couple of beers outside on the street, as it was a bit noisy inside. Then down to the basement, where we managed to nab a couple of stools to sit on, with some help from a member of staff. There’s some scattered seating near the small stage, but mostly people stand. There was support from a singer called Joanna Warren, also New York-based, and a friend of Indigo. She crept on around 8 o’clock and began singing unaccompanied. She had the voice to pull it off. The rest of her show was with acoustic guitar. She apologised if her finger-picking wasn’t up to standard, as she’d broken a thumbnail, and couldn’t glue another one on – not something I realised anyone ever did! In fact her playing sounded pretty good. She had some nice tunes – anguished ballads in a similar vein to Indigo. Near the end she played a song which involved her screaming all of a sudden. Rather disconcerting after we had all settled into a mellow vibe!

Indigo came on around 9.15. Again unannounced. Picked up her guitar and started to play. The first song was the wonderful Colourblind, from Echo; but the majority of the set was taken from Hysteria. She was in fine voice – when I last saw her, in Bristol, she had flu, and had to play a fairly short set. The songs were beautifully played and sung – I’ve listened to them so much that there were endless special moments for me. All my favourites from Hysteria were there: Sad Is Love, Burn, Real, Why Do You Lie? Carnival, from Echo was another highlight. Oddly, she doesn’t play Pressure in my Chest, which was one of the lead singles from Hysteria. Maybe that’s one where she feels it needs a full band to do it justice. There was a new song called Opulent Blue, which sounded good. She introduced the songs with good humour and some engaging stories. So it was a bit surprising that she ended with Everything Everything, which is a lovely atmospheric tune from Echo, but rather downbeat – all about the world dying. And with that she was off, to get over to the merch table. That’s where you make your money, in this difficult age for up and coming performers.

Indigo’s playing End of the Road this year – a good chance to get some wider exposure. With luck she’ll be able to bring her band over – I’d like to hear how the songs sound live with a full band. Perhaps Aaron Dessner of the National, who co-produced Hysteria and helped write some of the songs, will pop in for a guest appearance!

Tara Lily at the Boulevard Soho, 3 May

Tara Lily is a British-Bengali artist, born in Peckham, south London, who makes music that fuses jazz with soul and the sounds of South Asia and Latin America. Worldwide music. She was the first artist signed to Motown’s new British label and has made two EPs so far:  2021’s Lost in London and last year’s Last Flight Out. There’s some beautiful, soulful music on both. I especially enjoyed some of her cover versions: adding vocals to Miles Davis’ Blue in Green, and John Coltrane’s Naima; and turning Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain into a drum and bass dance tune, with a bit of a Latin vibe. All work superbly. I first heard her on 6 Music, and immediately loved her voice; then by chance, she was on the bill at the celebration of International Women’s Day at the Barbican back in March (as was Tawiah) which I reviewed in the first of these roundups. She only played three songs that day, so I was pleased to have the chance to see her and a full band play at the Boulevard Soho.

The Boulevard is a new venue, at the bottom of Berwick Street in Soho. I’m not sure what was there before, but it may have been a less salubrious form of entertainment. It’s been refurbished very stylishly, the main space a combination of fixed seating in the round, with tables and seats below. It struck me that it could become a more modern – and cheaper – alternative to Ronnie Scott’s, perhaps for less-established artists. The gig was sold out, and the audience quite youthful and a lot more diverse than most of the concerts I go to. A pretty cool crowd in fact – with a few exceptions!

As for the music – wonderful. Tara sang and played keys in the first half of the show. The Things You Do and Hotel Amour stood out, with a Sade vibe on the latter. She was accompanied by some excellent young musicians playing sax and keys, mellifluous bass and drums that gave me a feel of Moses Boyd. That’s seriously good. In the second half she was joined by her sitar player, with an extended version of Naima one of the highlights. There were a couple of new songs, which sounded good; overall we were treated to an exhibition of cool, worldwide jazz. The band have just been touring India – to enthusiastic receptions Tara recounted – so there was a real togetherness about them. They ended with a rousing version of Don’t Explain which, in a different setting, would undoubtedly have people up and dancing. But the appreciation was fulsome.

So Tara Lily is definitely someone who I’ll be looking out for in future; and the Boulevard a venue that could become a regular haunt. A great evening’s entertainment all round.

Matt Schofield at Ronnie Scott’s, 5 May

I’d not heard of Matt Schofield before Colin, who loves his virtuoso guitarists, suggested going to see him and his band at Ronnie’s. I was expecting jazz, but in fact it was what you might call rocking blues. A sound you associate most with the late 60s and early 70s, but a timeless sound. One for the aficionados, especially on record; but live it can be – and was – enthralling.

Matt and his band – a keyboardist, who also lays down the bass lines, and a steady-as-it-goes drummer – have been touring together for over twenty years. They’ve played various clubs in Soho over the years, but this is their first time at Ronnie’s. Recognition of the level they are currently operating at – that is, a very high level. This was an engrossing show: Matt is a stunningly good guitar player. One of those times when you look admiringly at the guitarist and think, I wish I could do that! One of the things I’ve noticed about ace guitarists over the years is that they often only have the one guitar: no array of finely-calibrated instruments, no fussing about tuning and re-tuning after each song. They plug in and get on with it! Assisted by some good pedals, no doubt; but they are simply masters of their craft. Matt played a blue Fender Stratocaster if you are interested – I had real guitar envy!

At times I got a bit of Rory Gallagher from the music, and there were definitely shades of Jimi Hendrix. Not quite as wild as the great man could be, but edging into similar territory. There was a touch of funk, but mostly it was that hard-edged blues which formed the basis of the sound. A few perfunctory vocals from Matt, but this was all about letting rip on that guitar. Every conceivable sound, every part of the fretboard explored – magnificent stuff.

Back home, I tried some of his recorded output on Spotify. It was OK, but I think I’ll stick with Rory and Jimi if I fancy a burst of that rocking blues – or Led Zep, for that matter. His most recent album, Far as I Can See, dates back to 2014, which is telling. It’s all about the live performance. That’s where Matt Schofield is spellbinding.

I’ve had a couple of weeks off from gig-going since Matt Schofield – ‘tis the time for football viewing – the business end of the season. Normal service resumed next week, with Alvvays at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town. And then, on Saturday 27th. Wide Awake Festival. What a line-up that has this year! There will be a full report.

Until next time…

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Music Roundup: March/early April 2023

Thought I’d try a different approach to concert reviews and other musical reflections, having a round up from time to time rather than trying to write up each concert individually. I might make exceptions for some really big names – like Bruce in July this year – while the festivals are of course round ups in themselves. I’ve three festivals planned for this year at the moment: Wide Awake at the end of May, Latitude in July and End of the Road in August/September.

So let’s start with some of the things I’ve been listening to recently. It’s been a bit retro over the past month or so, with something of a U2 revival. That was sparked by the Murder Capital, who I saw in late February. I mentioned in my review of that concert that I heard a bit of U2 in their music – the best of U2. The period which encompassed The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Zooropa. What great records they are: the peak of U2’s first cycle, culminating in the epic Joshua Tree, and then what I think of as the band’s Berlin period, although I’m not sure all that much of the music was actually recorded in Berlin in the end. It was probably when Eno’s influence was at its height, with more use of electronics and a darker, more alienated feel to many of the songs. In that respect there’s some connection with David Bowie’s Berlin period: Low and Heroes especially, though The Lodger has its moments, and you can also bring the earlier Station to Station into the equation. And for completeness, add a bit of Iggy Pop: the best tracks from The Idiot and Lust of Life. It makes for a great playlist: U2, Bowie, Iggy, a bit of Kraftwerk – a strong influence on them all – and for good measure some Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. That’s been my latest listening – called Berlin, of course. It’s a notion.

I also found myself wanting U2 on in the background as I read Bono’s autobiography Surrender. It’s a very good read, and I’ll return to it alongside a couple of other music bios I’ve read recently. Watch this space…

A lot of my other listening has been based around concerts I’ve been to, notably Biig Piig, Jadu Heart and the Orielles. I’ve been to seven in all since the beginning of March, so let’s move onto those.

In Her Words at the Barbican, 8 March

This was a celebration of International Women’s Day, with artists mainly from the jazz/ soul world. The headliner was Maddison Cunningham, whom I assumed was from that world too. The other artists were Rosie Frater-Taylor, Tara Lily, Tyson and Tawiah. I’d heard a bit of Tara Lily recently, and really liked her voice, while Tawiah took me back to a great song from 2010 called Watch Out, which I’d first heard on one of Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Bubblers compilations. It’s an anguished piece of jazzy soul, reflecting the anxiety of an affair that is getting too deep.

The evening was split into two, with the first four artists sharing the first half, and Maddison Cunningham taking over after the interval. Rosie Frater-Taylor was solo, just her and her guitar. She was good, but only had time for two songs. Tara Lily was next and she managed three! She played keys and was accompanied by a sitar player. Her music is rooted in jazz, but spans the globe. I loved her sung version of John Coltrane’s Naima, with the sitar gently propelling the song. That’s on her most recent EP, Last Flight Out. It includes a version of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain, too. The highlight of the evening, for me.

Tyson followed – four songs for her! Accompanied by a console, she sang modern soul in the vein of Jorja Smith. I liked it. And then Tawiah, who performed a cycle of new songs, moving from birth to death, with key life events in between. It was powerful, if a little contrived. I preferred the stark simplicity of Watch Out, though in fairness that was a long time ago.

Maddison Cunningham walked on with a band and electric guitar, and proceeded to play a set of rock music with a hint of folk and a touch of jazziness in the guitar playing. In that respect I was reminded of Ryley Walker, who I’ve enjoyed a couple of times at End of the Road. I can’t say it was what I expected, but I hadn’t done my homework! It was entertaining and went down well with the audience, who were mostly there to see her, I suspect.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, but all enjoyable. Main follow-ups for me will be Tara Lily – who’s playing at the Boulevard in Soho on 3 May – and Rosie Frater-Taylor. I’d like to hear a bit more of that guitar.

Gwenifer Raymond at St John on Bethnal Green, 11 March

Gwenifer Raymond has a PhD in astro-physics, designs games by day, and plays American primitive guitar by night. It’s a percussive folk-blues, which has elements of flamenco and imparts a feel of the Welsh mountains. Gwenifor is from Wales, so that’s an easy inference, but there’s something in her playing that reminds me of side two of Led Zeppelin III, which was recorded in Bron-y-Aur. I saw her playing in the woods at End of the Road last year, and she was utterly captivating. She doesn’t say much – her guitar does the talking. She looked a bit lost in the space of the church, but the sound resonated. Check out her 2020 album Strange Lights over Garth Mountain if you’re curious.

Killing Joke at the Royal Albert Hall, 12 March

The day after Gwenifer Raymond – talk about contrasts! Killing Joke were – are – a post punk/goth band whose heyday was in the early 80s. They passed me by at the time, but Dave and Tony were keen to go along. Jon and I were tempted by the pre-concert meal at Polish restaurant Ognisko as much as the music. But it was good – very loud, relentlessly rocking, verging on metal. There was a dramatic video backdrop – all fire, wars, marching. A bit obvious, but a good match for the music. They played most of their key songs – Requiem and Follow the Leaders stood out for me, probably because I’d liked them when I mugged up before the show. Singer Jaz Coleman looked a bit like Ozzy Osbourne from our seats high up in the Raising Circle. Plenty of aging goths were present in the audience. A fun, if ear-bashing evening.

Biig Piig at the Electric Brixton, 23 March

Biig Piig is the stage name for West London-based Irish singer Jessica Smyth. Her concert at Hoxton Hall last November was one of the most enjoyable of the year, combining an irresistible dance energy with jazzy soul, some of which is sung in Spanish, Jessica having lived there as a youngster. Tonight was a repeat of the Hoxton Hall formula, with a bigger audience at the sold out Electric. The crowd seemed more youthful too – I think her popularity is growing, and deservedly so. Once again she got the mix of her older, mellower tunes like Shh, Perdida and Roses and Gold and the more recent bangers just right. And that full-on, engaging energy was never more apparent than when she and the band ramped it up for the mighty Switch. It was the first Biig Piig song I heard, back in 2020; and while it isn’t typical of her sound, it is awesome live. I loved the celebratory sense of Feels Right at the end of the set too. Jessica is having the time of her life and she wants to share it with us. Onward and upward!

A word for support act Yune Pinku. She plays electronic dance, which combines modern beats with an occasional burst of house music. She sings too, though her vocals, which sound good on her recorded output, were rather drowned out by the beats on the night. One to watch.

Jadu Heart at Islington Assembly, 30 March

I’m a bit late to Jadu Heart. They’ve been going since 2016 and last year’s album Derealised was their third. I heard them for the first time last year when 6 Music played the single I Shimmer a fair amount. It’s a classic bit of melodic 90s shoegaze, complete with anthemic guitars, and I’m a sucker for that sound! So when I saw they were playing Islington Assembly, which is a great venue – really well turned out compared with most – I thought I’d give it a go. Wise move, because it sold out pretty quickly. They’re a duo – Diva Jeffrey and Alex Headford – with backing band. They’re not all shoegaze – there is a variety of indie rock sounds. Most of the set was from Derealised and 2020’s Hyper Romance, which are both worth a listen. I enjoyed the set, though the sound was a bit murky, and Diva’s keyboards broke down about two thirds of the way through, which naturally disturbed the momentum. Good show, good band though.

Support act gglum, who I saw with Gretel Hänlyn at Bermondsey Social Club last year, played an enjoyable set of indie-pop and got things off to a good start.

Lee Ritenour at Ronnie Scott’s, 3 April

Lee Ritenour is a jazz guitarist, who has been playing professionally since the late 60s. He’s worked with the likes of Dave Grusin and Larry Carlton, and played on Tom Browne’s Funkin’ for Jamaica and even on Pink Floyd’s The Wall! I’d not come across him until a friend, Colin, who is a fan, suggested the gig, and a few of us agreed to go along. Like quite a few artists at Ronnie’s he played two sets that evening and we went along to the 6.30 show. That gave us a chance for a nice dinner afterwards at an excellent tapas place in Soho called Maresco. Rock’n’roll, eh? This was top quality jazz music – mellow for the most part, but hitting a jazz rock vein towards the end, which provided a showcase for his excellent young band, which included his son Wesley on drums. I was particularly impressed by the bassist, Serbian Pera Krstajic: driving the beat, but capable of real intricacy. There’s a nice story attached to this: Lee started a competition called Six String Theory back in 2010 for young guitar players from across the world. It was extended to bass, drums and piano and is now biennial. Pera Krstajic won the bass competition in 2018, and joined Lee’s band soon after. Lee is now 71, and it was great to see him playing with a group of talented young artists, who clearly held him in great regard. United by the love of jazz music.

The Orielles at Electric Brixton, 4 March

The Orielles are sisters Esme Dee and Sidonie Hand-Halford and guitarist Henry Carlyle Wade, from Halifax. You’d classify them as indie rock and there was definitely some of that C86 indie sound in their music when they started, as well as the likes of Orange Juice and 90s indie-dance. But they were always a bit different, combining dreamy melodies with leftfield lyrics and unusual time changes. When I first heard them live, at Latitude in 2018, I was struck both by the elasticity of Esme’s bass playing and the crystalline quality of Henry’s guitar. And he solo’d a lot more than the average indie guitarist, the highlight being the epic guitar workout on early single Sugar Tastes Like Salt. That song has remained a highlight of their live set every time I’ve seen them – until now. They are moving on.

Their third album, Tableau, was released last year. It was a step on from the previous two, debut Silver Dollar Moment and follow up Disco Volador. It was more discursive, abstract even, especially on the first couple of listens. Less driven by the melodies, but with even more variation in sound. Every time I listened to it, more was revealed, and the more interesting it became. So how would it sound live? Well, the answer was brilliant. Most of the set was from Tableau. There was less for the crowd to move to, but I think they were engrossed. I certainly was. Henry really let go with his guitar. Sugar Tastes like Salt was no longer there, but there was plenty to make up for it. And two of the last three songs were genuine crowd-pleasers: Disco Volador and Sunflower Seeds. Everyone went away happy.

The Orielles are a really interesting band, challenging their own previous boundaries. In that respect they are like Radiohead – you never know what will come next, but you know it will be worth giving plenty of attention. Long may it continue!

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A Thames Journey: (11) From London Bridge to Greenwich

iPhone view from Greenwich Park – just squeezes the Shard in!

The last part of this journey took us through the historic heart of London and past many of its iconic sights. There were glimpses of the modern too, including some of the sights that we explore further in this instalment. The journey from London Bridge to Greenwich is another relatively short one, and is perhaps the section where the modern has most decisively taken over from the old, driven by changing economic circumstances and emerging new opportunities. At the heart of this change was a rapid decline in the fortunes of inner London’s docks – the Pool of London – following the arrival of containerisation in the late 60s. In essence, the docks that ran from around London Bridge and Southwark out as far downstream as East India Docks beyond the Isle of Dogs became too small for the giant container ships which quickly dominated international maritime trade. The trade shifted further downriver, to Purfleet, Tilbury and London Gateway on the Thames estuary and Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast. The wharves and quays that specialised in various kinds of products – timber, sugar, tobacco, rum, meat, tea, spices, you name it – and served as landing points for barges and the smaller boats that unloaded cargo from the larger ships, suffered the same fate as the docks. By the early 1980s an industry that dominated London for centuries and fuelled the growth of many supporting industries, including banking and insurance, was dead.

However, all was not lost. The City of London thrived as it took advantage of the relaxation of exchange controls in the 70s; and in the mid-80s the Big Bang liberalised financial markets and led to an influx of American and other international banks and financial intermediaries into the City. The Masters of the Universe had arrived, and a lot of people became very rich. This has undoubtedly boosted the UK economy, but it has also led to huge economic distortions in London, particularly in the housing market, and has heightened the inequality of income and wealth which remains a major social problem in this country. Arguably it was one of the driving factors in the vote for Brexit.

Meanwhile, the Docklands were revived with huge investment, initially driven by the London Docklands Development Corporation, formed in 1981 by the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine. A bit of a visionary was Hezza; he went on to revive parts of Liverpool. A politician with vision – no wonder he never became Prime Minister! He was instrumental in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in 1989; his party punished him for it and voted for John Major as their next leader. He’s still going strong today, just turned 90, and is one of the most passionate and articulate advocates of closer ties with the EU. So yes, he’s a politician I respect. And the Docklands on both sides of the river have been transformed. Residential developments along the old wharves, marinas around the docks, the Docklands Light Railway, and the behemoth that is Canary Wharf. We shall come to all of these as we take this journey.

The walk along the river is 6-7 miles, shortest on the north side because of the bends in the river. I’m going to start by popping into the City, then I’ll head over London Bridge for the Shard and other sights along the south side to Tower Bridge, before taking the same journey along the north side. The photos will hop around the two banks!

On the north side of London Bridge, tucked away behind Monument tube station, is the Monument itself. It was constructed between 1671 and 1677 as a memorial to the Great Fire of London, which raged through the City in 1666. The fire started in nearby Pudding Lane. There’s a blue plaque marking the spot, which is now the site of an unremarkable office block.

The column was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. Wren and his colleagues, including Hawksmoor, were responsible for rebuilding over fifty churches following the Great Fire, including, of course, his masterpiece, St Paul’s. And churches are where I want to start this venture into the City. Not their history, or indeed the history of the City, which is too extensive for this series, but the juxtaposition of the old and new, which is one of the fascinations of the City today. If you don’t know it well, you might think of the City as a succession of modern towers, a glass jungle. But wander the streets and you will find yourself in all sorts of ancient alleys, and come across churches which have stood their ground against the towers all around them. Then again, money and religion have always gone together – add political power and you have a lethal mix.

St Andrew Undershaft

All Hallows Staining

St Margaret Pattens

St Dunstan in the East

St Paul’s from Cannon Street

That glass jungle is pretty amazing though. Perhaps not quite as staggering as downtown Manhattan, but still an extraordinary sight – both as a skyline, and from the ground level. There doesn’t seem to have been much of a pattern or plan to the way they have sprung up – this isn’t Paris – but I still gaze in awe as I pass the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie Talkie and other creations, like the Lloyd’s building. They all have more prosaic street names, but I like the way we’ve given them nicknames – at least the most distinctive ones. My two favourites are the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie, so let’s have a quick look at both of them.

The Gherkin has perhaps the most distinctive design of all the tall buildings, but it’s not quite as tall as some of the surrounding towers (including the Cheesegrater) so you can’t always see it from the river. That depends on where you are on the bends: it’s visible from Lambeth Bridge, but has disappeared by the time you get to the Southbank. Towards Tower Bridge and beyond, it again assumes a prominent position.

The Gherkin – aka 30 St Mary Axe – was designed by Norman Foster and opened in April 2004. It was built on the site of the Baltic Exchange and Chamber of Shipping, which were badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1992. The design, I think, is a marvel – I can never get enough of it!

As often happens in the City, when the foundations for the Gherkin were being dug in 1995, they came across Roman remains, including the skeleton of a teenage girl. Pottery found nearby suggests she was buried there around AD 350-400. The skeleton was displayed at the Museum of London for the next twelve years; but in 2007 the “Roman Girl” was re-buried where she had been found after a service at nearby St Botolph’s church, and a memorial built above her resting place.

It is poignant to recall too that three people died in the Baltic Exchange bombing, including a 15 year old girl. They are very discreetly remembered on a wall on the other side of the Gherkin to the Roman memorial.

Two young women, centuries apart, whose lives ended prematurely, commemorated at this place of renewal in the heart of the City.

The Walkie Talkie – aka 20 Fenchurch Street – sits about ten minutes’ walk south of the Gherkin. It was designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly and opened in January 2015. Unlike the Gherkin, it dominates every City skyline. It’s not as tall as originally planned, as objections were raised about the potential visual impact on St Paul’s and the Tower of London. But it is still a 38 floor monster, and looms rather intimidatingly over the surrounding streets. I find it endlessly fascinating.

One of the attractive features of the Walkie Talkie is the Sky Garden at the top of the building. There are bars and restaurants, lots of vegetation, and stunning views of London – including a striking perspective of the Shard on the other side of the river.

And talking of the Shard, it’s time to wander back over London Bridge, head east along St Thomas Street behind London Bridge station, to the tallest building of them all – in the UK at least. We’ve seen it a few times already, especially in the previous episode. Here are a few more photos from London Bridge and environs.

From a railway platform, London Bridge station

The Shard was completed in 2012, with the public viewing deck opened in February 2013. That’s on the 72nd floor! Needless to say the views are awesome – as are the lifts. It’s a while since I’ve been, but when I went, you took one lift to the 36th floor, then another to the 72nd. Both were unbelievably fast – you seem to float up in a few seconds.

The Shard was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. He was said to have been inspired by the railway lines around the site, the church spires in Canaletto’s paintings of London and the masts of sailing ships. I listened to an old BBC podcast recently, part of a series called Dream Builders, in which Piano was interviewed by presenter Razia Iqbal before an audience at the Royal Institute of British Architects. One thing I took from the interview was how much importance Piano attached to integrating the Shard with the surrounding community. (London Bridge station was redeveloped in the years following its opening.) That said, there was inevitably a lot of opposition to the building. English Heritage claimed it would be “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London”. This was not intended as a compliment, but inadvertently it gave the building its name. And now the Shard is an integral, iconic part of the London skyline, visible from so places.

From Southwark Street

From the Thames at Rotherhithe

From Dark House Walk, off Lower Thames Street

From near the Tower of London

As you come to the end of St Thomas Street, take a right down Bermondsey Street and you come to a vibrant area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and art galleries, including the White Cube, a public gallery with free entry. It’s a lovely space inside and always has interesting exhibitions of modern art.

Monica Hatoum – Remains to be Seen, 2019

Haarland Miller – Imminent End, Rescheduled Eternally, 2022

I’ll say a bit more about Bermondsey when we get past Tower Bridge, but for now let’s turn left at the end of St Thomas Street and get back up to the river, where the path is called the Queen’s Walk. At this point we find HMS Belfast, a second world war warship which is now a popular tourist attraction. Nearby is Hays Galleria, a covered area of bars and shops these days, but formerly Hays Wharf, an enclosed dock which in the 19th century was one of the chief delivery points for ships bringing tea into London.

Hays Galleria

Further along, nearing Tower Bridge, we come along to an open area surrounded by office blocks with, at one end the distinctive shape of City Hall. Like the Gherkin this building was designed by Norman Foster. It opened in 2002 and housed the London Assembly and Greater London Authority administration until December 2021. Back in the mid-2000s I was a regular visitor to the offices in my guise as head of electoral policy in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Assembly and GLA moved to the Royal Victoria Dock in Canning Town in 2022, presumably to save money. Good for the local economy of Canning Town – that will feature in the next instalment – but a shame for the Southwark building. Hope it doesn’t just lie empty in future years.

There’s a waterfront park here which gets very busy at weekends – with tourists who’ve been visiting the Tower of London and the bridge, but also with groups of students. The Bridge Theatre looks onto the park. It puts on some excellent productions – a production of Guys and Dolls is currently pulling in the crowds. I saw a production of Julius Caesar there a few years ago, which was brilliant. The audience who were standing in “the pit” became participants in performance, acting as the crowd in various set pieces.

Having reached Tower Bridge, let’s now go back to London Bridge and explore the north side of the river between the two. For the most part you can walk along the riverside to the Tower of London. Before you get there, you pass some modern blocks with interesting designs. I particularly like the Northern and Shell building, for the reflections in its blue windows, including the ubiquitous Shard.

We then come to the old Billingsgate market, which in the 19th century was the largest fish market in the world. Its origins go back until at least the 16th century. The market is now located on the Isle of Dogs, close to Canary Wharf, having moved there in 1982. The City of London Corporation now plans to move Billingsgate, Smithfields (the meat market) and New Spitalfields (fruit and vegetables) to a consolidated site further east, in Dagenham Dock. This is proving controversial, but is expected to be operating by 2027/8.

The Tower of London is our next stop. This area is always humming with visitors. But oddly – or perhaps not – I’ve never been inside. The Tower is one of London’s great attractions, furnished by a long history and just as many myths. It was first built by William the Conqueror, starting in 1078, to help subdue an unhappy native population. It was developed further by Henry III and Edward I in the 13th century. It started to be used as a prison in the 12th century, the first inmate being the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard. He escaped, as it happens. Many a rival or opponent of the monarch was incarcerated there over the centuries, and sometimes tortured and even executed. Notable prisoners included the Young Princes, the sons of Edward IV who were murdered there, probably on the orders of Richard III; the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh after he fell out with Queen Elizabeth; and would-be destroyer of Parliament, Guy Fawkes. Elizabeth herself spent time at the Tower, when her half-sister Mary was Queen. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were beheaded in the Tower. And so it goes on. Today the Tower is best known for housing the Crown Jewels and hosting a number of ravens, who legend has it, are the guardians of the place. It was prophesied back in the days of Charles II that if the ravens leave the Tower, it will fall.

All sounds very interesting – perhaps I should make a visit!

Last year Kath and I took an Elizabeth Line train to Woolwich, just after the line opened. From there we walked to North Greenwich (the Dome) and caught the Uber boat all the way back to Battersea Power Station. It’s a great trip, which features so many of the sights I’ve written about in these blogs. The boat that day was mostly carrying tourists, cameras at the ready. And the most photographed sight by far? Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 94, designed by Horace Jones and engineered by John Wolfe Barry. Heading downstream, it is the last bridge across the Thames before Dartford, where the M25 motorway crosses the river. It is both a bascule and suspension bridge, to get technical. Bascule means drawbridge in French. A fixed bridge couldn’t be built at street level because it would have impeded some of the tall ships heading into the Pool of London. Today, of course, there are far fewer large boats venturing any further up the Thames, but the bridge does have to be raised from time to time. I was on a walk with my friends Jon and Dave last December and our route crossed over Tower Bridge. The bridge was up when we got there, and a large queue of traffic had already formed. There were some very frustrated looking drivers – I’m not sure all were aware that this might happen. We waited for about fifteen minutes; it was a pleasant, sunny day, good for photos. No problem!

The design of the bridge is unarguably iconic. There is a suggestion that some visitors confuse it with London Bridge; indeed there is a story, probably apocryphal, that the American who bought the old London Bridge and reassembled it in Arizona thought he was getting Tower Bridge! Not everyone welcomed the design in its early days. The architect and journalist Henry Heathcote Statham wrote, “It represents the vice of tawdriness and prententiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure”; while the painter Frank Brangwyn claimed that “A more absurd structure than the Tower Bridge was never thrown across a strategic river.” I can see what they are getting at, but it is still pretty awesome.

Angry sky, 24 March this year

Let’s switch to the south bank again, for the walk along the river to Deptford, just before Greenwich. We pass along the Bermondsey Wall, then into Rotherhithe, once the location of the mighty Surrey Docks; and then into Deptford. You have to come off the river at Deptford, and the walk along the streets isn’t that interesting; but you can always hop on a bus to expedite your passage to Greenwich.

Just past Tower Bridge is Butler’s Wharf, now luxury apartments, shops and restaurants. Apart from its history as a dock and warehouse, it was a performance art space in the 70s, before falling into dereliction before the regeneration of the 80s and beyond. It’s a microcosm of the chequered history of Bermondsey.

Shad Thames

The name Bermondsey may derive from Beormund’s Island – ey denoting an island, in this case possible the high ground in a marshy area. In the 12th century the Abbot of Peterborough laid claim to the area. Bermondsey Abbey, dedicated to St Saviour, had been established in the 11th century. The abbey is no more, but if you walk down Tower Bridge Road for 5-10 minutes you come to a terrace of houses with a plaque denoting the site of the abbey church. On the other side of the road you can find St Mary Magdalene, church, whose origins date back to the 13th century, when the church served lay workers at Bermondsey Abbey.

After the Great Fire of London the area became popular with the wealthy, escaping the riskier north side. It even became a spa town for a while. But with industrialisation in the 19th century, some of London’s worst slums developed near St Saviour’s Dock, a natural inlet of the Thames, which is also the mouth of a now underground river, the Neckinger. In the 18th century pirates operated around the dock, with ships having to wait for a long time to offload their cargoes. They were easy prey; but if you were caught stealing the punishment was death by hanging by the river’s mouth. London slang for the noose included the Devil’s Neckinger – hence the river’s name. To add to the grisliness, one nearby spot, known as Jacob’s Island, is where the Bill Sikes met his fate in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It’s interesting to imagine all this as you walk past the high end accommodation with names like Java, Cinnamon and Tea Trade wharf!

On the other side of St Saviour’s Dock, Bermondsey Wall West begins. The riverbank here is used for mooring. Some are houseboats, others look quite derelict. The views up and down the river are striking.

It is around here in 1838-39 that the artist JMW Turner is said to have painted one of his best known works, The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up. You can see it in the National Gallery these days. The old warship had ended its service and was taken to Rotherhithe for dismantling. The image below is from the National Gallery website. You can see more Turners there – and even more at Tate Britain.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Fighting Temeraire

You have to come off the river for a short stretch, but resume on Bermondsey Wall East. We are now in Rotherhithe. You soon come to the ruins of King Edward III’s manor house, dating from around 1350. Nearby there’s a Victorian pub called the Angel. Some say Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from the pub, which looks directly onto the river. In fact, at high tide the water laps onto the walls and a small wooden balcony. I popped in for a quick beer the other day, only to hear the landlord asking customers to move out of the front room as it was about to flood!  Whether this is a regular occurrence, I don’t know.

High tide at the Angel

By the riverside, on the other side of the road to the manor house ruins, are four sculptures: of Alfred Salter, his wife Ada and daughter Joyce – and their cat! Salter, born in 1873, was a doctor and philanthropist who with Ada, was dedicated to helping the poor of the area. They both became influential Labour politicians in the early 20th century. Joyce died at the age of eight from scarlet fever, which was sweeping through the Bermondsey slums. The statues of Salter and Joyce, made by sculptor Diane Gorvin, were unveiled in 1991. Twenty years later Alfred’s was stolen! After a fundraising campaign, a new statue of Salter – and one of Ada this time – was unveiled in 2014.

The remains of Edward III’s manor house

The cat back in February 2019

Rotherhithe is thought to mean a landing place for cattle. It has a long history of being an area of docks, with its position on a peninsula formed by the bends in the river. Just beyond the Angel we pass King’s Stair’s Gardens and reach a village-like area with cobbled streets, dominated by St Mary’s Rotherhithe. On the wall the church commemorates the passengers of the Mayflower ship, which set sail from here in 1620 on its pioneering voyage to America. There’s a rather nice pub by the river called the Mayflower, which claims to be the oldest pub on the Thames in London, dating from 1550. Just south of Rotherhithe Street is the Brunel Museum, in which you can learn about the construction of the Thames Tunnel, the first in the world to run under a navigable river. It was built between 1825 and 43 by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard. Connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping, it was initially designed for horse drawn carriages, but was soon favoured by pedestrians. It was converted into a railway tunnel in 1869 for the East London Line, now part of the Overground network.

St Mary’s Rotherhithe

The Surrey Commercial Docks closed in 1970, and for a decade the area fell into decline. And then the regeneration began. Today, it still doesn’t take long to hit some pretty desolate places as you move away from the river, as Dave, Jon, Tony and I found when exploring SE London last year. The area around the New Den, now home of Millwall FC is one example, though the multiple railway lines, atop their arches and embankments do have a certain grandeur. Where there is water though, there is development – Canada Water, Greenland Dock for example. In another case, the Russia Dock, there is now parkland. All these places are named after the parts of the world they traded with, the Russia Dock covering the Scandinavian countries too, with timber one of the main imports. The strong connection with Scandinavia can be seen in some of the local churches. On Albion Street, a short walk south of the river, there are Finnish and Norwegian churches. A little further south, by Southwark Park, there is a Swedish church. The most striking of these is St Olav’s, a place of worship for Norwegian seamen in the past. The current building was consecrated in 1927. It served as a place of worship for King Haakon VII and the Norwegian government-in-exile during the Second World War. The King also used the church as a base for his broadcasts to the Norwegian people.

Greenland Dock

St Olav’s

King Haakon VII

Deptford, from the 16th to 19th centuries was home to the Deptford Dockyard, the first royal dockyard. It was a major shipbuilding centre – Peter the Great of Russia studied shipbuilding there in 1698. He and his entourage stayed at a manor house, Sayes Court, and acquired a reputation for drunkenness, demolishing part of the gardens! Staying with the theme of drunkenness, the Elizabethan playwright (and possibly government spy) Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fight in Deptford in 1593. The cause of the fight has been disputed, but a drunken brawl over money is one possibility. Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave in St Nicholas Church in Deptford. We paid a visit on our walk last year.

Deptford is named after the ford over the River Ravensbourne, known at its confluence with the Thames as Deptford Creek. Once you have crossed over the bridge, you are in Greenwich. That will be our destination; but first I want to return to Tower Bridge and describe the journey along the north side of the river.

Just past Tower Bridge we come to St Katharine Dock. These were built in the 1820s and eventually amalgamated with the London Docks at Wapping, which is on the next stretch of the river. They specialised in luxury commodities like ivory, spices, coffee, cocoa and tobacco – there is a still a stretch of water called Tobacco Dock just east of St Katharine Docks. The docks were badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War and weren’t restored until the early 1960s. And then containerisation put an end to them as working docks. St Katharine Dock was redeveloped in the 1980s, and is now a marina, surrounded by apartments, restaurants and a large pub called the Dickens Inn. It gets very busy at times, so it’s one to avoid unless you are desperate!

Wapping today is mostly converted warehouses, dotted with the odd café and a couple of venerable pubs, the Town of Ramsgate and the Prospect of Whitby. The latter lays claim to being the oldest riverside pub in London, an honour also coveted by the Mayflower, as we noted earlier. The area is oddly quiet, being mostly residential or offices, and you only get views of the Thames in a couple of parks along the way. When you reach King Edward VII Memorial Park near Shadwell Basin, you have to divert up to a main road rather than walk along the Thames path at the moment, as ventilation towers are being built for the Tideway Tunnel, part of London’s new super sewer. In the park there is also a distinctive domed building which houses an access shaft for the Rotherhithe Tunnel, a road tunnel. There’s a counterpart on the south side near Surrey Water.

St Katharine Dock

Ventilation shaft for Rotherhithe Tunnel

Oliver’s Wharf, Wapping

Wapping became notorious in the mid-80s for the print worker strike in which Rupert Murdoch-owned News International’s new, more automated printworks – somehow built secretly – was picketed by the Fleet Street workers. The battles with the police were second only to those of the earlier miners’ strike. In both cases the unions were defeated and never recovered.

Another 80s memory is jogged as we reach Limehouse Basin, as this is where the Gang of Four – not the Chinese one, or the post-punk band! – made their Limehouse Declaration in 1981. The four were Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, all senior Labour politicians, who broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in response to Labour’s leftward turn. 24 Labour Party MPs joined them. They quickly formed an alliance with the Liberal Party and won 25% of the popular vote in the 1983 general election. However, our first-past-the-post system meant that they only won 23 seats, only six of which were won by SDP MPs. This was also the election where the 1982 Falklands War boosted the Tory vote. Margaret Thatcher remained Prime Minister and embarked on her battles with the unions and privatisation spree. The SDP’s fortunes never recovered and they merged with the Liberals to form the Social and Liberal Democrat party in 1988. The Social soon dropped off the name.

Limehouse Basin opened in 1820, and was known as the Regent’s Canal Dock initially. Two canals are connected with Limehouse Basin. One is the Regent’s Canal, which travels through East London, Islington, King’s Cross, Camden, Regent’s Park and onto Maida Vale, Little Venice and Paddington Basin, where it joins the Paddington Branch of the Grand Union Canal. The second is Limehouse Cut, which joins the River Lea. More of that in the next instalment. Back in the 19th century Limehouse Basin allowed ships that had come down the Thames to transfer their cargoes to smaller boats which could carry their loads along the canals to destinations further afield, notably wood and timber. Limehouse had been a port since medieval times, its name deriving from the lime kilns, or oasts which served the potteries in the area. It was also a shipbuilding centre. Today it is a marina lined, as usual, by apartments and restaurants and bars. There are some great views of Canary Wharf, and an arched bridge carries the Docklands Light Railway over the water.

Limehouse Cut

Regent’s Canal

Down by the river we find Narrow Street, with a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, the Narrow, just by a bridge over the channel connecting the Basin to the river. I and my friends went there in May 2021 after a walk down the River Lea. You were only allowed to eat outside at that point. The food was nice, but a chilly breeze off the Thames had us shivering! Travelling a little further east brings us to the Grapes, another old pub, which is owned by the actor Ian McKellen. Continuing along the Thames Path and over Westferry Circus we find ourselves in Canary Wharf. There are more good views as you approach.

Canary Wharf is a financial centre which rivals the City of London. It has some of the tallest towers in the UK, including One Canada Square, with its distinctive pyramidal top. It was built on the site of the West India Docks, which closed in 1980. The first buildings opened in 1991, including One Canada Square. The area is spectacular if a little soulless as you wander the streets. But there is plenty to entertain you as you get to know the place, including a large roof garden in Crossrail Place. I always enjoy the elevated journey on the Docklands Light Railway here, crossing the docks, looking into the surrounding offices. And since December 2021, there has been an exciting new feature at Wood Wharf – the latest Hawksmoor restaurant, set on a floating pavilion in the dock.

Misty morning, December 2020

Canary Wharf is situated at the northern end of the Isle of Dogs, another peninsula created by the bends in the river. If you walk south, through Millwall, down to the river, you reach Island Gardens where there are some good views of Greenwich, and an entrance to the foot tunnel, which runs under the Thames. It was opened in 1902 and is quite a fun way to get over to Greenwich – though watch out for speeding cyclists. They are meant to push their bikes along the 370 metres, but few do.

Island Gardens tunnel entrance

Tunnel entrance, Greenwich side

And so, we reach our last stop on this part of the journey, Greenwich. In the past a major maritime centre, favoured location for royalty and, of course the home of the Royal Observatory on top of the hill in Greenwich Park. The classic view, either from the Observatory or from the other side of the river is the Old Royal Naval College, with the Queen’s House resplendent in the background, if you are viewing from the riverside. The site of the naval college was initially home to the Palace Placentia, later Greenwich Palace, built by Humphrey Duke of Gloucester in 1443. Humphrey fell out of favour with King Henry VI and died in prison, possibly murdered. The palace was taken over by Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s wife. The palace was rebuilt by Henry VII between 1498 and 1504, and was the principal royal palace for 200 years. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and her sister Mary were all born there.  The palace was again rebuilt in the early 17th century, and this was when Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I commissioned the Queen’s House. This was designed by Inigo Jones and is thought to be the first classical building in England.

Old Royal Naval College; Queen’s House the white building in centre background

In 1660 Charles II decided to rebuild the palace again, but it never came to fruition. In the early 1690s, Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired sailors was constructed. This lasted until 1869 when the buildings were converted for use by the Royal Naval College. The Navy remained until 1998; the buildings were leased by Greenwich University a year later. The Greenwich Foundation took over ownership and in 2002, the whole site was opened to visitors, including the famous Painted Hall. The National Maritime Museum is situated nearby – there is a lot to see in Greenwich!

The Royal Observatory was built in Charles II’s reign, completed in 1676. The architect was Sir Christopher Wren (who also designed the hospital). It is home to the Prime Meridian and thus Greenwich Mean Time. There are also wonderful views of the Old Royal Naval College, the river, Canary Wharf, the Dome and in the far distance, the City of London. Arguably there are no better views in London. I paid a visit in January for the first time in a while. I found the vistas breathtaking.

The Royal Observatory

Queen’s House in foreground, Canary Wharf in background

Down below, by the river, you can pay a visit to the Cutty Sark, originally a tea clipper, later used for the Australian wool trade once the Suez Canal opened in 1869. In time it became training ship, first in Falmouth, Cornwall, then in Greenhithe, further downstream on the Thames, between Dartford and Gravesend. It has been damaged by fire twice this century, but is in good shape at the moment. One of the best pubs in Greenwich is named after the ship – it is a little further downstream, beyond the naval college. A good place to stop for a beer and something to eat, after a river walk or a day trip to Greenwich.

A view from the Cutty Sark pub, November 2017

And there we end this part of the Thames journey. There’s been a lot packed into a short distance. The next episode will stretch out a bit more as we move out of London. It will take us downstream to Erith, in Kent, first stop the Dome.

The Dome from Greenwich Park

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Duke Garwood at the Lexington, Pentonville Road, 26 February 2023

Duke Garwood is a multi-instrumentalist, best known for his languid, bluesy, atmospheric guitar. I first came across him on a Sunday afternoon at Latitude in 2015. Perfect music for the occasion. I was blown away by his guitar playing that day, the richness and warmth of it, the sounds he was conjuring from reverb and tremolo. I was getting hints of Robin Trower over a base of JJ Cale. He was the discovery of the festival that year.

Latitude 2015

Over the years he’s made a few albums, the best of which, for me, are 2015’s Heavy Love and 2017’s Garden of Ashes. The song titles are straight from the early 1970s: Honey in my Ear, Sweet Wine, Snake Man, Heavy Love, Days Gone Old, Blue. Not to mention the earlier classics, Jesus Got a Gun and Mellow Trucker Lady! Surely, you would say, this man is from the deep American south. But no, he hails from Kent. He’s in his early 50s, and in recent times has collaborated with Mark Lanegan on a couple of albums. His latest solo album, Rogues Gospel, was released last year, though I must admit it completely passed me by. I’ve caught up with it now, and it’s broadly more of the same – perhaps a little more instrumentation, a harder blues feel than the sleepy mellowness of, say, Heavy Love.

I saw Duke play at Nottingham Bodega in 2017 – and then, as far as I could tell, nothing. He does communicate on Twitter from time to time, mostly elliptical musings. I saw no evidence of live performances in this country, until I saw something on social media a month or so ago that suggested he was touring. A quick check and I found that he was playing the Lexington on Pentonville Road. Monopoly fans will know that one – it’s up the hill from King’s Cross, on the way to Islington. The Lexington has a good pub downstairs and a nice venue upstairs with the capacity for around 200 people. I’ve seen some great shows there in the past. It’s where I first came across Emily Barker; and I won’t ever forget the brilliant Wilko Johnson gig in 2011. So I got myself a ticket and suggested to my friend Shane that he might like to come along too. A couple of pints and some mellow blues sounded like a good way to end the weekend.

And that’s exactly what we got. Duke was back to a three piece, after having an additional guitarist back in 2017. Checking my 2015 Latitude photos, I think they may well have been the same drummer and bassist. Didn’t catch their names, I’m afraid, but they laid down a nice simple groove, over which Duke wove his musical spells. The finest Louisiana blues, straight from the garden of England! Or maybe the Thames marshlands gave him a taste for the sounds of the Mississippi delta and the Floridan everglades. Whatever, I love the sounds that he draws from his guitar, caressing the strings, fingers sliding up and down the fretboard, a flip of the tremolo arm. And the fuzz, the reverb – sultry, swaying, seductive, soporific. The swamp blues.

They played for an hour and a quarter, and that was just fine. There’s not a huge variation in melody or rhythm – with one exception towards the end of the main set, when Duke picked up the maracas and raised the tempo of his voice while the bassist powered the song along with a relentless, strident rhythm. It was quite rousing! It got the biggest round of applause. But soon we were back to our familiar groove, nodding gently – to the beat and in appreciation of a master of his craft.

Shake those maracas!

A very satisfying evening – a helping of Duke Garwood takes you to a better place!

Thanks to Shane for this one

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The Murder Capital at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town, 23 February 2023

Second concert of the year, and one I was really looking forward to – the return of the Murder Capital. They had an amazing 2019: a brilliant debut album, When I Have Fears, which I made my No1 of the year, and a string of sold out concerts and triumphant festival appearances, which included the best performance we saw at End of the Road that year. Power, passion, swagger, emotion – the Murder Capital were the new sensation. I saw them again at SWX in Bristol in February, and, if anything, they were even better. Couldn’t wait for what they would do next.

And then the pandemic hit. And they went to ground. Making new music I hoped, but not much sign of it. They weren’t one of the bands that defied lockdown with online performances, new singles, even albums. They re-emerged in July 2022 with a single, Only Good Things. And a few more followed until the second album was finally released in January this year. It’s called Gigi’s Recovery, and reveals itself as a bit of a masterpiece after a few listens. There are no outright rockers as there were on When I Have Fears, but I had a sense that songs like Return my Head and Ethel would be powerful live. In fact, as the album revealed its layers, I felt that it would all be pretty dramatic onstage. There’s a subdued energy about it, some interesting twists and turns, a grandiosity.

And so it proved, because this was a sensational concert. The band look quite different now: more casual, more flamboyant; less of the menace that they had in 2019. But still the swagger. When I say they, I do mean all of them, but mostly I mean singer James McGovern, who struts the stage with a real charisma and connection with the audience. He looks more like a poet than a bouncer these days, but he remains a captivating presence. The set included pretty much all of the new album, interspersed with highlights from the first, and so had some quite long periods, mainly in the middle, where the songs were slow and building to a climax. That’s quite risky in a live show, when a large part of the audience might be there for the rockers, but it worked – or it did for me, and looked like it did for the crowd. And that, in the end, was down to James’s holding their attention. He is an engrossing performer.

The set began in the same way as the new album, with the atmospherics of Existence and Crying, before upping the tempo with Return my Head. Then they unleashed the crowd – and themselves – with two great favourites from When I Have Fears: More is Less and For Everything. This band knows how to rock out! From there we entered a long phase of slow burners, mostly from the new album, though there were also powerful renditions of Green & Blue and Love, Love, Love from the first. Highlights for me included The Stars will Leave Their Stage and the title track Gigi’s Recovery, both of which have so many layers, so many beautiful touches. These are the songs which I most find myself comparing to U2. There are others, like On Twisted Ground from the first album, which didn’t get an airing tonight. The comparison with U2 is intended as a genuine compliment – they are one of my favourite bands of all time. There’s a bit of late Bowie in their music too; and I think James might just be an admirer of Nick Cave. Such antecedents tell you just how good the Murder Capital are – and how good they were tonight.

And then we had the last four songs! If anyone was lulled by the slower tunes, then they were jerked to their senses by the denouement. This was when the music got brutal: Feeling Fades, Only Good Things, Don’t Cling to Life, and finally Ethel, which held its own with the rockers from the first album. An exhilarating finish, James spending half his time surfing the crowd. It sent everyone away buzzing.

I thought the band paced the set really well tonight: a taste of rock power early on, a few familiar tunes amid those slow building new songs, and then the blast of rock’n’roll at the end. All the time played with poise and confidence; James a dynamic frontman.

Two brilliant albums, fantastic live: the Murder Capital are one of the best bands around. Can’t wait to see them again at Latitude in July.

James in Johnny Rotten pose!

And Morrissey!

Cathal Roper, guitar and keys; Gabriel Paschal Blake, bass

Diarmuid Brennan, drums

Damien Tuit, lead guitar

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Jockstrap at the Rescue Rooms, Nottingham, 10 February 2023

On Friday I went up to Nottingham to see Jockstrap at the Rescue Rooms. I found out about the tour a bit late and the London gig had already sold out. I know Nottingham quite well, as my son Kieran went to university there, and have been to the Rescue Rooms once before, to see Honeyblood, back in 2017. I like the venue – it doubles up as a nightclub called Stealth and has a capacity of 450. A good size. Beware the nightclub combination if you go to see a band there though. Normally you’d expect the headliners to come on about 9 o’clock, but in this case Jockstrap were on just after 8.15. Fortunately my hotel was on the same street and I popped by at 7.30 to check on the timings as I couldn’t find them online. Good job I did!

Jockstrap – terrible name, tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure – are a duo: Georgia Ellery on vocals, guitar and violin, and Taylor Skye on keyboards and sound effects, of which there are many. Georgia Ellery is also a violinist with Black Country, New Road, and acted in a very good film called Bait, which is about the culture clash between the second-homers and locals in Cornwall. Both studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and their musical pedigree is evident in the bewildering array of sounds in their recorded music. They released their first album, I Love You Jennifer B, last year. I really liked it, and made it No 7 in my 2022 albums of the year. Since then I’ve been listening to it even more, and I’m loving it. There’s so much going on, from folky melodies, to cinematic soundtracks, to poppy interludes, to electronic noodling, to thumping dance beats. Quite often in the same song! It repays multiple listens.

With that in mind, I was keen to see the band live again. Previously I’d just seen them at festivals: the first time at Green Man in 2019, and then Green Man again in 2021. On the latter occasion I thought they were a bit self-indulgent; but now I can see that they were experimenting with the music and the beats that would form the basis of the album. I did attempt to see them at End of the Road in 2022, but they were performing in a ridiculously small outdoor space, which didn’t cater for their growing popularity, and I couldn’t even see them. I gave up and went to see something else. This tour provided the chance to put that right.

I caught a bit of the support act PabloPablo – one man and his sound deck – and nursed my beer during the break as I tried to make sure I had a reasonable sightline of where Georgia would be singing from. I did – for a while – then a young man with a good head of hair shifted slowly to his left and partly obscured the view. Such is concert life when you are standing!

They came on amid the glaring lights, assumed their positions and started with the album opener Neon. There was no between-songs patter, just a few smiles and thank you’s. Georgia looked elegant in her long dress; Taylor almost dapper in his shirt and tie – auditioning for Kraftwerk, perhaps? The sound was excellent, the lights inventive, enhancing the show. They played for an hour or so, the set focused on the album, although there one or two older tunes, notably The City towards the end. That song is a real pointer to what would come on I Love You Jennifer B.

Highlights for me, and I think the audience too, judging by the reaction, were my three (current) favourites from the album, which have all been singles. Glasgow, with its engaging melody, Georgia strumming her acoustic guitar, was a real crowd celebration, people singing along. One of their more conventional pop songs – except it has swirls of sixties film music and a few other bells and whistles. She’s not going to Glasgow by the way! Concrete over Water might be their most popular song – it’s the most streamed on Spotify for now – and is a rather lovely ballad at heart, that reveals Georgia’s voice at its best. Its refrain had the crowd in full voice again. And finally, of course the last song of the set, the techno banger that is 50/50. That had the crowd actually dancing – it’s impossible not to. And those bass lines – wow! Even through my recently acquired proper ear plug, you could feel the vibrations drilling into your ear drum. And of course it isn’t a straight techno banger – there are all sorts of weird and wonderful things happening as the song progresses, veering it off course and bringing it back again. Meanwhile Georgia chants something about 50/50. In a way, it took me back to some of Deee-Lite’s finest moments in the early 90s – with extra bass.

And as soon as 50/50 was over, they smiled, said thank you again, and were off. Leaving a well-satisfied audience – there was a buzz about the place.

Who knows what Jockstrap will come up with next. Will they even stick together for long? Whatever Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye come up with, it is bound to be interesting.

A few more photos – just iPhone quality from near the back this time.


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The Orchids at Kew Gardens

Kath and I went to Kew Gardens today to see the Orchids exhibition in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It opened on 4 February and runs until 5 March. It’s an annual show, but it was the first time we’ve been. The plant life in the conservatory is amazing at any time, not least the cactii and the tropical gardens; but with the additions of the orchids, it was truly stunning. So many types, colours and shapes – extraordinary. This year – maybe all years, I don’t know – the focus was on the orchids of Cameroon. There are around 450 documented species in the country, and no doubt more that are unrecorded. The exhibition included some interesting information about the eco-system of Cameroon, its wildlife and society, embellished with photographs of village life. And I discovered that the name of the country is derived from the Portuguese for prawns!

But the orchids were the stars of the moment. Here are a few of my favourite photos from the visit. One or two aren’t orchids, but I liked the colours!

My camera lens in the tropical area was steaming up, especially for this one.

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Amber Arcades, Hater and Thala at Paper Dress Vintage, Hackney, 1 February 2023

1 February and my first gig of the year. It should have been the second, but the intended first, a free show at Old Blue Last in Shoreditch featuring Gretel Hänlyn, ended in disappointment as we couldn’t get in. That was despite turning up at 8pm for the four band show, thinking that at most we might miss a bit of the first band, Ciel. It was ticketed, and we had tickets, but it transpired that this didn’t guarantee entry. A bit of a shambles.

This time it was a paying show, but another early year showcase, with Amber Arcades headlining, supported by Swedish band Hater and singer songwriter Thala, who is from Berlin. Amber Arcades, as readers of this blog will know, are from the Netherlands. The band is the vehicle of singer and guitarist Annelotte de Graaf. I’ve seen the band a few times live before, having first seen them at End of the Road in 2016. I liked their debut album Fading Lines so much that I made it my album of the year in 2016, ahead of Radiohead’s superb A Moon Shaped Pool.

There was a second Amber Arcades album in 2018 called European Heartbreak, which was a more subdued, less guitar-orientated album than Fading Lines, but had a lovely melancholy about it. And then, after a tour to promote the album, Annelotte and the band faded from view. The pandemic lockdowns didn’t help, of course; but as far as I’m aware, Annelotte didn’t make any music for public consumption during that period. No kitchen or bedroom concerts. I assumed that maybe that was the end of Amber Arcades. But no, here we are in 2023, after a few new singles have been released and with an album due at the end of this week.

I did a bit of prep for this gig, not knowing Thala’s music at all, only being vaguely aware of Hater’s, and having not listened to Amber Arcades that much recently. I put the back catalogues of all three on a Spotify playlist and had a good listen for a couple of days before the concert. I concluded that I liked all three and so should make an effort to get there for the start. I was going on my own, so there was no temptation to go for a beer somewhere else first. I hadn’t been to Paper Dress Vintage before, though I knew about it. It’s just over the road from Hackney Central station and Oslo, another music venue. By day it is a vintage fashion shop. By evening the ground floor becomes a bar and the first floor a music and dance venue. Capacity upstairs is 180, I read. I liked the place – it had a nice, friendly, relaxed vibe. The concert was a sell-out, but people weren’t crammed in. Top marks all round – the organisers of the Gretel Hänlyn fiasco take note. Just one criticism: given that there were three bands, starting at 8.30 was a bit late. I found myself looking at my watch quite often during Amber Arcades, given that I had to get back to west London. Their set ended at ten past eleven – if there was an encore I missed it, as the 11.22 from Hackney Central beckoned!

Thala was first on. She had an album called Adolesence in 2021. A dreamy indie sound, little bit of Mazzy Star. All good in my book. Tonight was a bit different, perhaps because she didn’t have a full band, just an accompanying guitarist Joel, who also controlled the backing rhythm track. They had a few sound problems at first, and Thala seemed a bit nervous, apologising for there being lots of sad songs. But it was really good. Stripped back, the sound was more in the indie-folk mode of favourites of mine like Indigo Sparke, Julia Jacklin and even Phoebe Bridgers. I think a lot of the songs may have been from a forthcoming EP, rather than Adolesence. They tended to start slow and then rock out at the end – in that respect, a song like Julien Baker’s Turn out the Lights comes to mind. I’ll definitely be looking out for what she does next.

With a name like Hater, you’d expect a punk or metal act. In fact Hater play a melodic, again quite dreamy, shoegaze type of indie guitar rock. They’ve been around since 2016, and have released three albums, the most recent of which was Sincere in 2022. I’ve only heard a couple of things on 6 Music in the past, but liked their sound a lot on my pre-gig playlist. Live the sound was harder-edged, punkier, with less of the dreamy melodies, though that may have been partly because the small room didn’t really cope with the loudness of the music. Singer/guitarist Caroline Landahl’s vocals were a bit lost in the mix, I thought. But I really liked the performance. The band were tight, there was good energy and a real sense of enjoyment. Very engaging. I’d like to see them again in a bigger venue, or maybe one of the festivals.


And that left Amber Arcades. Annelotte looked quite tense before she started, and quite different to before, too. Hair shorter, darker; generally a bit more sombre. The band was different, apart from her loyal lead guitarist, who, if I recall correctly, is called Manuel. I read somewhere that the set would showcase the new album Barefoot on Diamond Road; but in fact it was a nice mix, mostly of Fading Lines and the new. Nothing from European Heartbreak, strangely. They started with two of their most popular songs, It Changes and Come with Me. Both upbeat and played with gusto. That set the scene nicely for a really enjoyable set. It was quite a short set, but I was delighted to get Fading Lines (the song) midway through the set and, to my surprise, given there were no keyboards, the epic Turning Light at the end. Manuel really rocked out on that, and I founded myself reminded of Hawkwind’s Silver Machine at one point! Hopefully there’ll be another tour soon where they can play a longer set; and in the meantime I’m really looking forward to giving the new album a good listen.

So, a great start to this year’s gig-going. Not sure I’ll go to as many as last year, but I’ve got some good ones lined up. Next is Jockstrap in Nottingham on 10 February; then The Murder Capital at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town on the 23rd. And I’ll be looking out for future concerts from all three artists I saw this evening.

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Tom Verlaine 1949-2023

I was sad to read late last night that Tom Verlaine, the great singer and guitarist with New York new wave band Television, had died, aged 73. Television shone only briefly in the mid to late 70s, but how brightly they shone. Their 1977 album Marquee Moon is one of the classics of the era, and remains one of my favourite albums of all time. I return to it frequently, and especially the epic title track.

Naturally I wrote about the band and the album in my book I Was There – A Musical Journey. It followed a piece about Velvet Underground – hence the reference at the start.

There was some of the Velvet’s epic quality in a band that jumped out of the New York new wave in 1977 with an album that was truly different, truly original.  It was one of those albums that sounded like nothing that came before and hasn’t been matched, even by the band themselves, since.  Plenty of bands have been influenced by it – notably The Strokes in the US and early Razorlight here in the UK – but no-one has ever come up with quite the same sound as “Marquee Moon” by Television. The band were part of the New York punk scene, supported The Ramones at CBGB’s, featured Richard Hell for a while, etc, etc.  So where did this music come from?  It wasn’t punk: no two minute three chord bashes here.  It was a set of fragile, intense songs, anchored by the title track, a ten minute epic of swirling, filigree guitars and anguished vocals, driven along by a metronomic, jerky bass line.  The metaphors that come to mind are all about delicacy but also sharpness: shards of glass, diamond edges… cold and pristine… but on the edge of breakdown. 

 The singer, writer and lead guitarist was Tom Verlaine. Good name – that French touch seemed right for the music. I don’t know how he was feeling when he made this album, but it could have been intensely happy or intensely sad.  Or both.  But intense, sensitive, raw – it wasn’t just the day job.  That guitar sound had to come deeply from within.  The only sound which I think is comparable, and might have been an inspiration, is the epic soloing of Neil Young on songs like “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane”. They have a richer, deeper guitar, but have the same visceral quality, and the same layering of sound, like a meandering river in search of its destination.

 Each song on “Marquee Moon” felt like a lament, or an argument, or just bewilderment.  Fragments of icy guitar intertwined with anxious vocals, leading nowhere in particular. Songs without resolution, hanging on a nervous ledge.  Songs on the edge.  “Torn Curtain”, “Venus”, and my favourite, after the title track, “Elevation”.     

“Marquee Moon” was ecstatically received in the NME.  The great Nick Kent wrote the canonising review.  Television were the new heroes… until the next album.  “Adventure” was given the classic build-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down treatment.  Julie Burchill was brought in to bring it down, to destroy the myth.  Television were no longer the untouchable heroes.  And the truth is, that second album wasn’t great and the band didn’t do much after that.  Tom Verlaine released some decent solo albums where the guitar runs occasionally reached the heights of “Marquee Moon”; but it looks like genius touched Tom Verlaine for just a short while.  Enough to make one of the great albums, an album like no other, a diamond amongst pearls.  But just the one.

Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller in New Jersey in 1949. He went to a private boarding school, Sanford, in Hockessin, Delaware, where he made friends with Richard Meyers, later Richard Hell, who is often credited with starting punk’s ripped clothes and safety pin style. They formed a band called the Neon Boys in New York in 1972. It didn’t last long, but Television emerged from the ashes. Richard Hell soon left, to be replaced by Fred Smith. Another guitarist, Richard Lloyd also joined the band. I discovered after I wrote my book that Richard Lloyd was responsible for a lot of the intricate guitar-playing on Marquee Moon. I also didn’t mention their first epic song, Little Jimmy Jewel. Like Marquee Moon itself, it is an amazing, discursive track, quite sinister. The two songs are Television’s masterpieces.

I had the pleasure of seeing Tom and his band play at the Roundhouse in November 2013. It was a wonderful concert, the only time I saw the music of Marquee Moon played live. They did Little Johnny Jewel too. You can read my review here.

Roundhouse, November 2013

Tom made a number of solo albums in the 80s and beyond. I remember Words From The Front with affection – there were some good solos on that! He collaborated with all sorts of artists along the way, including Patti Smith, David Bowie and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. But he will be remembered most of all for Marquee Moon, the album and the astonishing ten minute track. As Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, no stranger to long guitar workouts, tweeted on hearing about Tom’s passing:

Tom Verlaine was a true great. His role in our culture and straight up awesomeness on the electric guitar was completely legendary. Name 10 minutes of music as good as Marquee moon. You can’t. It’s perfect.

Rest in peace, Tom Verlaine.

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A Thames Journey: (10) From Westminster Bridge to London Bridge

View from Victoria Embankment

For this, the tenth stage of our Thames journey, we travel quite a short distance – 2.3 miles along the north side – but one that takes us through the heart of London, old and new. We ended last time at Westminster Bridge. This time we journey to London Bridge, first heading north and then bending around to the east, and heading straight on. Both sides of the river are walkable along this stretch, though the south bank is best for the pedestrian, with no roads and only one diversion off the river – and an interesting one at that.

We’ll start on the south side, because that soon brings us to one of London’s best known landmarks these days, the London Eye. It was erected in 1999 to mark the Millennium and opened to the public in 2000. At the time it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, though it has been overtaken since. It is the UK’s biggest tourist attraction, which is evident when you walk along this part of the river! It’s not the only attraction in the vicinity – the old County Hall building, once the home of London’s local government, now houses the Sea Life Aquarium, Shrek’s Adventure and the London Dungeon, as well as a hotel and various restaurants. A place to pass through quickly, unless you are visiting one of these attractions. To be fair, the London Eye is not only a brilliant addition to the skyline, but is absolutely worth having a trip on. The views of London are stunning and there is something remarkable about reaching the top of the cycle, suspended in mid-air, feeling like you aren’t moving at all.

After the London Eye, you walk past Jubilee Gardens and reach Hungerford Bridge. I’ll come back to that once we’ve taken a short trip along the north bank, the Embankment. This is a Victorian construction, the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Prior to the 1850s, the Thames still lapped onto the shores of Westminster, as well as the opposite bank. Both areas were prone to flooding. The Thames was also an open sewer, and smelled so bad that during the summer of 1858, MPs considered leaving Westminster. Bazalgette was commissioned to find a solution, which was to construct a network of underground sewers in London which are still used today. The problem was essentially shifted downstream, to Beckton and Crossness out in the east. Sewage pipes were laid along the Thames shore and then built over – the Victoria Embankment. Similar schemes were applied to the south side, up to Vauxhall – the Albert Embankment – as well as in Chelsea. At the same time on the north side, the District Line tunnel from Westminster to Blackfriars was constructed. Remarkable ingenuity, from which we still benefit.

By Westminster Bridge stands the statue of Boadicea (or Boudicca) and her daughters on a chariot, ready to resist the Roman invaders no doubt. It’s the work of the Victorian artist and engineer Thomas Thorneycroft. It was placed in its present position in 1902. Despite its grandeur it’s quite easy to miss in the tourist throng around the bridge.

Just along the Embankment, past the Millennium pier, are the Battle of Britain monument  and the Royal Air Force memorial, unveiled in 2005 and 1923 respectively. Across the road, in the Whitehall extension of Victoria Embankment Gardens are a number of other war memorials, commemorating the Chindit special forces who served in Burma (now Myanmar), the Korean War and more recently those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fittingly, the Ministry of Defence building looms over them.

Battle of Britain memorial

In the next part of the gardens are a rather odd selection of statues. First there is William Tyndale, a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He translated the Bible into English and opposed Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was living in exile when he was seized in Antwerp in 1535 and imprisoned near Brussels before meeting a grisly death at the stake in 1836. Clearly a major historical figure, unlike the other two: Henry Bartle Frere, a 19th century colonial administrator, and Sir James Outram, a general in India in the same century. I’m surprised those two haven’t become part of the statue culture war yet. Still, there’s a river nearby if they need one…

The gardens run up to Northumberland Avenue. On the other of the avenue is Embankment tube station and a supporting infrastructure of shops and bars. Villiers Street takes you up to the Strand, with Charing Cross station on its left. The Strand is so-called because it used to be the shore of the river, before Bazalgette and others transformed the area. Note to people unfamiliar with the tube: there is no need to get a tube from Charing Cross to Embankment. You can walk faster.

Beyond the tube station Victoria Embankment Gardens return, with another varied collection of statues, including the Scottish poet Robert Burns, 19th century social reformer Henry Fawcett, a monument to the Imperial Camel Corps (which fought in the first world war) and Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario and hotelier who built the Savoy theatre and the adjacent Savoy hotel. It’s an appropriate location for him, as the hotel backs onto the gardens.

Savoy Hotel, river side

The name Savoy derives from Count Peter of Savoy, who was the uncle of King Henry III’s wife Eleanor of Provence. He was made Earl of Richmond and granted land by the river to construct a grand palace in the mid 14th century. The Palace was burnt down in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. In the 16th century, at the behest of Henry VII, a hospital for the poor was constructed, but it soon gained a reputation for “loiterers, vagabonds and strumpets.” It lasted until 1702, after which part of it was used as a military prison before falling into disuse. Enter Richard D’Oyly Carte…

On the river bank is another monument, Cleopatra’s Needle, with accompanying sphinxes. The needle dates back to 1450 BC and was moved to Alexandria in 12 BC by Queen Cleopatra, to form part of a temple honouring Mark Antony. It was gifted to the British by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, in 1819, as thanks for British victories against the French in the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Alexandria (1801). The obelisk didn’t arrive in London until 1877 and almost sank in the Bay of Biscay on its journey over. It has a twin, which is in Central Park, New York. It’s a bizarre sight on the banks of the Thames, with the cars roaring by. Arguably, it would better back in Alexandria.

Monuments over, let’s double back to Hungerford Bridge, on which the railway from Charing Cross crosses over the river – first stop Waterloo station. On both sides of the railway bridge there are walkways which afford wonderful views of the river, upstream and downstream. Until I started doing some research for this piece, I’d completely forgotten that these walkways were only opened in 2002, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. There was something before that – just a narrow path on one side. The original Hungerford footbridge, designed by Brunel, opened in 1845. It was named after Hungerford Market in Charing Cross, on the site that is now the station. It was replaced by a railway bridge in 1864, to connect the new Charing Cross station with the rail network south of the river. Parts of the original suspension bridge were used in the construction of Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. The rail bridge did initially have walkways on either side, but over the years one or other was closed as the rail bridge was widened and refurbished. A happy balance between trains and pedestrians now exists.

You are never far from an Uber Boat on this part of the Thames!

View from Hungerford Bridge upstream

View downstream

The bridge takes you from Embankment station to the South Bank, and one of the great arts and entertainment complexes to be found anywhere, a jewel in London’s crown. The 60s brutalist buildings may not be to everyone’s taste, but within they are home to music, art, drama, cinema, you name it. The Royal Festival Hall (including the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room), the Hayward Gallery, and beyond Waterloo Bridge, The National Theatre and the British Film Institute. Not to forget the skateboarders arena! The whole area along the river is pedestrianised; there are bars and stalls restaurants all around, a food market behind the Festival Hall, second hand booksellers under the bridge. A place where Londoners and its many visitors can promenade. And all the while the river rolls by, conducting its business in the background. One of my favourite parts of London? Of course it is!

National Theatre

One happy memory for me is from 2020, as we tentatively came out of the first lockdown. It was June. The first time I headed back to central London was to the South Bank. I took a train from Brentford to Waterloo and headed for the river. Where else would I want to be? It was still fairly quiet. I bought a beer from a stall outside the BFI and walked down to the river wall, and just took it all in. The National Theatre, Waterloo Bridge, and further downstream Blackfriars, St Paul’s and the City. The human elements slowly coming back to life; the river its usual relentless self.

Rarely have I enjoyed a pint of lager in a plastic glass so much!

The first Waterloo Bridge was designed by John Rennie, and opened in 1817 as a toll bridge. It was made from granite. Like so many of London’s bridges, it suffered from erosion and what turned out to be unsuitable design – see previous blogs! It was replaced in 1942, but not fully opened until 1945. It is the only London bridge to be damaged by bombing during the war, which is surprising. It’s a pretty functional and unexciting construction, but these days it’s nicely lit up in the evenings, with a streak of purple light. And who can forget the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset? Monet, amongst others, liked to paint the scenes here too. A different bridge, a different world; but there is something that draws you here.

View from Blackfriars in February 2019

Waterloo station sits just behind the South Bank. It’s the busiest station in the UK, serving the south and parts of the south-west of England. Primarily it’s a commuter station, serving the south-west suburbs of London and Surrey and Hampshire. I briefly had to use it in my early days in London, travelling in from Putney and changing onto the London & City underground line to Bank. What a depressing experience that was! Pinstripes and briefcases, all queuing in precise diagonal lines, waiting for the doors to open. Heaven forbid that anyone should break through the queue. Much tutting would ensue. This was 1981.

I took these photos in February 2019. Seen from above, we all turn into Lowry-esque figures

I love the walk beyond the National Theatre up to Blackfriars Bridge. On this side of the river, the gleaming tower that is One Blackfriars is an impressive sight, with the Oxo Tower in the foreground. But the views that take the prize are those of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City, coming ever closer. At low tide there’s a bit of beach that you can walk down to, and get even better views. There’s something exhilarating about being on a beach, with the Thames running by, surrounded by all these spectacular views.

Maybe that’s why the woman in this next photo chose such an unusual place to sit and have a look at her phone (in March 2019). Maybe she was waiting for someone. Maybe she was a friend of the guy doing the digging. Or maybe it was just the sense of freedom, and the restless sounds of the river. I painted a picture of the scene, which I called Girl with Phone. (Took an artistic decision to leave the guy out!)

Back on the north side – which it now really is, as the river is heading east – just after Waterloo Bridge, we come to Somerset House. This has had a varied existence since it was first constructed by the Duke of Somerset (Lord Protector to the young King Edward VI) in the mid-16th century. The Duke never got to see the final product, as he fell out of favour with Parliament and was executed on Tower Hill in 1552! The building came into possession of the Crown and served as a residence to Queen Elizabeth I during the reign of her half-sister (Bloody) Mary. During Stuart times, it was used by the Queen Consorts, with a brief interlude during the Civil War. In Charles II’s reign it was viewed as a centre of Catholic conspiracy. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 it fell into decline and in the mid-18th century was demolished and rebuilt by Sir William Chambers, with the intention of using it for government offices. This was its main purpose until the 1980s. It was particularly associated with the Inland Revenue (now HMRC). For a time in the 19th century it was also home to various Royal Societies, including the Royal Academy of the Arts (now in Piccadilly). The artistic connection revived following an act of Parliament in 1984 which paved the way for it to become a centre for the arts. The Courtauld Institute moved in, in 1989, bringing with it its amazing collection of Impressionist art. That remains to this day, and is free to see. It’s the equal of the collection in the National Gallery. A bit of a hidden treasure. Today Somerset House is also home to all sorts of creative organisations, hosts a popular ice rink in winter, and holds an acclaimed series of concerts in the summer.

Somerset House, river side

The front courtyard

Soon we come to Temple tube station, then a rather odd monument signifying the boundary of the City of London, and then the Temple itself. This is the home of London’s legal profession, in particular the barristers’ chambers. It’s a tranquil spot in the middle of bustling London, with Fleet Street at its northern boundary, and the Royal Courts of Justice just down the road at the end of the Strand. The area was the home of the Knights Templar in the 12th century, but by the 14th royalty had their hands on it, and the lawyers moved in. Temple Church dates back to the 12th century. The area remains largely accessible to the public, so you can wander around, though most of the buildings are private. It always seems to me like a larger version of an Oxbridge college. There’s a pattern here: you go to a top private school, then Oxbridge, and then are “called” to the Bar, take “Silk” when you become distinguished enough, and spend much of your time in Temple and the Royal Courts of Justice. Seamless. The architecture barely changes.

Middle Temple Hall on left – it’s got a jolly nice canteen

The Temple Church

Inner Temple Gardens

Blackfriars Bridge first opened in 1769, having taken nine years to build. The designer was Robert Mylne, and the style was Italianate. It was originally called William Pitt Bridge, after the Prime Minister (the Elder) but that didn’t catch on, and it took its permanent name from the Dominican monastery which once stood nearby. Of course the original didn’t stand the test of time, and it was rebuilt in the 19th century, opening in 1869. A tram line was on the bridge from 1909 to 1952. It’s a bridge I often find myself crossing, coming out of the tube station, heading for the Tate Modern, a little way downstream on the south side. Like all the bridges in this part of London, there are great views all around.

The Black Friar pub

Blackfriars railway bridge is close by. It now has a Thameslink station on it. Running alongside are some red pillars. They belong to the old bridge, opened in 1884, which carried the London, Chatham and Dover Railway.

Blackfriars railway bridge with the platforms on top

Crossing over Blackfriars Bridge, we take the steps down to the Thames Path and head along to the old Bankside power station, now the Tate Modern. Standing below the railway bridge you can frame a lovely view of St Paul’s on the other side of the river.

The indestructible cathedral – or maybe not. The current, iconic building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century, survived the German bombs in World War Two; but its predecessor, a Gothic construction, fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666, just as its predecessor, an Anglo-Saxon cathedral, was destroyed by fire in 1087. The cathedral is situated on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, and so it still holds its own against the mighty towers of the financial district. I think planning laws have also ensured that this remains the case. St Paul’s is the seat of the Bishop of London, and is the location for many nationally significant events: funerals of prominent politicians (including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher), thanksgiving services for the Queen’s major jubilees and, of course, the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. The poet John Donne was Dean of the cathedral from 1621 until his death in 1631.

June 2020 – just coming out of the first lockdown

Misty day in February 2017 – view from Tate Modern viewing gallery

I’ll come back to the City in the next instalment of this journey, but let’s continue now to the Tate Modern and the nearby Millennium Bridge. Two more icons of modern London. The Tate Modern houses one of the world’s largest collections of modern and contemporary art. It officially opened in May 2000. The Bankside power station had closed in 1981 and was at risk of being pulled down. It’s a striking building from the outside; but inside it is a marvel. The huge Turbine Hall, which occupies the central space is an awesome site, cathedral-like. It has been used over the years for some mind-boggling exhibitions. The two that stand out in my memory are Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds in 2008 and Olafur Eliasson’s extraordinary Weather Project in 2004, in which a large sun-like object radiated yellow light through the hall, reflecting off the large mirror covering the ceiling. We all lay on the floor to take it in – and see ourselves reflected in the throng. At that moment you understood why ancient civilisations worshipped the sun.

View from the Blavatnik viewing gallery

Turbine Hall from the side entrance

An extension was built which opened in 2016. Initially known as Switch House, it is now the Blavatnik Building, named after the Anglo-Ukrainian billionaire who contributed to the cost of the extension. As well as galleries it houses an excellent members’ café – which has sadly remained closed since lockdown restrictions were lifted – and has attracted controversy for its viewing gallery on the 10th floor, which allows views into the apartments of some of the nearby high-end residential blocks.

Of course, it’s the art that makes it such a vital part of London’s cultural riches. As well as the numerous galleries of the permanent exhibition (which is free) there are so many fantastic exhibitions, including the wonderful Cezanne show at the moment.

Now on!

The Millennium footbridge is another amazing construction, though it had a wobbly start – literally. Designed by Norman Foster, it opened in June 2000, but was soon closed, as it shook when large numbers of people walked across it. Apparently we have a tendency to walk in lockstep with others and this caused the swaying. So it was the pedestrians’ fault! The bridge had to be redesigned before it was reopened in 2002. No-one calls it the wobbly bridge anymore – they are too busy marvelling at the views, which include the straight line up to St Paul’s.

Bridges galore!

The Shard begins to dominate

June 2020 again

Next to the Tate, we come to the Globe Theatre, once the home of William Shakespeare’s troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The original Globe was built in 1599, partly using timber from another theatre in Shoreditch – without the owner’s agreement! It burnt down in 1613 and was rebuilt the following year. It survived until 1642, when it was closed down with the outbreak of the English Civil War. It never re-opened, and tenements were built on the site. The current theatre, which was modelled on the original, was opened in 1997 and has flown the flag for Shakespeare ever since.

We pass Southwark Bridge – the current version opened in 1921 – before taking a diversion from the riverbank which leads towards Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. On the north side incidentally, you can take steps down to the river and along an alleyway to the Banker pub, which serves Fullers. Part of the pub is directly under Southwark railway bridge, and if you get a window seat you can watch the boats go by.

Southwark Bridge

Working river

Southwark railway bridge

Pop in for a pint!

Borough Market has existed in one shape or form since 1014, and quite possibly earlier. In the 19th century it was one of London’s most important wholesale food markets, owing to its position near London Bridge and the docks. It fell into decline in the late 20th century, until it was revived by turning into a retail food market. Today it is thriving and is a major tourist attraction. There is a wonderful array of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and all sorts of specialities. There are numerous food and drink stalls if you fancy a snack, as well as some excellent restaurants. The smells of all the produce are wonderful. Not the cheapest of places, but the quality is high.

Approaching Borough Market on right – and Southwark Cathedral ahead

Inside Borough Market

Southwark Cathedral is nestled between Borough Market and London Bridge. Between 1106 and 1538 it was an Augustinian priory. With the dissolution of the monasteries under our old friend Henry VIII it became a parish church, St Saviours. For centuries it was, strangely, part of the diocese of Winchester, then from 1877, Rochester. It only became a cathedral in 1905, with the creation of the diocese of Southwark. It retains a lot of its 13-15th Gothic origins, though the nave was rebuilt in the 19th century. The gardens around it are a peaceful place to take a breather from the bustle all around.

And so we reach London Bridge, at the very heart of old London, but alive with the new. The current bridge, which is not the most beautiful, opened in 1973; but there has been a bridge here at least since Roman times. The first bridge may have been constructed around 50 AD (or CE if you prefer). From that point a small settlement called Londinium sprung up. And the rest, as they say, is history. The bridge may have been destroyed in the Boudican revolt of 60 AD, but another was built. The bridge fell into disrepair with the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, but was rebuilt in the 10th century, possibly by Alfred the Great. It was destroyed again in 1014 by King Olaf of Norway, whose navy tied ropes to the bridge’s supports and pulled the whole thing down. This is thought to be the origin of the song, London Bridge is Falling Down. William the Conqueror rebuilt it after the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1136. The last wooden bridge was rebuilt under King Stephen, one of our least well-known monarchs.

King Henry II commissioned the construction of the first stone bridge in the 1160s. It wasn’t completed until 1209, but by then houses were already being built on it. This bridge, with various alterations over the centuries, lasted until 1831, and became world famous. There were houses, shops, pubs and all sorts of artisans and traders. It became one of London’s main shopping streets, and a centre of much revelry, which resulted from time to time in people falling off the bridge and drowning. The numerous arches supporting the bridge made the currents either side particularly treacherous. On the south side of the bridge there was a gatehouse and drawbridge, which was pulled up at curfew, stranding people who had visited the taverns and theatres of Southwark. They had to rely on the waterman to ferry them across the river. A gruesome tradition sprung up from the early 14th century of displaying the heads of traitors on spikes by the gatehouse. The first recorded head was that of the Scottish leader William Wallace in 1305. Other unfortunate luminaries over the years included the rebel leader Jack Cade (1450), Thomas More (1535) and Thomas Cromwell (1540). There were fires on the bridge from time to time, but by 1666 there was a firebreak that prevented the Great Fire of London spreading to Southwark.

In the late 14th century there were as many as 140 houses on the bridge. The numbers shrank as people started building up – some buildings reached six stories. In the 18th century there were a number of fires. Houses were rebuilt, but quickly began to subside; eventually an act of parliament allowed all the properties to be demolished and the bridge’s structures improved. A temporary wooden bridge was constructed, but that was destroyed by fire in 1758, months after it opened! Supporting the stone bridge, a new “Great Arch” was created, but it weakened the structure, and hastened the bridge’s demise. It was replaced by another stone bridge, just upstream. Designed by John Rennie, it opened in 1831. By the late 19th century the bridge was the most congested place in London. It was also slowly sinking, the east side more than the west. It had to be replaced. In a bizarre twist, the bridge was purchased by an American entrepreneur, Robert P McCulloch, in 1968, and eventually reassembled in Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Its replacement officially opened in 1973 and  remains to this day.

London Bridge in the 20th century became associated with the drudgery of commuters, memorably in the lines from TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,                                                                                            A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,                                                                              I had not thought death had undone so many…

Tragically, death, real rather than metaphorical, has returned to London Bridge twice this century, with the terrorist attacks in 2017 and 2019. Westminster Bridge too, was the scene of killings in 2017. We are reminded of this each time we cross by the concrete blocks which now separate the roads from the paths. Let us not forget the suffering of the victims and their friends and families as we also revel in the views from the bridge – upstream the Tate Modern and St Paul’s amongst others; downstream the Shard, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge; to north the City. We’ll explore the City, the Shard and further downstream in the next instalment of this Thames Journey.

The Shard has been popping up in quite a few of the photos; here are a couple more from either end of London Bridge to whet your appetite for what comes next.

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