London’s South Bank, walking through old and new

South Bank
London is a wonderful, vibrant city. Like all big cities, however, it can be a bit overwhelming. A good way to get a bit of room and fresh(er) air is to walk along the Thames Path. This path extends 184 miles from the river’s source in the Cotswolds almost to the sea, and offers some much-needed open space as it passes through the heart of London.

For visitors to the capital, the most interesting stretch is less than a mile long, between the Tate Modern and Borough Market on London’s South Bank. On this easy stroll you’ll pass a medieval palace, tourist traps, London’s best farmer’s market, and much more.

First stop is the Tate Modern, formerly Bankside Power Station. This massive building houses a huge collection of modern and contemporary art. It stands on the south end of the Millennium Bridge, a cool-looking span of metal arching over the Thames. St. Paul’s Cathedral, a 17th century landmark that recently finished a decade-long restoration, stands at the north end of the bridge. This juxtaposition of old and new is a constant theme in London, especially along this stretch of the river.

Walking east along the Thames Path, the next stop is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This meticulous reconstruction of the original, minus the rats and plague, has an excellent cast of actors who perform The Bard’s plays as well as others from his time. The theatre is a semicircle facing the stage. Prices vary depending on the quality of the view, but all prices are reasonable. You can even stand in “the pit” for the peasant’s price of only £5 ($8)!

%Gallery-128678%Continuing east, you enter a narrow lane called Clink Street. This is an old part of the city. The original Globe stood not far from here, and the famous Clink Prison was on this road. Being put in the Clink was often a death sentence, what with the filthy conditions, bad food, and occasional visit by the torturer. You can learn all about it at The Clink Prison Museum, a delightfully cheesy tourist trap that does for medieval history what South of the Border does to Mexico. It’s tacky, it’s superficial, it’s embarrassingly stupid, but it’s all so ridiculous you can’t help but be entertained. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pose for a picture with your head on a chopping block while your kid threatens you with a foam axe?

Next comes the remains of Winchester Palace, pictured above, owned by the Bishops of Winchester. Built in the 12th century, most of it has been lost over the years but one wall with a magnificent rose window remains. This bit survived because it was incorporated into the wall of a warehouse for many years. London has a way of building on itself.

More touristy goodness comes a few steps further on at the Golden Hinde, a full-scale replica of the galleon Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in 1577-80. More than just a floating museum, the boat is fully seaworthy and has circumnavigated the globe just like its predecessor. There are often school groups and birthday parties taking over the ship so it’s best to check ahead before showing up.

Within sight of the Golden Hinde is Southwark Cathedral. The oldest parts date to 1206 but it underwent a major remodeling in 1836. Part of the exterior are made with flint nodules, their peculiar color giving churches built with them the nickname “puddingstone churches”. The interior is inspired by the French Gothic with an elegant altar screen dedicated in 1520. There are numerous interesting bits here, including a monument to Shakespeare, a chapel commissioned by John Harvard, and a display of some archaeological finds that suggest this was once the site of a Roman temple.

Last stop is Borough Market, a massive farmer’s market that opens every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Londoners flock here to buy all sorts of fresh food as well as luxury imports. There are plenty of stalls that prepare meals you can eat on the go, and wandering through here is a great chance to people watch.

So if walking through museums has made you weary, get out in the sunshine (or cold drizzle) and walk along the Thames Path!