The south side of London Bridge, Southwark, Borough Market, Cathedral & Borough High Street were the first part of London I got to know well when I came to live here in 1998, it's become more gentrified and smarter in the almost 20 years from when I got to know it, but it still remains my favourite part of the capital.
I am from Manchester and like other Mancs have been in shock about what happened in my city a couple of weeks ago, and then on Saturday night I could not believe that this particular area of London, which I have always felt closest to, had become the new back drop for large scale murder.
The magic of history and literature first made me fall in love with London, and this area is as crammed with it as borough market is with people at weekends. Yes it has lost a little of its character in 20 years, where hasn't? It's shabby earthiness has been tarted up, and today the pubs are frequented by young professionals and tourists and there's some uber trendy restaurants, but it still largely retains its magic.
I'm an actor, who's also been working on and off as a tour guide around London since I first came down here from finishing drama school in Birmingham.
My first acting job on arriving in London in May 1998 was playing members of the crew on the replica of the Golden Hind in St Mary Overie dock by Southwark Cathedral. I was playing the ships Barber Surgeon, entertaining groups of school children who'd come with some of their teachers and spend from late afternoon to the next morning on the ship, with stories of the horror of Tudor medicine, and threatening to cut their gangrenous legs off!
They'd come to have the full Tudor navy experience, (well apart from the weevils in the ships biscuits), sleeping in the hold after a favourite part, the telling of bedtime ghost stories and wearing jerkins & caps. It was fun, and educational in a horrible history, ( before those books had become famous), kind of way. I had great fun playing the full pirate type of character of Sir Francis Drake's crew. Eventually I graduated to playing the ships master engaging groups of kids with the basics of Tudor seamanship, navigation as well as all about Drake's famous 3 year voyage of circumnavigation on this ship between 1577 & 1580. I loved telling them about the small flightless black birds with white heads observed on the Magellan straits, that had first been named penguins by Welsh speaking members of the crew!
That replica ship which I'd seen as a kid being built down in Devon, and which had travelled far more nautical miles than the original had, wasn't going anywhere now as it was in a dry dock, but still I felt, and think the groups of children that spent time on board felt,that the glass windows of the office blocks that closely towered above the vessel where really reflecting the ocean and we were thousands of miles away from home without having really gone anywhere.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre with Mark Rylance in charge had opened just a few bridges along up river, (wish I'd bumped into him back then I'd have pleaded for an audition),for the full Tudor playgoing experience, so the area was starting to buzz with excitement. The nearby Clink prison, as in the expression "in the Clink" had opened as an attraction, I was always amused by the bored looking young lad dressed as a Norman soldier, earphones peaking out from under his hoody chain mail and helmet amplifying the tinny sounds of hip hop as he hung around outside it giving occasional leaflets out promoting it. Just yards from the Golden Hind were the remains of the canny 13th century Bishop of Winchesters palace. He'd found that by allowing prostitution his side of the river he could make a good extra living from taxing his "Winchester geese". I learned that Southwark, where Chaucer's tale of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury had started, was London's first suburb, and long been the rough & ready part of the capital where things went on that we're disallowed or disproved of on the City side of the river. This was where Londoners for centuries had come in search of a good time!
In the late 80s there'd been a wonderful two part film adaptation of Dickens Little Dorrit by Christine Edzard, (still one of my favourite films), set in this area where the then 12 year old Charles' own father had been imprisoned for debt in the former Marshalsea prison. I'd read the book after seeing the film, which had also been partly shot around this area. and these same streets for me were alive with the character and characters of that book.
After the Golden Hind I worked for many years for a variety of companies doing hop on, hop off open top bus tours, always crossing London Bridge. Today's concrete bridge despite being the most boring looking of the many London bridges that have spanned the Thames here since Roman times evokes all sorts of historical references from the nursery rhyme to the favourite and oft told tour guide story, almost certainly a myth that the rich American industrialist, Robert P. McCulloch who bought the bridge, thought that when he heard London Bridge was up for sale, that he was getting Tower Bridge! It is certainly not iconic to look at compared to neighbouring Tower Bridge most often thought of as being London Bridge by tourists, but I always see in my mind, for me the infinitely more iconic 13th century London Bridge with all the houses on it, the wonder of medieval London, the only bridge across the river in London until the middle 1700s. A tunnel under the approach to the bridge has some of steps from the 1831 bridge that now stands in Arizona and many tour guides call these Nancy's steps after Bill Sikes' girlfriend in Oliver Twist sealed her fate in being later bludgeoned to death by him for what an informant had told him was Nancy's betrayal of him at this location.
Yes a lot of this areas history and fictional history is dark, and at the point where dragons either side of the road guard the southern entrance into the city and where that old, old bridge displayed on pikes above the gateway entrance the heads of alleged traitors as a warning to people entering the city to behave themselves.
I had just returned to London from a day coach tour to Stonehenge & Bath last Saturday evening and was far too tired to go out, but watching the news about the horror of the attacks on London Bridge & borough, whenever I cross the bridge again on a tour bus, I don't think I'll ever again be able to describe with such, engaging gusto the former macabre spectacle of its southern gate without thinking of the very modern, though inherently medieval slaughter that went on here last Saturday night.
History reminds us something more terrible has always in the past, the quarter of the then population, around 100,000 that died of the plague 1665-66, and the over 40,000 killed in the blitz of 1940-41, London today of course feels the loss of seven on Saturday evening and the suffering of many more just as acutely as the London of those times past felt.
My thoughts will be with the victims and their families of this new and genuinely horrible history of the bridge and its environs and when I guide people from all over the world across London Bridge again they will always be foremost in my mind.
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