A London theatre update, a poem about the Thames for the early morning, and some unpoetic thoughts for a Saturday afternoon

We at Madeleine’s spent a most enjoyable Saturday afternoon in London discovering the city’s first new theatre in 80 years, the Bridge Theatre.

“The Bridge” of course refers to the Tower Bridge, and the theatre was by the river and had opened with fanfare in the autumn of 2017 (with none other than Dame Maggie Smith and Simon Russell Beale in the audience!) …..

It was a lovely Saturday afternoon and as we were heading for the matinee performance we decided to start early and take a riverside walk first, starting on the south bank of the river all the way from Waterloo Bridge to the Tower Bridge where we would find the theatre (and be ready for a sit-down).

Even though the walk would have taken around 35 minutes if we didn’t stop, we had allowed for slightly over an hour to include time meant for mingling with the Saturday crowd (watch out for the street performers, the skaters, and the food trucks by the river especially) and swinging by the Southbank book market as well (we are not sure as to its exact name – it is the open-air book market underneath the Waterloo Bridge).

We arrived at our theatre early, which meant we had a perfect moment to take a 100 steps more past the theatre and linger in the street called “Shad Thames”, a most beautiful, atmospheric and photogenic cobble-stoned street with overhead iron bridges (original 19th-century features) and character-full atmosphere (we are in the land of docks, wharves and warehouses, London-style and with names reflecting the goods the buildings were used to store, Cayenne Court, Banana Wharf, Tea Trade Wharf, and so on, almost all of which have now been converted into apartment buildings, offices, galleries, cafes and restaurants).

If we had more time for meandering, we could of course have done a drop-in at the amazing Southwark Cathedral (or Shakespeare’s-local-parish-and-where-Dickens-also-rang-the-bells) or at the Tate Modern (or major-modern-art-housed-in-a-spacious-former-power-station-by-the-Millennium-Bridge), both less than 10 minutes before our destination.

Spending a Saturday afternoon close to the river brings up a few almost-forgotten things to our mind.  One is a famous poem about London and its river which, we hasten to clarify, is best enjoyed as one lands into London in the small hours of the morning on a flight from Asia, as one gets some fresh air by the Thames just before a day’s scheduled meetings.

It would be a great way to “de-compress” and to appreciate the romantic poetry penned by that poet who elsewhere claimed to be appalled and alienated by the metropolis, William Wordsworth, who wrote about the river and its city as he saw it during the exact same early hours, only over 200 years ago:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

William Wordsworth, Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge


Notes on point-of-departure (south bank of the Thames at Waterloo Bridge):

  • The Southbank book market is an outdoor book market located under the Waterloo Bridge and overlooking the Thames.  This is a relaxed affair, a few steps from the National Theatre, open every day as far as we know, and a good way to mingle with Londoners; it should not be put on the itinerary for those on a serious search for a first edition though.
  • Gabriel’s Wharf – You can start earlier in the afternoon and pop by Gabriel’s Wharf, a few minutes into the walk from Waterloo bridge in an easterly direction, which has an eclectic mix of shops including ateliers and studios with handmade arts and crafts items (textiles, gifts, knitwear, hats, prints, dolls and toys, gifts for the home and so on).

Notes on point-of-arrival (Bridge Theatre, or south bank of the Thames just before Tower Bridge):

  • Information about Tower Bridge bridge open-close times (“lift times”) is posted at https://www.towerbridge.org.uk/lift-times/
  • Shad Thames – Southwark’s riverfront has a long history as part of the busy Port of London starting from as early as mid-16th century although the only buildings now remaining are mid-19th century and later.  During the 19th and 20th centuries successful businesses handling cargo, warehousing goods and milling were based in the area – note the metal bridges at various heights were for the transfer of goods between buildings.  By the early 1970s wharf complexes in the area had closed as the port facilities moved to deeper waters with the increase use of containers.  Redevelopment has been taking place in the last 25 years or so.
  • Bridge Theatre – its repertoire is a mix of the traditional (Shakespeare) and the new (e.g. a new production in 2019 is A German Life, a new play by Christopher Hampton, with the indomitable Maggie Smith).
  • London Grind – If you fancy the idea of having coffee “on a bridge in London”, then find your way to number 2, London Bridge, a cafe located in an industrial brick building that says “Erected in 1850”.  And it’s rather good coffee too, and you can go there for a cocktail after theatre too.
  • Maltby Street Market – hush, hush, this is perfect for a further diversion for something to eat before the Saturday matinee at the Bridge (as the market is only open on weekends and closes at 5pm), this is a bit like a calmer, more curated version of Borough Market and which tourists haven’t quite cottoned on yet.  Nestled in and around the atmospheric Victorian rail arches are 31 stalls with an inventive flair and there’s still an in-the-know feel.  You can walk on Tower Bridge Road away from the bridge itself until the railway bridge, or keep going on Shad Thames until it ends on Tooley Street when you pick up a short section of Tanner Street.

A literary postscript:

  • William Wordsworth’s poems – Wordsworth did not live in London but did write poems like Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge that is about London.  Today, the manuscripts of this as well as a number of his most famous poems are in the British Library.

Read more about Madeleine’s travels in London and a few more of our musings about the city and its special character including its basement flats and its Harry Potter connections, as well as every October’s Booker Prize-induced conversations-around-town about all-things-books (with a local venture capitalist who made his fortunes in Silicon Valley having stepped up to ensure the future of this most influential prize after the long-running Man Group ended its sponsorship).