Lovely, lovely Bankside, you know you don’t have to bribe me with wine and special tours to sing your praises. Although I will succumb to keep the peace. It is a cold, cold, January night after all. I will need a tipple or two to fortify me for the night’s adventures.
I’m late, half a glass of white, half a glass of red in Laithwaites under the arches of dirty London. I am sold on rebellion from some far sunnier clime.
South is where I feel at home, South is where I call my home.
Up now and off, layers pulled tight, hats on heads, gloves and scarves. The air is crisp, the chatter of borough market, cobbled streets reflect the life of here and now and the life of long ago.
Southwark Cathedral awaits, once inside the hush descends, another layer wraps around us like a blanket, it muffles the loud voices that clamour outside. Candlelit, soft religion, solace and quiet. Dark corners soften unforgiving stone, eyes are raised up to the heavens.
A secret treat, a special pass to ascend to the gods. We enter through a narrow doorway. ‘Danger’ the sign warns. Excitement drives me up and up and up, round and round the stone steps. The bells ringing so loudly, an assault, a sensory battery, a warning – “stop, don’t go up”. The sound pushes the breath out of my lungs.
Up among the gods where the gilt glints and the guilt hides. Admitted sins have to go somewhere, perhaps they hide up here in the rafters.
More stairs, more twists, legs heavy, feet loud – are we there yet? How many hands have held on to this bannister, how many breathless visitors seeking Southwark Cathedral’s secrets?
Birthed out through a small doorway, gasping for breath, smacked in the face with cold air and faced with all the glories of London. The Thames, dark and silent, ever moving, she won’t give anything away. London lights bright, dazzling, twinkling jewels. Near the edge I inch and look down. Down to the dark twisted Borough streets, trains squeal like noisy worms, the noise competes with the bells a cacophony of sound.
The Shard pierces the night, I take off my glove and touch the stone. I am here I whisper in my head. My touch is a marker, a pact, an agreement with an old soul, a London watcher. Southwark Cathedral sees it all, all the changes this borough has faced. I thank the stones for the years they have stood sentinel, I thank them for giving up their secrets for a few precious moments.
The stones vibrate with the bells, it is unnerving. There is a life here much older and wiser than I can comprehend.
One last look, a sigh at all that is beautiful in a London night. Then down, down, slowly, carefully, don’t trip, don’t fall.
Back on the ground, on the streets, I feel centuries of old London, seedy London, bawdy London, theatre London, dark pleasures and dark doorways. Away from the river, away from familiar haunts, leave the warmth of the Founders Arms, the Tate Modern and the Globe. Try a side street.
By a Georgian terrace we stand and six years I worked near these streets come flooding back. Lunch times, trudging with no particular place to go, hungry feet looking for a quiet corner away from the tourist train for a solitary sandwich. Down Clink Street, working late on Sundays, leaving late at night before Vinopolis came and went, before coffee chains and restaurants brightened the night.
On our walk I learn much that I have forgotten, I learn much I never knew, signs I have walked past a hundred times and never seen. We stop by a ghost sign, ‘Take Courage’ it tells me, remnants of an old brewery and words to fortify on a dark night. I have my own ghost memories of these streets – my leaving drinks in the Market Porter, morning sickness on my way to work, coffee from Monmouth, Boston Brownies from Konditor & Cook to share with my boss. My parents depositing us outside the Founders Arms with a bottle of pop and a packet of crisps. Before the Tate Modern drew its art seeking crowd, simply Bankside Power Station, a dark and silent brick cathedral that lost its congregation waiting to come back to life.
On we go, colder and colder, I hear a promise of more wine, I am easily persuaded. Past Cromwell Buildings a familiar site. On my commuter train as I peered through steamed up windows I wondered at who slept and ate squeezed between trains and tunnels.
Under bridges, past cars intent on seeking a deeper south to Redcross Way. To the Crossbones Graveyard, here lie the dead, here lie bodies brought to peace on the Borough streets. Where all is welcomed and forgiven. Memories are tied to railings, hopes, prayers and wishes, remembrances to all who pay pilgrimage and care to stay a while.
But for the living, solace is found across the road. The Boot and Flogger is a warm welcome, a glass of red, some friendly chat and a glow of red cheeks that chase the ghosts away.
At last I leave wrapped up once again, but warm inside not from wine but from all Borough has given up this night. Its secrets and stories, its quiet memories and raucous history. Bankside by the river still feels like old London to me, it feels like home. My memories of new and old sit side by side and tonight a new memory takes its place among the rest.
I still feel the touch of Southwark Cathedral stone on my fingers and in my heart the whispered stories of a hundred lifetimes.
Thanks to Mister Londoner for the tour – https://twitter.com/meetmrlondoner
Huge thanks to Better Bankside for arranging the tour – http://www.betterbankside.co.uk/
Southwark Cathedral have special photography evenings more details here – https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/spring-candlelit-photography-evening/ (please not this doesn’t include a trip to the roof)