It may be difficult to imagine now, but this area known as Lambeth Marsh, was virtually undeveloped before the 19th century. The wet terrain was hardly a prime location for the type of development that had taken place across the other side of the river, but during the Victorian era, the shallow bank and mudflats became an asset for industries such as printing works, coal wharves, dye works and breweries, to name just a few.
The first half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to Lambeth with factories either in decline or being destroyed by WWII bombs, and so when it was suggested that a Festival of Britain would have its centrepiece here, things started to take a different direction.
The festival was supposed to be a national exhibition celebrating British achievements, but it was to become more than that. The ravages of WWII had left the country in need of a lift from austerity, and so entertainment and culture were deemed just as important as science and technology, and so various forms of entertainment were included when the festival opened on 4th May 1951.
The Southbank site was only ever going to be temporary and most of it was demolished after the festival was over five months later, but the Royal Festival Hall remained.
The Royal Festival Hall today is the centrepiece of the Southbank Centre which also includes two other performance venues (the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room), plus the Hayward Gallery. Adjacent to the Southbank Centre is the Royal National Theatre and BFI Southbank (formerly known as the National Film Theatre), and collectively the whole complex is what I consider to be the focal point of the Southbank’s cultural hub, and probably what most people think about when they talk about the Southbank.
Before taking the steps down to the promenade from Westminster Bridge, check out the sculpture of a lion. It’s big enough, but I’m sure plenty of people still miss it.
Known as the South Bank Lion, it once stood pride of place on top of the Lion Brewery which used to be on the site where the Royal Festival Hall now stands.
At the bottom of the steps is the former County Hall which is now a hotel, aquarium and home of the London Dungeon amongst other things. With the London Eye next door, this is a popular location for families.
Walking under the Hungerford Bridges brings us to the aforementioned Southbank Centre, and apart from its cultural attractions, there’s usually a great buzz along here with all sorts of outdoor distractions to keep people entertained.
Passing underneath Waterloo Bridge, you come to some bookstalls, the BFI (British Film Institute) Southbank, and the brutalist Royal National Theatre.
The Lambeth section of the walk ends at Gabriel’s Wharf, where the ITV Studios rub shoulders with a community enterprise called the Coin Street Community Builders, a group of people who have been able to keep large commercial development at bay, and yet still manage to transform a derelict area into a proper neighbourhood in keeping with its location.
The Southbank has become one of London’s must-visit locations, and even if you don’t want to fork out to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, or London from the ‘Eye’, there are still plenty of free things to see and do along the riverside.
Things pop up along here all the time – there is street entertainment, music, food stalls, fairs and exhibitions – but perhaps the best free thing of all is the view across the river to Westminster and the Victoria Embankment.
The north side of the river may have had a head start where the capital’s development is concerned, and there’s no denying that the Victoria Embankment was a great feat of engineering – but it’s not half as much fun as The Southbank either. Don’t miss it!