The outlook from Westminster Bridge has changed considerably since WilliamWordsworth composed his famous poem, but people still flock here for the view. And most of these people are tourists. They come to gaze out across the Thames towards Waterloo Bridge and the London Eye. They come to gain access to the commercial hubbub strung out along the South Bank. But most of all they come to gawp at the Palace of Westminster, and to make sure they get a photo of themselves beaming with Big Ben in the background. And that's why we Londoners never go, because it's packed, or else we make sure to stick to the southern side where fewer crowds mass. Like Tower Hill, M&Ms World and the pavement outside Madame Tussauds, this is very much the preserve of the tourist, and best avoided.
Westminster Bridge has long been the place for a selfie, even before the word was coined. It's simplicity itself to step back far enough to get the whole of the Elizabeth Tower in shot, and then to manoeuvre the grinning faces of everybody in your group into shot. The clocktower's Gothic elevation is ideally suited to portrait format, though less easily constrained into an Instagram square, should this be required. Time it right and there'll be no traffic in shot - this pulses in waves according to the lights, and opens up the only regular void on the bridge. But as for the pavement, this is usually a swirling mass of tourists taking photos, tourists thinking of taking photos, and tourists blundering into other tourists doing one of the above.
And where there are tourists, there are those who would feed off them. The most obvious manifestations of this are the two kiosks on the western bank. One dispenses souvenirs of questionable taste, generally anything you can slap a landmark or a Union Jack on. The other serves crepes and pancakes, essentially the same thing but translated for a wider audience. Here £5.50 buys the traditional 'Londoner' (that's ham, cheese and mushroom, if you were wondering), while forty pence more gets you The Big Ben (banana, nutella and cream, obviously). Again, this is why you never come. Sometimes an alternative food vendor turns up on the far side of the bridge, doling out roasted chestnuts in a cheeky nod to centuries past. But more often the scammers are on their hands and knees, and harder to spot.
They're playing the shell game, otherwise known as spot the ball. Three small metal cups are placed face down on a fabric pad, under one of which is a sponge ball, and repeatedly shuffled. All you have to do, as the willing passer-by, is to identify the cup covering the ball. It's obviously a fraud, and yet it looks suspiciously easy - the number of twiddles is kept low to make this look like an achievable game of skill. You see the ball at the beginning, the cups are clearly visible, and a seven year-old could probably follow its path back and to. But it's still a surprise when the ball isn't under the cup it so obviously should be, or perhaps you missed a spin somewhere, here show me that again.
Adding to the sense of possibility, punters are actually winning money. They tap their foot on a cup, which when upturned reveals the magic ball beneath. By no means does this happen every time, but often enough to ensure observers believe this game is beatable. Both men and women step up and stake their claim, appearing to choose wisely and taking their prize in triumph. Bets are taken in multiples of £20, so there's a lot of purple flashing around, and although £20's a lot of money surely you could beat the system too. But a little thought confirms that the 'winning' punters are actually part of the wider gang, hence merely circulating money rather than acquiring it. A few minutes of theatre ensures the game looks genuine, and then they go off to play at one of the other mats spaced out across the bridge, and no fresh tourist is any the wiser.
I stood watching one particular maestro for a few minutes, trying to work out how his shuffling trick worked. Did the young man switch the cups after one had been chosen (no, seemingly not) or were the players misdirected towards the wrong one? My suspicions swiftly alighted on the ball itself and the matter of its composition - why use sponge instead of something solid, what advantage would this bring? And yes of course, sponge scrunches up so can be easily concealed in the hand, ready to slip in whenever and wherever it's needed to appear. That lift halfway through the shuffle isn't to confirm the ball's location, it's to whip it out of the game. When the chosen cup is tipped up at the end of the game, it's always going to be empty underneath. And when one of the remaining cups is finally revealed as the ball's supposed home, it's been there for no more than a fraction of a second.
And all the time that this is going on, lookouts are poised to ensure the authorities don't spoil the party. They scan the bridge like meerkats, occasionally passing on warning signs to those at pavement level, ensuring that the latest rally can be halted and the various components immediately squirrelled away. The rubber-based mat is folded and placed inside a laptop bag, for added anonymity, while the cups and ball and cash go into separate members' pockets to split the evidence. Indeed this happened while I was watching - a Met Police van passed by on the opposite side of the bridge and paused, causing the scammers to scatter within seconds. The thick crowd made it relatively easy to disappear, in one case all the way to the tube subway entrance, so that when the police got out to investigate there was nothing to see.
Except apparently there was. One unfortunate gang member in a brightly-coloured hoodie had remained on the bridge and was singled out for attention. Officers surrounded him by the parapet and used blue plastic gloves to search his rucksack for evidence, then proceeded to question him for several minutes. Meanwhile his former colleagues had mustered on the Victoria Embankment, just round the back of the souvenir kiosk, and were observing proceedings on the bridge with intent. I recognised the main cup-twiddler and also the older man who'd been playing the part of a successful punter, their fast (non-English) chatter now revealing a much closer tie. And here they stood for at least ten minutes, nervously scanning the unfolding situation, without ever being spotted by the force of law.
Eventually, after much manipulation of notebooks and blue plastic, the police let their suspect go. They should have followed him, because he strode straight over to the Embankment to where his colleagues were standing and gave them the low down on what had occurred. The reunited group chatted for a while and then, rather than returning to their pitches on the bridge, walked away. At twenty pounds a fleece they'd no doubt done well enough to be able to go for a beer or some food, or whatever, before returning to play again later in the day. These con artists are somehow never flushed away, the hand of law either too unfocused or too underfunded to break the routine. And Westminster Bridge will always provide a wealth of customers, dutifully handing over unfamiliar currency because they're not astute enough to realise they're not astute enough. Best avoid this balls-up at all costs.