diamond geezer

 Monday, October 02, 2017

New York has the High Line, an elevated linear park on a railway viaduct. Now Bankside would like to introduce you to the Low Line, a cultural trail at ground level alongside a railway viaduct, linking London Bridge to Waterloo.

They describe it as "an emerging world-class walking route". What's it like to follow? I'll give you a clue - the key word there is "emerging".
"Explore Bankside's hidden and tranquil ways along the mighty Victorian viaducts that crisscross the area."
A word about the originators. Better Bankside are a Business Improvement District, similar to Midtown or the Northbank but with a proper name. It's their job to encourage commerce in their immediate area, which just happens to have several railway viaducts running across it.
"The Low Line encourages greater exploration along its length, revealing new destinations, and celebrating the history and heritage of one of London's oldest neighbourhoods."
A map has been produced, in paper or in pdf, showing the route repeatedly zigzagging beneath the railway. Some sections are marked as "walkable route" but the majority is shown as "alternative route", because it turns out that walking immediately alongside a railway viaduct is difficult. The map's also hard to follow because south is at the top, and because the roads you're supposed to walk along aren't named. Maybe that's why the route's only supposed to take 15 minutes to walk but I got a bit lost and took more like an hour.

Anyway, with cynicism goggles properly adjusted, let's head off.

The route starts on St Thomas Street outside the new entrance to London Bridge station... or at least the map says it does, I found no evidence on the ground. It passes the Georgian frontage of Guy's Hospital and the wonderful Old Operating Theatre Museum, but these don't get a mention because they're not the kinds of attraction Better Bankside trying to promote. Instead it heads straight for the slamdunk tourist trap of Borough Market and meanders through the stalls. I visited midweek at lunchtime and was struck by the cracking atmosphere - a vibrant foodie warren to explore. Turn up at the weekend, however, and the squish can be severe.

Finding the correct way out isn't obvious, at least for those attempting to follow the official route, there being viaducts overhead everybloodywhere. The right road is Park Street, a mid-gentrification demolition hotspot, where you should eventually spot a Low Line plaque and a wall marker. These markers are rather nice, but tend to be positioned along streets rather than at junctions so aren't necessarily useful for wayfinding.

I'd never ventured this far down Redcross Street before, so was charmed to stumble across a remnant from ye olde Southwarke, the Crossbones Graveyard. This paupers' burial ground was rediscovered in the 1990s when the Jubilee line was being dug, revealing a unconsecrated site packed with the remains of 'single women' and their unwanted offspring. An electricity substation for the tube was erected on the eastern half, but the remainder was left undeveloped, which a keen group of volunteers are slowly transforming into a garden of remembrance. There's a limit to what they can plant without digging down, but a fine job has been done so far with raised beds, rockeries and a small pond.

Crossbones is only open to the public between noon and 3pm on weekdays, and certain Saturdays, but makes a nice quiet spot to chill or eat your lunch. Even if you can't gain access up the goosewing walkway, the gates outside are well worth seeing, arrayed with a startling assemblage of ribbons. Or come down on the 23rd day of the month for the evening vigil, at 6.45pm for seven sharp. Of all the places I discovered on my Low Line walk, Crossbones was by far the friendliest, and my favourite.

But the Low Line isn't about history, it's about commercial opportunity. The next of these is at Flat Iron Square, a recent intervention beneath the railway viaduct off Union Street. These arches previously served clubbers and the nighttime economy, but now host diverse catering options from 10am daily. Bring your mates and pick from bespoke Portuguese, zingy Vietnamese, baked Turkish or whatever, washed down with craft beer or soda, and maybe play table football if the table's free. I'll not knock it - any gourmet clusterhub is a millennial gathering place these days - but I can't help thinking those nightclubbers had a lot more fun.

Let's get back to following the viaduct, which means America Street, which means taxi workshops under the arches and a pocket garden in a skip. The Low Line then splits either side of the railway, with no suggested preference which side to go. I tried them both, and can confirm neither has great merit, but north just clinches it. Here you'll find a bollard marking the boundary of the Liberty of the Clink, and I found some Better Bankside gardeners on their knees pulling muck out of a wall. Perhaps it'll look less dour when you come by.

I wouldn't have walked along the next long alleyway, marked Private Property, had there not been an official blue marker on the wall. But here at last is what the Low Line's meant to be, a walk alongside the railway viaduct, passing arch after arch after arch. It's just that this section's rather rundown, the arches either shuttered or semi-derelict or stashed with distinctly unglamorous businesses. Beyond the bins is an arch boasting 10 pool table's, then a falafel dispensary, and finally a boxing club Established 1910. Unsurprisingly none of these get a mention on the map or leaflet.

Old Union Yard, beneath the perpendicular viaduct from Blackfriars, proves a complete contrast. These arches behind Great Suffolk Street have been done up by investors, supported by Network Rail, and punters now come to spend their money here. The chief draw used to be the Union Theatre, a fringe venue in a former paper warehouse, but this has been shifted sideways to allow full rejuvenation of the space. What we now find are two restaurants and an aerial fitness centre, plus courtyard cafe culture - the kind of selection a Time Out reviewer might orgasm over. Keep walking down the viaduct and an increasing number of the arches have become offices for swanky businesses like architects, the area's direction of travel self-evident.

Back on the original Waterloo-bound viaduct, we reach Scoresby Street. Here too the arches have been transformed into commercial units, with restaurants specifically in mind. The Blackfriars Wine Bar is well established at one end, with a thriving Nando's at the other plus a sushi offering midway, but plenty of the intervening spaces await take-up. A captive hungry audience exists just around the corner, specifically an HQ-ful of TfL employees at Palestra House, that is if they haven't stopped off at the Lebanese hole in the wall under the viaduct immediately nextdoor.

The Low Line's last hurrah lurks opposite, round the back of (and specifically above) Southwark station. One further run of arches has jumped on the foodie bandwagon, part screened behind a jungle of potplants brought in to give the alleyway a less bleak feel. Isabella Street offers a lounge bar with Brewdog barrels, a Turkish cafe and a Thai restaurant. Just don't walk round the back and view the same businesses from Joan Street, where the ugly reality of backstage delivery is writ large. And this run of arches is where the Low Line abruptly stops, because Better Bankside never had any intention of delivering you to Waterloo, merely showcasing their own territory.

My thanks to the Low Line for opening my eyes to several south London backstreets I'd never walked before, and the marvellous Crossbones Graveyard, but I worry about the project's underlying aim. The final sections traverse recently-upmarketed arches fitted out with refreshment options, where previously had been backwater grime and lockups. This may be what well-off consumers, and Network Rail's commercial director want, but I worry for the future of those employed in the workshops and the boxing club I passed earlier. The Low Line seems to be just another nudge in the relentless emblandening of central London - smothering character in favour of a premium meal or frothy drink. If that is the line Better Bankside are taking, that is indeed low.

» The Low Line map/leaflet

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