If today's stretch of the 51½th line of latitude were 500 metres further north, it'd run from Tower Bridge to the Royal Festival Hall. Instead it slips through the minor backstreets of Southwark, missing almost everything of interest, for which I apologise in advance. [map][photos]
Bermondsey Street [51.5°N 0.081°W]
How hip is Bermondsey Street? Not at its northern end, where it slinks beneath London Bridge station, but down here winding through the becalmed historic heart of Bermondsey proper. Time Out are hyper for the place, evangelising especially about the food and drink options, but also the retained artsy craftsy vibe. 51½°N sweeps in across Tanner Street Park, around half of which is tennis courts, and well-used tennis courts at that. The remainder is mostly grass and path, where creative types come to recharge, students skim through their college notes and well-dressed women follow behind tiny pugs with plastic bags poised. What looks like a cafe in the corner is more of a restaurant, with pre-booked tables and a wine list, so Al's Cafe on the main street is a better bet. A shop called Lovely and British promises Eclectic British Sourced Lifestyle Shopping, and is shelved with stuff nobody genuinely needs, which doesn't stop it being busy. The average age of those hereabouts looks to be below average, while the average income looks to be above average, in sharp contrast to the slice of Southwark we're passing through next.
I'm peeved because the White Cube gallery isn't quite on my invisible line, so I have an existential debate with myself about whether 51.4998°N really counts. It's only ten metres out, and if my smartphone were less accurate it'd be reading 51.500°N anyway. I decide no, it doesn't count, but go in anyway. I enjoy the latest exhibition, Memory Palace, more than I expected. The themes it's hanging off are tenuous, but some of the artwork is challenging and splendid, and I spend far too long looking at Jac Leirners collage of 1980s regional advertising. Best of all there's a new-ish Christian Marclay film to enjoy, a 24 minute decontextualised splicing of movie scenes depicting the destruction of art, and it totally hyped me up for next month at the Tate.
The Borough [51.5°N]
The next kilometre is the dull stretch I hinted at earlier. I'm expecting a lot of this kind of thing out west, but wasn't expecting to experience it quite so close to the South Bank. It turns out northern Southwark has an entrenched residential/commercial underbelly of housing estates, backstreets and minor office blocks, as if the primeness of the location has been overlooked simply because it's south of the river.
The Leather Market [51.5°N 0.085°W] once housed true craftspeople, but now hosts recruitment consultants, marketing executives and novelty wellness engineers. The stark terraced flats of the Lockyer Estate [51.5°N 0.086°W] have an unavoidably undernourished feel. On the Kipling Estate, Richer Sounds Head Office [51.5°N 0.089°W] is a peculiar bastion of modern infill, opposite an LCC block where a council operative is strimming round the pear trees. The Royal Oak [51.5°N 0.091°W] is a traditional Victorian boozer serving Sussex ales, and a highly recommended watering hole, but I'm too early to get behind the net curtains. Lighthouse-keepers Trinity House own a lot of land alongside Borough High Street, which is why Avon Place [51.5°N 0.094°W] has a bicentennial mural along its length featuring Henry VIII, osteopathy and a fox chewing a brake cable.
Scovell Estate [51.5°N 0.098°W]
Here's an oddity off Great Suffolk Street, an entirely atypical council estate built by Southwark's architects in the 1970s. Long blocks of totally lowrise housing run along pedestrianised walkways decorated with pot plants and hanging baskets, with a few garages hidden out of sight out of mind. Many residents have little back gardens, with gate access to one of the mini streetlets, and some actually own bungalows. You see this kind of development further out from the city centre, but here we're less than a mile from Westminster Bridge or the Bank of England, so it all feels delightfully parochial. I don't think residents are used to many cut-through visitors, though. A lady out chatting to her neighbour has to break off ("Olly!") to stop her Jack Russell ("Olly! Olly!!") from chasing after me ("Olly! Olly!! Olly!!!"), and my presence leaves both quite perturbed.
Blackfriars Road [51.5°N 0.105°W]
Nearly, not quite at St George's Circus, the foot of Blackfriars Road is in flux. The old BT offices at Erlang House have been demolished, and in their place has arisen Blackfriars Circus, a large Barratt development whose last penthouse apartments are currently up for sale for between £1m-£2½m. The ground floor retail/restaurant units have yet to be filled, apart from a Tesco Express, whose delivery lorry has decided not to park in the bay provided and is blocking the single southbound carriageway. There used to be two lanes, but one has been sacrificed to a smart whizzy Cycle Superhighway on the other side of the road, the two-way nature of which throws me when I walk out into it without looking. Thankfully no Super Cycles were incoming.
Facing Blackfriars Circus is a completely different approach to housing, in plain London brick rather than some fancy variegated palette. Peabody Square is a Victorian collection of four-storeytenement blocks, each with a central porch, and each of these topped off with a keystone flourish depicting a letter of the alphabet. Blocks A to R run clockwise around the first great courtyard, now filled with a micro-playground, while a second quadrangle juts off from the rear. It's quiet and human in scale, admittedly concierge-free, but I'm sure most residents are happier to pay less rent rather than have a suave clerk to sign off their Amazon packages. A plaque confirms that the Queen Mother visited in 1962 to mark the centenary of the George Peabody Donation Fund. Expect Blackfriars Circus to be demolished long before any royal curtain-tugger drops by.
Lower Marsh [51.5°N 0.114°W]
Just briefly, let's do Lambeth. Lower Marsh is a beloved market street, technically a conservation area but very much a treasure in transition. Several quirky old businesses survive - the Olympic Cafe has a slew of photos of its Chinese menu across its window, and Top Wind is a flute shop whose retro frontage seemingly hasn't changed since it opened in 1991. But elsewhere are blatant incomers, like Waffle Doodle-Doo and Vaulty Towers, and heaven knows how anyone gained planning permission for the geometric white condo at the western end of the street. All the street vendors serve from identikit stalls in Olympic ring colours, with tables alongside to enable rapid guzzling. Don't expect hot dogs, it's more Taste of Morocco/Falafel Wrap/Newdlez.com kind of line-up. I greatly approve of Barbarellas cafe because one of the things advertised on its shopfront is panini, plural. The beggar sitting crosslegged outside the Co-Op is busy reading a book, obliviously hoping that passers-by drop coins into his empty popcorn tub.
At the far end of Lower Marsh the multiple tracks heading out of Waterloo station cover a large portion of Westminster Bridge Road. It's gloomy under there. Only four of Waterloo's platforms extend far enough to just cross the line of 51.5°N, and they're the former Eurostar platforms so are currently out of commission.
St Thomas' Hospital [51.5°N 0.118°W]
I've ended up at London's most central hospital, thankfully of my own volition. Entrance to the site is on two levels, a concrete walkway for independent visitors and a canyon below for all kinds of ambulance. One neonatal carrier from the Kent coast has seemingly come a heck of a long way. Inpatients has recently been relocated to Gassiot House, alongside the Pain Management Unit. I watch as a member of staff, downgraded from her receptionist role by automation, politely tells a checker-in that they may have to press harder because the touchscreens "can be a bit temperamental sometimes". Beneath my feet is the Florence Nightingale Museum, which I had been planning to pop inside because it's the first museum I've encountered on the 51½th parallel. Instead I transfer that baton to Ian Visits, because he's just published a review of the place, saving me the need to go round again.
The Hospital Gardens provide a chance to escape the wards for staff and patients alike, for example the nurse who walks past shepherding an old man in pyjamas. Other orderlies are grabbing a bite to eat around the new statue of Mary Seacole, or wandering off site completely for a cigarette. Someone medical-looking is breastfeeding her baby while she takes lunch. Caution, the water in the fountain is impregnated with chemicals. A new plaque reveals that Searle's Boathouse, first home of the Leander Club, was established here in 1818. A siren wails as another arrival pulls in down below. Once again I'm hugely impressed by the NHS's compassionate ambition (and equally despairing of an official poster I spot on a wall by the ambulance park praising the valued contribution of "Siemens Healthineers").
The point on the Albert Embankment where 51.5°N launches off across the Thames is marked, coincidentally, by the memorial plaque to the victims of Human BSE (vCJD). The spot is very popular with tourists, who like to place one or more of the group against or on the river wall and take photos with Westminster's gothic turrets immediately behind. Westminster Bridge is very close by, along the line of 51.501°N, but I've come on the one day passage is sealed off by a strip of blue and white tape, two police cars, several clustered officers and at least one wielded weapon.I will get across the river to continue my latitude quest, but alas a screwball in a Ford Fiesta got there first.