Stretching from the River Thames down to Streatham, the borough of Lambeth is a culturally-rich area of south London. It includes the nightclubs of Vauxhall, the diversity of Brixton down to the leafy suburb of West Norwood. With a wide mixture of things to see and do, here are just a few which might be of interest.
The Tate Modern gallery is renowned for some of its more bizarre pieces and is the home of contemporary and modern art in London. Although it may not be for everyone, having your art displayed in the Tate Modern is a lifelong dream of many artists and creators across the world. You can watch live art in massive underground converted oil tanks, look out over London from the Tate balcony whilst sipping a drink as well as view priceless art such as Picasso, Monet, and Salvador Dali. Art has traditionally been a singularly sensory experience, but here a range of exhibits involve you, the viewer, and bring all your senses to life. Immerse yourself in light displays, film, walk through sculpture or play with colour. It is said that here, the stereotypical art gallery of the past is gone and you will find your visit ‘an electrifying experience for your senses’, because art is more than simply staring at pictures here, it should involve all senses. Entry is free and the permanent collection is impressive, but it is suggested that you check their website before you visit to see details of any featured exhibition. Special exhibitions and events require a separate paid ticket and it is always recommended to book in advance online, especially for popular exhibits, although Tate members can access all exhibits for free using their membership card. I also discovered some odd but interesting facts, which are that the Tate Modern’s building was converted from the Bankside Power Station and opened in 2000. The building is almost the same size as Westminster Abbey with the central chimney standing at 99 metres tall. The original architect of the power station was Giles Gilbert Scott, who is famous for having designed our iconic red telephone boxes so there’s a link to my past that I had no idea about. What I also learned in my research was that the Tate Group of galleries began in 1889 when Henry Tate, a sugar merchant from Liverpool, donated his collection of contemporary paintings. The Bankside Power Station building was built in 1947 on the shore of the Thames, but was closed in 1981 and the Queen opened Tate Modern in the original building. Then in 2016 the new Switch House extension (now known as the Blavatnik Building) was opened, increasing the size of Tate Modern dramatically.
One place I was keen to visit some years ago was the Imperial War Museum as it houses one of the best collections of military hardware and artefacts you can see and is a compelling record of modern warfare, as it places the impact of conflict on everyday lives at its centre. It is here that you will see huge, imposing 15-inch naval guns built for the First World War and which guard the front of the building. Inside you can look up into the atrium to see an iconic Battle of Britain Spitfire, suspended as if in flight above your head. There is also the permanent Holocaust exhibition where visitors may reflect on the first-hand testimonies of those who suffered horrific persecution. Walking into the central atrium of the building with its 25-metre high space is an impressive sight as it vividly displays the scale of some of the most iconic hardware of modern warfare, displaying as it does a Battle of Britain Spitfire, a V2 rocket and a Hawker Harrier which are suspended from the ceiling. Then there is the First World War Gallery, depicting World War I, with the black and white grainy images of the trenches which still have the power to both enthral and maybe even terrify visitors after more than one hundred years. Accompanied by touch screen interactive displays, visitors can view over 1300 objects including planes, tanks, uniforms, artefacts, diaries and poignant personal letters detailing the lives of both the soldiers and civilians. There is even a replica section of a trench, where it is possible to see exactly how the soldiers at the front lived back then. There is also the ‘Turning Points’ exhibition, which charts the years between 1934 and 1945 from the point that World War II began to loom through to its conclusion, with many poignant personal artefacts to be seen. Further exhibits include the remains of a Japanese Zero fighter plane located on a Pacific island fifty years after the end of the war. Then in the Lord Ashcroft Collection are stories of the incredible bravery of men, women and children in time of war. There are over 250 personal stories of bravery, accompanied by photographs, film, artefacts and artwork. You are also able to view the world’s largest collection of Victoria Cross medals, Britain’s highest decoration for valour. In addition, there is a large collection of George Cross medals as the exhibition recounts stories of incredible bravery.
The idea for the museum was first proposed in 1917, during World War 1 as it was intended to record the effort and sacrifice of Britain and the Empire for that specific event. It has meant that for over forty years the Imperial War Museum’s collection of films and archival footage have been used by television producers to make documentaries which have furthered our understanding of war and its effects. Landmark programs where the museum’s films were used include ‘The Great War’ and ‘The World at War’. The museum also holds a significant collection of art, consisting of paintings, posters, drawings and prints including much of the artwork commissioned by the government to record both World Wars. It has also commissioned artists to record more recent conflicts, as well as peacekeeping duties and although the Imperial War Museum in London is its most well-known site, the museum as a group contains four other sites. This includes the Imperial War Museum North based in Manchester, the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast in London, plus Europe’s largest air museum at Duxford. The museum has a noted history, as in March 1917 the War Cabinet approved proposal for National War Museum from Sir Alfred Mond MP and in June 1920 it was opened at Crystal Palace by King George VI. In November 1924 came the move to smaller location in the Western Galleries of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington and in July 1936 the Duke of York opened the museum in its new location at Lambeth Road, where it remains today. But from September 1940 to November 1946 it was closed for the war, with many vulnerable collections stored outside of London. In 1966 came the first major expansion to the museum since its relocation to its current home and in 1967 it acquired the iconic naval guns which are sited on the approach to the building. Then the first phase of major renovation started in 1986, taking three years to complete, with the final part of three-phase development of Southwark building completed in 2000. It included Holocaust Exhibition. The museum finally reopened after a £40 million redesign in 2004.
Shakespeare’s Globe is undoubtedly London’s most beautiful theatre. Situated on the South Bank and standing just a few hundred yards from its original site, The Globe takes pride in remembering William Shakespeare and all of his plays. As well as seeing a play, you can book tickets for guided tours and any current exhibitions and you can travel back to the 16th century in a reconstruction of the open-air wood and thatch theatre where the world-famous plays were originally performed. The present timber and thatch open-air circular theatre is an accurate reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, enabling visitors to enjoy the performances of Shakespeare’s plays as they were intended to be seen, whatever the weather! The theatre stages performances between April and October and being open air the show goes on, regardless of the weather, then during the winter months concerts and plays are held in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, an atmospheric Jacobean-style theatre illuminated by candlelight. As part of the access programme, the Globe theatre has relaxed performances and the open-door policy there means that members of the audience can come and go exactly as they please, making these performances ideal for families. But it seems that the Elizabethan Globe Theatre is not original, despite being constructed in 1599 as it was built using timber from an earlier theatre. Sadly the place was burnt down in 1613 after a special effect went wrong, a cannonball fired during a performance of Henry Vlll which set fire to the thatched roof. No one was hurt except for a man whose trousers caught fire but who was saved by a bottle of beer poured over him! Also it seems there were no women actors in Shakespeare’s day and female roles were played by young boys. Back then Elizabethan audiences in the ‘pit’ or standing part of the theatre were known as ‘groundlings’, or as ‘stinkards’ during hot weather! The Globe theatre was finally reconstructed close to its original site on the South Bank of the Thames in 1997, after a lengthy fundraising campaign by the director Sam Wanamaker.
A place which I think has certainly been heard of is the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which has been rescuing and rehoming animals for over a hundred and fifty years and is one of of the best-loved institutions in London. The place is open to visitors, as you don’t have to want to adopt an animal to visit the centre, though you probably won’t be able to view the animals out of their pens. If you wish to visit more animals after your visit, Battersea Petting Zoo is just around the corner from there.
One of London’s most popular tourist attractions is the London Eye. It was previously known as the Millennium Wheel due to its launch in 2000 and it takes guests on a sightseeing journey 135 metres over the city, making it Europe’s largest Ferris wheel. But advance booking is advised, as it is currently the most popular paid tourist attraction in the whole of the United Kingdom and has become as iconic to London as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. It has become an absolute landmark, a must-see attraction offering visitors great views across the city. Visitors board one of the 32 capsules for an approximate 30-minute rotation, giving a 360-degree view across London and its many historic landmarks. It gives a unique perspective across London and down onto its iconic landmarks. With a riverside location opposite the Houses of Parliament, visitors can either stand and gaze out the windows across the city or take advantage of the central benches located in every capsule as the wheel slowly rotates. On a clear day it is said you can see over a distance of 40 kilometres, or around 25 miles. The London Eye caters for groups too, offering a unique day out for friends, families and work colleagues. It is a hugely popular attraction, but sometimes you may feel you want that extra-special London experience by hiring a private capsule by inviting up to 25 friends to enjoy a very personal rotation on the wheel, with a choice of food and drink enhancements available for a VIP feel. In addition, out of normal hours when the visitors have left, folk can enjoy a champagne reception, followed by a three-course meal. You will enjoy three leisurely rotations as you dine, with a 10 minute stop on the final rotation at the top, for the opportunity to take photos and record your experience. The research I made also told me that the wheel was originally meant to be purely temporary, standing for five years having been constructed to mark the new Millennium but was given a permanent licence in 2002. Although there are 32 viewing capsules the numbers on the capsules range from 1 to 33. This is because number 13, deemed unlucky, was omitted. The London Eye is Europe’s tallest wheel of its kind and when it was built in 1999 it had been the world’s tallest, but since then it has been nudged down to fourth, although still the tallest in Europe. What surprised me was learning that London has seen a large wheel like this before, because in July 1895 there was the Great Wheel which was opened to the public, standing at an impressive 94 metres tall and with 40 capsules or cars. That one was built for the Empire of India exhibition, before ending its service in 1906 and being demolished the year after. It was back in 1998 that construction on the current London Eye began and it was erected in October 1999 before it was formally opened by Prime Minister Tony Blair in December 1999 and opened to the public for the first time in March 2000. Happily, in July 2002 it was granted permanent licence to remain. In 2006 a decorative LED lighting system was installed and in 2009 capsules were upgraded ahead of the 2012 London Olympics and used as part of the ceremony. The second capsule on the wheel was named the Coronation Capsule in 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and that same year it also recorded its 50 millionth visitor. It had its 20 year anniversary in 2020. In addition, just below the wheel the London Eye has access to its own pier. From here there are 40-minute river cruises which will take you past many of London’s historic sites including the Houses of Parliament, St Pauls’ Cathedral and the Tower of London. Knowledgeable on-board guides provide a commentary informing you about all the sites you see.
Finally this week I had to include a famous place, the Old Vic Theatre as over two hundred years of history grace this famous old building in the heart of the city. The Old Vic is an independently operated, not for profit theatre whose historic décor has seen shows of all types performed on its stage. Today the theatre continues to offer diverse productions, supporting new and exciting talent. The building was sadly damaged during World War II, but reopened in 1951 and is grade II listed. Just three minutes walk from Waterloo Station, the Old Vic is easy to reach and a must-visit attraction for any theatre fan. The theatre was founded in 1818 and one of the founders named John Serres, who was the marine painter to the King, managed to secure the formal patronage of Princess Charlotte and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg so named the theatre the Royal Coburg Theatre. It was a ‘minor’ theatre, as opposed to one of the two ‘patent’ theatres, so was technically forbidden to show serious drama but when the theatre passed to a new owner in 1824 they succeeded in bringing the then legendary actor Edmund Kean south of the river to play six Shakespeare plays in six nights. The theatre’s role in bringing high art to the masses was confirmed when Kean addressed the audience during his curtain call saying “I have never acted to such a set of ignorant, unmitigated brutes as I see before me.” However more popular items in the repertoire were deemed to be “sensational and violent melodramas demonstrating the evils of drink, churned out by the house dramatist”, according to a confirmed teetotaller! The owner then left to take over the Surrey Theatre in 1833 and the theatre was bought by two people who tried to capitalise on the abolition of the legal distinction between patent and minor theatres as enacted in Parliament earlier that year. On 1 July 1833 the theatre was renamed the Royal Victoria Theatre, under the ‘protection and patronage’ of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, the mother to Princess Victoria who was the 14-year-old heir presumptive to the British throne. The duchess and the princess visited only once, on 28 November of that year, but enjoyed the performance, of light opera and dance, in what was described as the ‘pretty, clean and comfortable’ theatre, though the single visit scarcely justified the ‘Old Vic’ its later billing as “Queen Victoria’s Own Theayter”. In 1841 a new lessee took over and was succeeded on his death in 1850 by his lover and the theatre’s leading lady until her death in 1856. It seems that under their management, the theatre remained devoted to melodrama but it was not without its own dramas however, as in 1858 sixteen people were crushed to death inside the theatre after mass panic caused when an actor’s clothing caught fire. In 1867, a new lessee took over and in 1871 he transferred the lease to a new person who, it is said, raised funds for the theatre to be rebuilt in the style of the Alhambra Music Hall, where a noted architect had been engaged. In September 1871 the old theatre closed, and the new building opened as the Royal Victoria Palace in December of the same year. In 1880, under the ownership of an Emma Cons, for whose memory there are plaques outside and inside the theatre, it became the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern and was run on ‘strict temperance lines’ and by this time it was already known as the ‘Old Vic’. Then on 24 November 1923, the theatre participated in a pioneering radio event, when the first set of the opera ‘La Traviata’ was broadcast live by the BBC, using transmitters in London, Manchester and Glasgow via a specially installed relay transmitter on the roof of the adjacent Royal Victoria Tavern. Technology at its best!
A longer blog, but hopefully an interesting one. There is still so much to be written about! So, a quick but amusing item. A group of architects were arguing about the design of a new football stadium. One very senior architect was getting frustrated as he knew the best option, so turned to one of his colleagues and said quietly, with a slight smile, “Trust me, this will all end in tiers…