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Secret Southbank

Street art by Skewer show a proud woman of colour outside Leake Street Tunnel
Street art by Skewer outside Leake Street Tunnel

Strolling along London’s Southbank is a popular pastime any time of the year. The place is teaming with activity of all kinds attracting Londoners and tourists alike. In summer, it can be a little overwhelming … so let's explore the gems hiding just off the beaten track.

Windrush Memorial

Windrush Monument in Waterloo station show a family of three holding hands on top of a mountain of suitcases

Make Waterloo station your first stop to see the powerful Windrush Monument situated on the main concourse. Unveiled for ‘Windrush Day’ (22nd June) 2022, the sculpture is a stunning tribute to members of the Caribbean community who arrived in Tilbury on 22nd June 1948 – 75 years ago! – on board of the Empire Windrush to help rebuild the country after World War II. It finally acknowledges and celebrates their immense contributions to every aspect of UK society – both individually and collectively.

The commemorative statue depicts a family of three, dressed in their ‘Sunday-best’, holding hands as they climb over a proverbial mountain of suitcases. It symbolises the courage, commitment, and resilience of the Windrush Generation – the thousands who travelled to the UK between 1948 and 1971, changing the course of British history for ever.

Leake Street Tunnel graffiti

Just out of the station (under it, actually), pop your head into Leake Street tunnel for the latest street art. If graffiti is your thing – you’re in for a treat! The largest legal street art area in the capital is an ever-changing canvass drawing in artists and instagrammers from around the world. It became famous after Banksy hosted his 2008 Cans Festival here. Now, it has lightings and the Leake Street Arches offer a rather more upmarket experience including food, drink, paint and play.

'Mother Seacole'

From here detour via St Thomas’ Hospital, where you will be greeted by the majestic statue of Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881) – one of my favourites in London - standing tall and fearless, staring straight at the Palace of Westminster. This is the first statue of a Black woman in the UK. It took until 2016, after a 12 ½-year campaign!!!, to fully recognise and honour the impact of her work as a nurse and a healer.

Statue of Mary Seacole in front of St Thomas Hospital, Southbank, London

Mother Seacole’, as she became known, had come to the UK from the Caribbean and headed to the Crimean battlefield where she set up a ‘hotel’ and store – providing food, drink, and other essentials, as well as treating injured soldiers. She became such popular figure that 80,000 people welcomed her up returning to London in 1857. After her death, she fell into obscurity for over a century – surprise, surprise … unlike Florence Nightingale, who is hailed as the founder of modern nursing and has a museum in her honour just nearby.

Covid National Memoria Wall of red hearts along the river Thames in summer

It is impossible to be in the area without also walking past the Covid-19 Memorial Wall, the moving tribute of red hearts representing the circa 227,000 victims - in the UK alone! - and shocking reminder of the incompetence of the Tory government, whose lack of preparedness, investment, and compassion cost so many lives.

Code Name: Louise

Bust of Violette Szabo, SOE agent, London

As you reach the end of the memorial wall, on the left, you can see the small-ish bronze bust of a defiant-looking Violette Szabo. She was one of the 39 women recruited to the Special Operations Executives (SOE), a top-secret espionage organisation set up to support the French resistance to defeat the Nazis. Szabo’s role was to sabotage German communication lines, which she performed with exemplary bravery. She was captured when her last mission failed, before she could take her life with a cyanide pill. She was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and tortured. But that didn’t stop her from hatching a plan to escape, which was sadly uncovered. She was executed in 1945 – aged 23.

Downstream view of the Palace of Westminster, London

If you’re into gardening, the Garden Museum is just nearby. Otherwise, retrace your steps downstream for a fantastic view of the Palace of Westminster to your left.

Planet Summer
mural of two women in water with a tree and bird as part of 'planet summer', southbank london

Back on the Southbank check the programme for the latest happenings. This year the focus is firmly on the ever pressing climate emergency, including a number of free installations, Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – inspired by artist Otobong Nkanga’s suggestion that ‘caring is a form of resistance’, and Occupied Archives: Recording Road Protest, at the back of Festival Hall - a small but interesting exhibition about anti-road protests in the early 1990's. If it’s particularly hot, indulge your inner child and splash around in Jeppe Hein’s Appearing Rooms fountain or climb up the bright yellow concrete staircase to the roof garden for a refreshment with a view.

On the pavement, hidden between the Royal Festival Hall and the Skatepark, you will see some beautiful mosaics - the work is by the London School of Mosaics and draws into the historic roots of local neighbourhoods. Some of the people represented in this spot include: feminist philosopher and advocate Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), author of the seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Women; Bella Burge aka ‘Bella of Blackfriars’ (1877 – 1962) music hall performer and boxing promoter; Lilian Baylis (1894 – 1937) the theatre producer who managed the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells, and played an influential role in the creation of the English National Opera and Royal Ballet; actress Vivien Leigh (1913 – 1967); and Kelly Holmes (1970) middle distance runner, Olympic champion and seven-times gold medallist.

Riverside Oases
River Thames beach - near Gabriel's pier with view of St Pauls and the City of London

At low tide, the Thames reveals mini sandy beaches - like the one by Gabriel’s pier - and bar a few treasure hunters, they are surprisingly empty and soothing – especially on a balmy summer’s day, close your eyes, feel the gentle breeze – you could be almost anywhere (well, almost!). And this is surely one of the most remarkable things about London: there is always a green space, a little peaceful nook, a way of getting far from the madding crowd …

Bees feast on lavender and echinacea pollen in Bernie Spain park, London

At the base of Oxo Tower, side step this busy section of the Southbank, and enter Bernie Spain Gardens - the southern half is particularly delightful, especially as the bees feast on lavender and echinacea pollen. Bernie Spain was a clinical psychologist, community activist and one of the leading figures behind the transformation of this once neglected area, saving it from becoming a faceless commercial development.

In 1977, she became the founder member of the Coin Street Action Group - a group of local residents. They put together an alternative proposal and waged successful seven-year campaign, which led to the creation of a riverside park and walkway, leisure facilities, shops and affordable family housing – the latter continues to operate according to a co-operative model that champions sustainable neighbourhood.

Walk south, away from the hustle and bustle, and you’ll find another such magical little place: Marion’s Way. Named after local community campaigner, Marion Sharples, who dedicated much of her life to the Bankside Residents’ Forum (now called Living Bankside) and to embellishing this northern section of Gambia Street. It was pedestrianised about 20 years ago and now features beautiful cobbled designs with plants and mosaics – a project initiated by her and completed at the time of her death. There is also some cool street art on the side of what looks like a lovely Spanish restaurant Mar i Terra.

Garden of Remembrance

Crossbones Graveyard poster in red with skull and bones.

From here, you are a stone’s throw away (10 minutes via Union Street, longer if you choose the busier scenic riverside route) from one of London’s most unusual and enchanted place, a place of mystery and legend, at the heart of lively Southwark: Crossbones Graveyard and Garden of Remembrance.

Its rich history goes back hundreds of years to post-medieval times. The area was then under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, who licensed and taxed sex workers!, often single women working in brothels along the river. Upon death, however, the ‘Winchester Geese’, as they were called, were denied the rites of the church and buried on Cross Bones site - an unconsecrated burial ground. It later became a pauper’s grave for the overcrowded, cholera infested slum that was Southwark, until it was closed in 1853 for public health reasons.

Forgotten and overgrown, until 1996, when London Transport began digging to work on the Jubilee line extension. Museum of London archaeologists excavated part of the area and recovered 148 skeletons – an estimated 1% of the 15,000 burials on the site - 60% were children’s remains.

La Catrina statue in Crossbones Graveyard, London
La Catrina

This discovery led to renewed interest in the graveyard and its lost history soon resurfaced in the verses of local writer John Constable’s The Southwark Mysteries ‘… revealed by the Goose to John Crow at Crossbones … on the night of 23rd November 1996.’. The play was first performed in Shakespeare’s Globe on 23rd April 2000.

And so, for the last nearly three decades, John Constable and the Friends of Crossbones have championed and promoted the site’s important history, working with the Bankside Open Spaces Trust to transform it into a remembrance garden which respects the outcast dead and helps create a beautiful, contemplative space.

Trans-Angel sculpture, Crossbones Graveyard, London

On Trans Day of remembrance – 20th November – 2022, a permanent memorial to Trans-people who have been murdered by acts of transphobia was unveiled in the South-West corner. The sun never reaches that section of the garden, instead it shines from behind, creating a striking, spikey silhouette.

A vigil has been held on the 23rd of every month at 7.00 pm since 23rd June 2004. It takes place outside the gates, which are covered in ribbons, charms, flowers, and poems.

Crossbones Graveyard is certainly a unique kind of place. When I visited recently, it reminded me of a beautiful, haunting novel I read (and recommend): 10 minutes and 38 seconds in this strange world, by Elif Shafak (TW: sexual violence). It makes a mention of a place that sounds similar, the “cemetery of the companionless” an actual cemetery in Istanbul.

London Fashion and Textile Museum façade in orange and pink

If you have the energy, keep going to the White Cube Gallery and Fashion and Textile Museum (pictured above) – the latter has an interesting exhibition coming this autumn: The Fabric of Democracy: Propaganda Textiles from the French Revolution to Brexit – or catch A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography at Tate Modern.


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