London is a city with two very different faces, depending on the day you happen to visit.
There are days when London is cold, the sky is low and the drizzle can be relentless. On these days London simply hunkers down and goes about its business. Life move indoors – into offices and homes and pubs – and streets become little more than passageways on which tightly wrapped people scurry from Point A to Point B, as fast as they can. If you come to London on a day like this you will still be in one of the world’s greatest cities, but everything might seem a touch dreary and depressed. Like the whole place gone through a giant washing machine that leached out all the colours.
But then there are those days when the sun shines brightly on London, the daylight lasts until 9pm, the sky is blue and the weather is warm. If you are lucky enough to be in London on one of these days, and especially if it happens to be on the weekend, you will encounter this city at its finest. When the people of London pour into the streets and parks, like insects emerging from their burrows after the rain, and the city is like a flower bloom, transforming before your eyes into one of the most vibrant, buzzing and uplifting urban places you will find anywhere on the planet.
On these perfect London days, there is no better way to experience it all than to go for a walk. As I did, last Sunday afternoon.
Along the south side of the River Thames is an unbroken pedestrian walkway that runs for miles. It pretty much starts at the Tate Modern, a wonderful museum housed in the imposing shell of an old power station. From there, if you follow the path the whole way it will take you almost to Battersea Park, in London’s south west. Along the route you’ll pass many of the icons you’d instantly associate with London: on the south bank Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, The Shard, Festival Hall and the London Eye, and lining the north bank an even more spectacular collection of world-famous buildings, like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben.
Anyway, this past Sunday afternoon I went with my best friend, who was visiting me in London, to see a Matisse exhibition at the Tate Modern. The weather was glorious, and once finished we decided to walk home along the south bank of the river, from the Tate to Westminster Bridge.
Apparently half of London had decided to do a similar thing that very afternoon, meaning that a three kilometre walk, which normally lasts about an hour or so, took almost four to complete. Not that I am complaining, mind you, because it turned out to be one of those truly fabulous experiences that mostly happen when you least expect them.
To start with, there was the surging energy of the crowd – tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, all out enjoying a simple stroll in the sunshine. Solo or in groups; couples and lovers linked arm-in-arm; families on excursions, pushing prams and dragging grumpy toddlers along behind them. Friends enjoying their day off together, laughing and talking; and joggers and power-walkers of every shape and size, alone or in packs.
Tourists were everywhere, too. Americans in their trademark touring uniforms of short-shorts, tucked-in polo-tops and sports shoes that anywhere else in the world would only ever be used for competitive athletics; Europeans from every corner of the continent; camera-toting Asians, small groups of bedraggled backpackers consulting guidebooks, and busloads of package holiday-makers dutifully trudging along behind someone waving a coloured flag on a stick.
The dress code was mostly summer casual: skirts, shorts, t-shirts and blouses. But there were also those in swimwear and bikinis, conspicuously sunning themselves on any available patch of green. Teenage lads slouched about in baggy jeans that hung down to their knees, alongside punks and Goths and hipsters and dolled-up teenagers. Between them all they sported every imaginable type of hairdo, body piercing and tattoo. At the other end of the spectrum there were also those turned out in their Sunday best: men in suits and ties, women in floral dresses and elegant hats.
I saw Indian matrons in heavy saris side-by-side with scruffy hippies in ragged clothes and bare feet. A Muslim woman, fully covered in head-to-toe black robes so that only her eyes were visible through a narrow slit, was sitting on a bench two feet away from a trendy young man in painfully tight jeans, and little else. I even spotted an Orthodox Jew, stripped down to his tsitsit (a ritual vest worn as an undergarment). He was pushing a bicycle on foot through the crowds, sweating heavily from the effort. Plus there were working folks in uniform: police officers and paramedics and tourist assistants.
In short, strolling along the Thames on Sunday afternoon was like diving head-first into a fast-flowing river of humanity. One made up of every age group, nationality, language, colour, creed and religion there is. All moving together in harmony, regardless of their differences, like a single living organism.
Before too long we were swept up into this river as well. As we slowly drifted in the current, we found ourselves sharing a moment in time with thousands of complete strangers, and I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it all was. A kind of magic, really, that can only happen in a big global city.
It was more than just the passing parade that made this particular walk special. There was also an incredible atmosphere, at once both festive and electric. A mixture of sights and sounds and happiness, that felt a lot like I was at a carnival. Which I guess was apt, given that our progress was interrupted every few minutes by carnival-like goings-on.
Like when we left the Tate and rounded the first bend, only to find our way blocked by a violinist, standing alone against a bare brick wall. He was middle-aged, with thick glasses and a slightly scruffy beard and a slightly tattered suit. A hat for coins was on the floor in front of him. As if on cue to greet me, he began a medley of Jewish standards: Hava Nagilah, Jerusalem of Gold, and Smetana’s The Moldau (on which the Israeli national anthem is based). It was like I had stumbled across my very own Fiddler on the Roof, transplanted from his Polish shtetl to the banks of the River Thames.
A few minutes later we came to a pedestrian underpass that crosses beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Right in the middle a group of five young African men were performing a range of pop songs, a capella. Albeit with a unique interpretation of the tunes, and an unmistakably African vibe, accompanied by clapping and dancing like you’d expect to see in a South African township. They were brilliant, and their voices so beautiful that the flow of people through the tunnel jammed to a halt, as people stopped to listen and watch. It was the kind of world class act that’d easily win X Factor. Strangers were quite literally moved to dancing with one another, in a narrow tunnel, under a bridge. That’s how good these guys were.
Eventually we broke away, only to come to another large crowd a bit further along. This time everyone was peering over the railings onto one of the small beaches that form on the banks of the Thames, when the tide is low. The attraction here was a troupe of five guys, standing on the sand and belting out a medley of Cuban-Latino music. Two accordionists, two drummers, and a blaring trumpeter, but they were creating a sound so rich it seemed like they had a big band behind them. They looked the part too, in sparkly clothes and cowboy hats, stepping from side-to-side in unison. A tarpaulin stretched in front of them was being pelting with coins from above, in appreciation. Again, all around me people were dancing.
It continued this way as we walked along – a young girl singing soulful ballads; a Chinese gentleman playing on a bizarre looking stringed instrument; a lady singing opera arias; an angst-ridden guy strumming an acoustic guitar.
My favourite though was an experimental jazz quintet, comprised of a saxophone player, a trumpeter, and three percussionists. They were playing original music so different it would be completely impossible to define. But at the same time it was super infectious, crowd-friendly stuff that quickly had anyone in the audience bopping away.
Although what really made this act stand out was the setting, which was every bit as impressive as the music. You see, the musicians were performing from inside of the heavily graffiti-covered Southbank skateboard park, located underneath the pylons that support the Queen Elizabeth Hall above. A stream of kids on skateboards and BMX bikes where whizzing behind and around and sometimes even between them as they played, before launching off ramps and up walls into the air. All in time with the music, mind you, so the whole thing became a delicious a fusion of music and street culture. A performance within a performance, the jazz acting as a soundtrack to an extreme sports stunt show. A moment of pure genius, and the sort of thing you couldn’t invent if you tried.
The carnival wasn’t limited to only music, either. As we walked we came across all manner of performers and street artists. Like a group of young boys who had laid out a mat for break-dancing, spinning around and twirling on their heads with little regard to either gravity or personal safety. Or like a guy dressed as Charlie Chaplin, flanked by another guy who had spray-painted himself gold, and who was sitting so still he looked to be sculpted from metal. There was a twosome of Ninja Turtles posing for photos with the kids (and collecting pound coins from their beleaguered parents), there was a motley crew of pirates and cartoon characters and more statue men, and then there was a woman covered in leaves and twigs so she looked like a tree. Go figure.
On one of the low-tide beaches a few men with buckets had been hard at work since dawn, creating an assortment of truly astonishing sand-sculptures. One was of a life-size couch, just like you’d find in a living room, down to the incredibly detailed throw cushions. Another was of a mermaid reclining in the sand, and another was an elaborate fairy-tale castle creation, almost as tall as me, complete with turrets and spires and crenulated walls.
We passed a temporary exhibit that had been set up by a charity. An African shanty hut had been plonked down in the middle of the footpath, and we were invited to go inside and experience briefly how children in Africa might live. Out front, an exuberant young fellow with dreadlocks had laid out a selection of tribal drums – maybe twenty-five in total – and any passing kid was welcome to sit down and drum along. It wasn’t just a noise though, the dreadlocked genius somehow coaxing music out of these junior drummers.
At another place a section of the sidewalk had been cordoned off, and passersby were invited to pick up a piece of coloured chalk and scribble something on the floor. The result was a massive accumulation of writings and doodles. Scrawled love messages and childish drawings and words of hope, forming a crowd-sourced work of art in its own right. That, it occurred to me, will simply cease to exist with the next rain.
There was also a large sandpit, filled with buckets and spades and kids of all sorts. Near that, in the shade underneath the arch of Waterloo Bridge, long trestle tables had been arranged in rows, on which thousands of old and dusty books had been lined up for sale. I browsed for a while, and looked around me to notice that many other people were doing the same thing. Which made me smile. Evidently, even in the e-book age, the smell and feel of old paper still means something. And further along, someone (I have no idea who) had covered half the sidewalk with a collection of striped deck chairs and low hammocks, available for anyone passing by to use.
And of course there was food: lots and lots and lots of it.
To start with, the south bank of the Thames is lined with restaurants and cafes offering every cuisine imaginable. Although on really busy weekends these permanent eateries are supplemented by an extraordinary variety of “pop-up” food vendors, who become the real culinary stars of the show.
Start with a wagon offering kiddie’s delights of every sort, like candied popcorn and toffee apples and bags of pink and blue spun fairy floss. Move on to a shiny silver airstream campervan, converted into a hotdog dispensary. Alongside that a solitary woman by the side of the path with cups of fresh honey-roasted nuts; then a makeshift looking timber shack, offering up an assortment of mouth-watering Mexican street foods; and after that another wagon serving gourmet burgers and fries.
Want more? How about a “Hog Roast” wagon, with a whole pig rotating on a spit, making sandwiches heaped so high with pulled pork or braised brisket they looked like mini-skyscrapers. Or a stall selling fish and chips smothered in malt vinegar; or others devoted to Korean noodles, Vietnamese spring rolls, falafel, hot Indian snacks, and chorizo-stuffed rolls. Not to mention half a dozen places to get a barista-pulled espresso coffee, cakes, cookies, or chocolate dipped strawberries, and drinks of every kind.
Basically it was like we had been invited to a city-sized smorgasbord, with a United Nations of food on offer. Perfectly matched to the happy atmosphere and bustling crowd. Restaurants were packed to bursting point, spilling out onto even more packed outdoor terraces. Every available patch of public space was similarly occupied, commandeered by sunglass-clad folks who were nibbling on snacks, sipping drinks, picnicking, chatting, snoozing, or just basking in the late afternoon sunshine.
All in all, this was turning out to be a pretty fantastic afternoon. I was really enjoying myself, and it began to feel like time had stopped and I was drifting through space, as if in a warm, happy, sunny dream.
Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any better, they did.
In this case it was as we passed by the Royal Festival Hall towards the end of the walk. A large imposing concrete structure that was built in the 1950s to serve as a cultural hub for London, the raised terrace facing onto the riverbank promenade had been temporarily fenced off, for a private function. A DJ was pumping out immediately recognisable 80s tunes, remixed into high energy dance numbers. A sizeable crowd was gathered inside the barricades, enjoying a late afternoon boogie in the sun, Ibiza-style.
But an even larger crowd had gathered on the lawn and steps and footpath below the terrace. These people hadn’t been invited to the private party above, although the music was just as loud below, and so no-one seemed to care. Instead, an impromptu open-to-all dance party had kicked off in parallel. The mood was incredible – festive and friendly – and the crowd was an eclectic mishmash of everyone, from teenagers to hippies to young mothers with babies in push-prams. Tipsy university students mingled alongside white-haired grandparents and photo-snapping tourists.
One couple in the crowd stood out in particular. He was tall, dark-haired and wiry, and was wearing a dark shirt and bright yellow pants, so you couldn’t miss him. She was athletic and leggy, with close-cropped blonde and dressed in an equally impossible to miss bright yellow mini-skirt. After a few minutes, and without any fanfare, they started dancing. Instantly making it totally obvious they had done this sort of thing before.
Because as they whirled around and around at high speed, they remained cheek to cheek, all the while displaying incredibly complex footwork. The only time they broke apart was in order to execute a series of extraordinarily agile lifts and spins. It was mesmerising to see, like a pair of world champion ballroom dancers had just happened to be in the crowd that day, and had suddenly decided to rehearse their routines. Pretty soon a wide circle had formed around the dancers, as gob-smacked people stopped to watch what was an incredible show of talent.
As if that weren’t enough, The King arrived. Although I am not referring to Charles or William here, but instead to Elvis, who chose that moment to appear without warning on the terrace above the open-air street party, standing on a raised podium alongside the DJ. Whoever the guy was, his hair was slicked back in a trademark Elvis bouffant,with enormous side-burns and over-sized sunglasses, and his t-shirt proclaimed in large white letters: “Elvis Lives”. The crowd went wild, and the reincarnated Elvis waved, eliciting a huge cheer. Clearly delighted with the response, he too decided to dance.
So picture the scene: a sunny Sunday afternoon, on the south bank of the Thames River in London. In a city that by reputation can be a bit grey, dull, and uptight. A diverse crowd of people has gathered – of all sorts, from everywhere – on the lawn below a DJ, who for his part is pumping out super-cool 80s music, at volume. Everyone is dancing. Everyone is happy and smiling. A pair of pro-grade dancers is putting on an impromptu show. And Elvis himself is presiding over the whole affair, waving and smiling and thrusting his hips in the direction of the crowd below.
What more can I say? As moments go, this one was right up there. Best of all though, it came on an otherwise entirely ordinary Sunday afternoon, in summertime London.
We tend to experience big cities through the “brand name” things we can do and see in them. Like the Louvre and Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Empire State and Statue of Liberty in New York; or the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. For many, these cities are defined in terms of their museums and restaurants; their great works of architecture or incredible natural features; their historical sites and their landmarks.
But for me, the greatest cities are those that don’t need to be actively discovered in this way. Truly great cities just are; fun, friendly, deeply entertaining, multicultural, diverse, talented, immensely interesting, quirky and unique, all at the same time. Places where merely by taking a walk on a sunny day you can meet its people, find its soul, and become an integral part of it all. And along the way, if you’re lucky, you might get to experience moments that are not just memorable, but truly, truly special.