Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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In With the New

London is still London, but a recent economic boom has blown away the cobwebs

The new energy of London courses throughout the city. The financial and cultural capital of Great Britain is also home to the formidable icon of the past, Big Ben, which holds court on the North Bank of the Thames River. The venerable structure has recently fallen under the auspicious gaze of the new London Eye, the magical icon of the future that spins high above the revitalized South Bank. Passengers seated in pods on the British Airways Ferris wheel gradually reach a height of 134 metres; from there they can catch a stunning bird's-eye view of London's landmarks, old and new, scattered along the Thames.

On the fringe of the North Bank, between Westminster Abbey and the Tower Bridge (both 900 years old), are the gothic Houses of Parliament, the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London. On the South Bank, once a wasteland of dilapidated industrial buildings, you'll see the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the new Tate Modern, clusters of cafés, pubs and, in the distance, the new Millennium Dome in Greenwich. During the day, the river bustles with pleasure boats, water taxis and trawlers of every size ferrying cargo toward the North Sea. At dusk, the city panorama is illuminated by billions of brilliant lights.

Whenever there's a chance to fly to London, my husband Ken and I stop over for a cultural fix. With each visit, we're struck by the palpable evolution of London that's due in part to a huge injection of capital for urban renewal and the influence of immigrants arriving from around the world. This cosmopolitan shift impacts neighbourhoods, turns grungy pockets like Southwark into chic ethnic hubs, and inspires a culinary scene rich with international flavours.

A few years ago, the Thames began shedding some of its unsavoury images; suddenly, it was hip to dine on the North Bank near Tower Bridge. Aside from a brief tour of the Tower of London, visitors rarely ventured across the river. And with the recent construction boom, London's South Bank began the facelift of the century.

After years of shying away from hotels near the river, we chose to stay at the refurbished historic Royal Horseguards. Refurbished indeed. To our delight, the grand room had a balcony overlooking the river and a private garden below. With one glance at the broad paths fringing the waterway, Ken donned his runners and ran out the door. He returned 45 minutes later, exhilarated from jogging to the London Bridge and back. "You've gotta see what's happening," he said. And so began our long-weekend love affair with the river that has witnessed empires lost and conquered.

We pulled out maps and noted stops for a day-long walk along the stretch of the Thames, dubbed the Millennium Mile: it runs from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge. Later, and only minutes from our hotel, we arrived at Embankment Pier where we signed up for a Thames dinner cruise. A few blocks away, we veered left to visit the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House. This small gem holds one of the world's most important collections of French Impressionism.

After following side streets full of pubs, we turned toward St. Paul's Cathedral and arrived at London Bridge and a spectacular view of the Thames, with the Tower Bridge to the left and Big Ben to the right. We discovered a new world had sprouted in Southwark on the South Bank, once the domain of prostitutes, gambling halls and cock-fighting pits.

The cavernous open-air Victorian food market stands under a bridge with trains rumbling overhead. It supplies most of London's top restaurants with fresh produce, meats and fish. Savvy Londoners come here to gather fixings for scrumptious picnics complemented with thick chunks of cheddar, Stilton and brandy cheese from Neil's Yard Dairy (just around the corner), and wines from Vinopolis (just across the road).

Vinopolis is a reconstructed warehouse dedicated to the pleasures of wine. Displays show everything from the origins of wine to details about the world's wine-making regions, excluding Canada's Niagara. After many samples of Italian wine, we sat on Vespa scooters and watched Tuscan scenery whiz by while listening to a guided tour. We even viewed footage of California's vineyards through the lens of a Hollywood camera.

By then, our palates were tweaked and ready for lunch at Fish!, the trendy diner across the road. After a delicious meal of grilled sea bass, we followed a warren of alleys and narrow streets that led past several eateries. A busy spot called The Honest Goose is named after the local prostitutes of medieval times who were known as Winchester Geese. They wore white frocks and paid rent to the Bishop of Winchester.

Nearby, we visited the Clink Prison Museum, a dismal hive of cells where many debtors rotted away. Charles Dickens lived in Southwark, so the prison likely housed some of his friends and relatives. At the Globe Theatre, we turned toward the Thames. At 5:15 in sunny London town, the publishing and financial houses had closed. Hordes of people clad in fashionable suits stood with mugs of ale or sat under umbrellas outside the string of pubs and restaurants along the river.

Farther on, we passed the new Millennium Bridge linking the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. The bridge was deemed an unsafe fiasco and was closed for reconstruction. Saving the gallery for the next day, we followed the Thames to South Bank Centre. It's alive with people mingling about before entering the theatres, concert hall or IMAX cinema at the National Film Theatre, which boasts the biggest screen in Europe. The London Eye was in full swing, but without advance tickets, we could only ogle in awe as the huge wheel moved at an almost imperceptible speed.


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