28 August 2011

Savouring South Bank

Arriving early for a show at the National Theatre gave me some time to explore the South Bank Centre which is now part of the vibrant riverside from Waterloo to London Bridge.

This is an impressive change from the South Bank of old that, twenty years or so ago, pretended that the river was not there and refused to provide much for visitors outside of the concert halls.

Now the back of the centre opens to the riverside and the area is packed with cafes, restaurants and bars.

And all that brings the people in.

One of the other things bringing them in is a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain with a festival of British culture and creativity.

The beach features heavily with a row of individually decorated traditional beach huts and a long beach to go with them.

Each beach hut is a mini gallery or museum with something to explore inside and the beach has, well, lots of sand and lots of children.

More children can be found getting very wet at the Appearing Rooms Fountain where walls of water rise and fall and the trick is to try and move between the rooms without getting (too) wet.

One of the problems of the old South Bank remains.

It was not designed to be fluid and it can be difficult to move between the levels; I had to use the stairs inside the Royal Festival Hall at one point.

There are a few concrete stairwells but they have all the charm of fire escapes and are hard to find as they merge in to the rest of the concrete.

Now somebody has had the bright idea of using bold primary colours to both identify and soften the stairwells. The splashes of colour also act as useful landmarks connecting the levels.

Taking the yellow stairs takes you up to the newly opened roof garden above the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

This reminds me a lot of the Dalston Roof Garden but that is hardly remarkable as both are fiercely industrial landscapes transformed through the addition of a few tubs of plants to look at and a bar to let you have a drink while you do so.

The QEH roof garden scores over its competitor in that it is larger, relies more on real grass than the artificial stuff and offers views of the Thames.

Following the Emergency Exits signs away from the garden takes you further in to the concrete maze that is the roof space.

One almost expects to encounter Steerpike on his epic journey.

Instead it is a more surprising collection of photographs on the there of war that awaits.

There are also unusual views into the heart of the centre that exposes a bustling food market, a dry stone wall, more colourful stairwells and more paths that you would like to explore but have no idea how to get to.

So, instead I take the easy route down towards Waterloo Bridge and my real destination, the National Theatre just beyond it.

The South Bank Centre's parting shot is the Urban Fox, created out of straw bales and aims to bring the rural and urban together in a playful way.

Judging how many photos I've seen of it from friends on Facebook and Twitter it has been noticed and that is what art wants to do.

The fox has also been colonised by birds attracted by the straw which makes it a stranger image still. The coloniser of our cities has itself been colonised.

The journey from beach hut to fox just just a couple of hundred metres but was packed with things to see and do and with people seeing them and doing them.

The South Bank Centre is now an attraction to rival Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden and it has more to offer than both of them.

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