London City Guide

 Tom Emerson takes us on a walking tour of the buildings and statues that line the River Thames

London is not good at public space. It is very good at many things, but this is not one of them. Essentially it is a trading city with little time or energy for civic representation compared with other European capitals. However, if we look for private spaces that are publicly accessible, we are in with a chance: the royal parks and gardens are easily among the best in the western world. Two other exceptions would be the top deck (preferably the front seat) of a double decker bus, anywhere to anywhere, and the river Thames.

On foot, I would take a visitor in a loop along both banks. While we may pass noteworthy public art and architecture, the real artwork is the city itself, eccentrically built in a series of competitive collisions and accidents that reveal its nature, politics and people. London’s unruly temperament has never accepted grand organizing gestures or masterplans. Even Christopher Wren failed: before the ink had dried on his imposing baroque designs for the City of London – intended to replace the devastation wreaked by the Great Fire of 1666 – merchants had already rebuilt their properties on the old medieval footprint.

Even when stretches of riverbank are dull, which they frequently are, the space created by the Thames makes this walk worthwhile. More even than the parks, the river creates a void in the city, a space full of nature and history but also emptiness, which is so rare anywhere else. And to walk in a loop creates a cinematic experience: what you pass by and through becomes a panoramic picture from the opposite bank a few minutes later.

You can easily make your own route by choosing which bridges define the loop. The longest – from Tower Bridge to Vauxhall Bridge – is about 15 kilometres, with each bridge you omit reducing that distance by around one kilometre. Here, I will take you from Blackfriars Bridge to Vauxhall Bridge, starting at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The walk hugs the riverbank with the exception of a couple of sections, where the Houses of Parliament and the headquarters of MI6 annoyingly grab the waterfront for themselves. There are many tempting diversions inland along the way. Some are elegantly signalled by vistas of grand tree-lined streets while others are barely visible in alleys and undercrofts. Follow your heart: London always rewards the adventurer more than the scholar.

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