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The City from the river – the Barbican’s towers on the horizon

figure than James Bond, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond arrived in his car—quite where he parked it, history does not relate—but, not having urgent business of national importance to plot with Sable Basilisk, I continue my way on foot down to the river and across the Wobbly Bridge.

The tide is out. In this heat, I would be grateful for the odd lump of cumulus, but the sky merely seems bigger and bluer above the grey curve of the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge towards Westminster. Mudlarks search amongst the stones of the exposed wharf, oblivious to the seagulls that wheel around the bridge below me. London may be urban, but you can see the rhythms of the natural world if you know where to look.

A middle-aged tourist, red hair billowing to one side, asks in the impeccable tones of educated America if I know the way to the Museum of London, in a tone that suggests she is looking for something more intellectually bracing than a cruise on the river. But of course I can give directions: I have a map. She seems a little lost, among the crowds shuttling between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.

I walk along the south bank, past the new entrance to Blackfriars station: they can keep their trains today, thanks. I’m getting some exercise here—no small matter for someone who wouldn’t be seen dead in a gym—but, rather than tiring of the effort, I find myself soothed and relaxed, absorbed in the swing of one leg in front of the other, relishing the steady pace of my progress with no worries about signal failures or any sudden glut of traffic. And then I am there: the National Theatre is dressed in summer finery, and under the bridge I glimpse the National Film Theatre, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Festival Hall, a few minutes down the

right hand side of which lies Waterloo station. The trip has taken thirty five minutes, a fraction less than predicted… so my natural pace must be a sprightly version of “medium”. I have time in hand, so I climb up to the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, via a concrete staircase that has been highlighted in yellow paint to a liberal extent that makes the Barbican’s thin yellow line seem a half-hidden mark of some esoteric underground cult. This roof, however, hosts a decidedly down-to- earth herb and vegetable garden, cultivated in partnership with the Eden Project. I browse amongst the raised beds of lettuces and spinach, albeit not in the literal sense: to eat the produce would hardly be de rigueur, and might upset the café patrons conversing in hushed voices at the rustic tables scattered about the garden. Amongst the leaves hides a carved serpent, but the visitors to this Roof Garden of Eden are fully clothed, and in place of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a kiosk, whose offer of coffee is perhaps the most apt 21st century substitute for an apple to make the heart beat faster.

The garden is not as busy as it deserves to be. The three bartenders ask simultaneously how they can help me: cue much laughing, then hissing, as they coax the espresso machine into action. I carry my latte to the balcony and look out over the river, pleased not to be stuck in the lane of cars queueing to drive off Waterloo Bridge. Then, as I scan the view to the right, I spot the distinctive grey silhouettes of Lauderdale, Shakespeare and Cromwell: they feel closer, now I’ve paced out the ground in between.

The Barbican towers are obscured for a moment by a passing bus, but what I have already seen is enough. As I take a sip of coffee and survey the scene, I realise that what pleased me most about having walked here is not avoiding the crush of the tube, nor even the physical high from the walking itself, but my knowledge of what lies in and around the roofs that carpet the space between here and home: a feeling that I belong to this town called London. I shall walk this way again.

Looking back from the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall roof garden


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