'I was overwhelmed by a shock of breathless delight at the originality and beauty of the interior.'
21 January 2022
My time in London is coming to an end and despite getting a short reprieve of one day due to a cancelled flight, I must get a PCR test today. My appointment is at 11:20 at a clinic close to Waterloo station; exactly 48 hours before my new scheduled flight. I'm getting used to using the public transport system, although I do stick to what I know. So I catch the number 63 bus from the end of the street and alight at Elephant and Castle, where I get on the tube that will take me to Waterloo.
Elephant and Castle is the end of the Bakerloo line and more often than not, a train is waiting at the station when I make my way down by lift and stairs into the bowels of the earth. Today is no different and the train is standing at the station as expected so I quickly find a seat and wait for the doors to close.
I still have time to make my appointment if the train leaves now...
An announcement comes across the intercom. Muffled, I can barely make out the words as more people pour out of the tunnel and into the train. Nobody is leaving the train, so perhaps I can assume there is no emergency.
TFL or Transport for London is excellent. It is a well-oiled system that is not only one of the most efficient that I have ever used, but there is a real human element to it. I'm sure that many Londoners may disagree, but I come from Melbourne, where the efficiency of our public transport leaves a lot to be desired. But here in London, if there is a delay for any reason an announcement is made, first with an apology, followed by the reason for the delay; a change of driver, an extended wait at a stop to realign a timetable, an obstruction on the train line. Today, it is an obstruction. I hope it's not serious.
We eventually move away from the station and two stops later, I get off at Waterloo station. As I emerge from underground, I realise how big and busy the station is and with numerous exits to choose from (and 99% of those being the wrong ones), I ask an attendant for directions to the clinic. Despite receiving explicit instructions and with the address plugged into my phone, I still miss an important turn. But perhaps my lack of attention to detail is a Freudian slip because I find myself at the Royal Festival Hall.
In 1950 at the age of 22, my dad left Australia on the SS Ontranto for an extended stay in England and The Continent, as it was referred to then. Making his way to London, he quickly gained employment on one of the largest and most important building sites in the city at the time. Sitting on the south bank of the Thames and directly facing St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance, my father worked on the new music hall for the Festival of Britain as a labourer. Named Royal Festival Hall, the foundation stone was laid in 1949 and it was opened just two years later on May 3, 1951 at a total cost of £2M. It is not a pretty building by any stretch of the imagination, but it was state-of-the-art when it was built. I gaze at this building, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last year in May 2021 and I am very pleased that the Royal Festival Hall has a Grade 1 Heritage Listing so, apart from maintenance and future renovations, it perhaps will remain in perpetuity.
But whilst I'm dithering, I'm wasting time. Making a promise to myself that I will take a tour of the concert hall the next time I am in London, hopefully when COVID is a past-nightmare, I turn towards the rear of the National Theatre, where I am meant to be right now. My test is completed in less than five minutes and with more than half-an-hour to spare before meeting Natasha at the Sky Garden, I decide to walk along the river path to enjoy London's sights from the ground level one last time.
It's a beautiful walk along the river and despite the grey skies, it is fine; the temperatures are mild for this time of the year. There is something about walking beside the river. Perhaps it's because I'm a Cancerian and being close to water is my thing! I take my time savouring the city. Iconic landmarks surrounding me; the London Eye, the Shard, St Paul's Cathedral, the Globe Theatre, Waterloo Bridge, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the more recent Jubilee Bridge, and Tate. I am truly grateful that I am seeing London without the crowds. It's a rare privilege.
Sky Garden is at the top of the Fenchurch Building, a walkie-talkie-shaped building overlooking the River Thames. The three-storey balcony and London's highest public garden is free to enter, but like so many attractions during the COVID-era, we've had to pre-book timed tickets. I enter the building after having my ticket and vaccination certificate scrutinised. This is the first time I have been asked to produce my vaccination certificate here in London. The lift quickly delivers me to the 35th floor; my ears pop as I exit. Ahead of me, I can see Natasha has already arrived and she is outside on the balcony. Here we view the river and many of the iconic sights I have just walked past literally minutes ago. As much as I would love to have a blue-sky day today, it is clear and visibility is good. Walking up the stairs on the side and observing London from all perspectives provides a view that we would not normally have and it is here that we can appreciate the eclectic mix of very old and modern buildings interwoven; harmoniously and uniquely London. Of course, many traditionalists would probably dislike buildings like the Gherkin or the Shard, but I find them innovative. It's time for bubbles and we settle ourselves in a bar in this lofty garden setting to enjoy our top-of-the-world view of London whilst toasting the almost-end to my wonderful stay in London.
It's mid-afternoon when we emerge from Sky Garden and we head down to another iconic, although more recently tragic London landmark. The Borough Market. Dating back to the 12th Century, it is one of the oldest and largest fresh food markets in London. Again, we enjoy wandering through the fresh food stalls in comfort as the usual throngs of people are simply not here. Securing a dozen oysters, a mix of British and Irish ones, we find a seat and enjoy the distinctly different flavours of the two.
Today's excursion along the river and overlooking the city from Sky Garden provides an appreciation of the constantly changing face of the city. It's desire to celebrate its past history and to acknowledge it's place in the 21st century is clearly displayed.
I think that Dr Samuel Johnson sums up my perception of London beautifully in his quote from 1777,
'When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.'
Title Quote: Bernard Levin (journalist) on his first impression of Royal Festival Hall.