Neighborhood Spotlight: The London Borough of Southwark
explore ancient cathedrals, shakespeare’s globe, and a world-famous market, all within one incredible neighborhood.
By Sarah Bennett, Muhlenberg College
It has been a crazy, whirlwind two weeks since I arrived in London! With a whole new city to explore, I’ve barely sat still long enough to pour a cup of tea – a blasphemous confession coming from a tea-lover who’s just arrived in one of the most enthusiastic tea-loving countries in the world. Still, I’ve loved every second of these busy last two weeks, filling each day with sightseeing trips to London’s famed spots, visits to little neighborhood cafes and shops, and nights out with new friends from all around the world.
Over the last few days, I’ve discovered several amazing places, but one of the first I found – and can’t wait to revisit – is Southwark, a neighborhood that lies right on the River Thames. I didn’t know much about the area at first, but after hearing that it housed Borough Market, one of the best food markets in the country, my friends and I (immediately) decided to hop on the Underground and see what we could find.
As it turns out, we should have taken a second to check the details. By the time we arrived, the bulk of the market had already closed. However, we were far from disappointed with what was left. As soon as we entered, we were met by the enticing aroma of curries and spices, interspersed here and there with the smell of baked goods and roasted nuts. About a dozen stands were still open, catering to all of those hungry latecomers (including us) who had missed the main event. Our noses led us from stall to stall as we attempted to decide between spicy rice noodles and falafels and curious-looking coconut pancakes. Eventually, we all settled on something different, sampling each other’s to get a little taste of everything.
After we had eaten and spent a sufficient amount of time oggling the desserts, we set off to explore the surrounding area. We soon stumbled upon the majestic Southwark Cathedral, an ancient building that has served as a place of worship for over 1,000 years. Upon entering, we were taken with the building’s beautiful arches and stained glass windows, my favorites depicting scenes from Shakespearian plays. Apparently, Shakespeare and his brother, Edmund, had been among the cathedral’s famous visitors. There is a statue there in honor of the playwright, featuring him in a reclined position with a pen at the ready.
I’m an English major and a Shakespeare nerd, so I loved finding this little piece of history. However, a far better one lay just around the corner from the cathedral… Shakespeare’s Globe! The original Globe Theatre was built in 1559, burned down in 1613, rebuilt in 1614, and then destroyed once again thirty years later. While the current reconstruction wasn’t completed until 1997, it was designed to be a completely faithful replica.
I didn’t get a chance to go inside the theater, but I did buy tickets to see an upcoming production of Macbeth. The tickets were only five pounds, with the trade-off being you watch the show from the Standing Yard. In Shakespeare’s time, people who watched from this position were called groundlings, and threw rotten fruits and vegetables at the characters they didn’t like. While it was a common practice back in the day, I’m pretty sure the actors aren’t too keen on its happening anymore. Still, I guess I’ll find out in a couple of weeks!
When we left the Globe, we crossed the Thames by walking along the Millennium Bridge, which is perhaps most famous among our generation for its cameo in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The bridge led us right to St. Paul’s Cathedral, a massive building that dates back to the late 17th century. After a long day of exploring, the massive steps leading up to the cathedral (not to mention the 530 extra ones inside) seemed a bit daunting, so we decided to hold off on entering. When we went back a few days later, we spent hours walking around the crypts down below, staring at the beautiful paintings at the top of the dome, and pressing our ears up to the walls of the Whispering Galley, where you can whisper into the wall and be heard from across the room. We walked all the way up the tall, narrow staircase (I’ll repeat: 530 steps) to get to the very top of the dome, giving us an incredible view of London.
The first time I visited Southwark, I didn’t realize that it was such a famous neighborhood with so many landmarks. All I knew was that it had a good food market – which is more than enough reason to make a trip if you ask me. Honestly, I think the fact that I didn’t know what to expect was what made my first visit so exciting. We had no idea what we were going to find, and every time we turned a corner and found something new – the Globe, an ancient cathedral, a famous bridge from Harry Potter – I mean, British history – we were completely surprised and delighted.
I’m definitely not finished with this area yet. I’ll be back soon enough to see Macbeth at the Globe, and I can’t wait to see Borough Market when it’s in its full swing. Besides, I could easily go for another round of coconut pancakes.