Sunday, January 18, 2009

The South Bank: A Source of Inspiration

Whenever I'm in need of inspiration, I head to the South Bank. It's not just the Royal Festival Hall or the Tate Modern that prod my creativity, it's the awesome view from the Thames. Looking out from the Promenade, you can see Big Ben and the London Eye in one direction, and St Paul's, the Oxo Tower and the Millennium Bridge in the other. You really feel like you're at the heart of a major metropolis, and the history of the city never ceases to thrill me. All that, and it's where The Man and I first met almost five years ago.

Crossing the Millennium Bridge to St Paul's.

The back of the Royal Festival Hall with the London Eye.

The South Bank has always been 'our place'. On hot summer days, we go there for a dewy glass of wine at The Founder's Arms, relishing the breeze off the river. In the winter months, the Tate Modern is our refuge. We've seen great exhibits there, from Rachel Whiteread's white boxes to Frida Kahlo. And my all-time favourite: The Four Seasons, by Rothko.

Looking down on Rachel Whiteread's white boxes.

Nights on the South Bank, you almost don't feel like you're in London at all. Far from the grimy, bustling streets and hooting horns, the trees on the Promenade glow with soft blue lights and couples amble by the river. As the Royal Festival Hall fills up, you can sense the anticipation in the air. The Man and I have seen The Soweto Gospel Choir almost lift the roof there, along with the more subdued London Symphony Orchestra.

South Bank at night.

One of my favourite memories of the South Bank is the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall in June 2007, dubbed The Overture. The Hall had been shut since 2005 for much-needed refurbishment, and a whole weekend of events had been planned to celebrate its return. Amazingly enough, every concert, event and exhibit was free -- you just needed to ring a number to book the tickets. Incredulous and giddy with excitement, we rung up and secured seats to Billy Bragg; Paco Pena; and the Antony Gormley exhibit at the Hayward Gallery. Planning to spend the whole weekend on the river, we crossed our fingers and hoped for good weather. Or at the very least, no rain (that summer was the wettest in England since records began).

We were in luck. Friday dawned bright and sunny, and that evening we made our way to the South Bank for the most memorable event of the whole weekend -- a candle-lit barge would make its way down the river with 800 singers. It would stop in front of the Royal Festival Hall, and join with a chorus on the terrace to sing a choral work composed especially for the occasion. The whole thing sounded magical, and it didn't disappoint. We hunkered on the steps leading down to the river, drinking our off-license wine and listening as the far-off voices got closer. The crowd stilled as the barge neared. Finally it was in front of us, and we were caught in the middle of a glorious symphony of sound.

The barge floats downwards towards the Hall.

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