Published July 26, 2022 

What to see in Southwark

by Caroline Powell

Ever wondered what lies across the river when you stand on the north bank of the Thames with the gleaming, glistening and shimmering steel and glass skyscrapers standing tall and proud behind you? It is Southwark. And across the water a different world awaits. It’s edgier, grittier, historical, and full of tales of unsavoury entertainment, including 16th and 17th century theatres, bear-baiting pits, brothels, stews, bishops’ palaces and un-consecrated graveyards. And there is more…..

Many a happy hour could be spent investigating this interesting area, so here is Six in the City’s guide to what to see in Southwark.

Southwark’s history – older than you think

Southwark appears in the Domesday Book in 1086. Its name means southern defensive work. But there is archaeological evidence of settlement in the area from the 2nd century – when the Romans were in charge.

There to defend the City of London, it is one of the oldest parts of London, and until the 1750s London Bridge was the only means by which you could cross into the City from the south, so this was an important area. It was at the southern end of the London Bridge that the heads of traitors were placed on spikes as a reminder to the residents what would happen if they put a foot wrong. Not that they had a lot of time to put a foot wrong as this was a busy industrial area, famous for its chocolate and biscuit manufacturing (who remembers Garibaldi biscuits, known as squashed fly biscuits?!)  brickworks and beer brewing. Hop Exchanges sprang up to provide a designated space for those involved in the industry, to examine the Kentish hops and broker a deal. Today the large Hop Exchange on Borough High Street now provides office space, but its glorious iron work and Victorian confidence is a reminder of the importance of the hop in this important industry.

What to see in Southwark

The area has both a prison and a palace – both under the control of the Bishop of Winchester who, as well as his political role as advisor to the king and his spiritual role as a leader of the church, was an entrepreneur of matters more distasteful. He extracted money from his ‘Winchester Geese’ – women who worked in the local brothels known as stews, so named it is thought from their clothes of white and yellow. On their death these poor women, and sometimes their children, were buried without ceremony in the nearby Crossbones Cemetery now run by a local community group.

Guys Hospital provides a welcome refuge from the busy London Bridge Station – an 18th century quadrangle still with some of its original buildings, built to provide ongoing care for ‘incurables’ –  those patients who were required to leave St Thomas’s Hospital as their prognosis was terminal. Funding for this hospital was provided by Thomas Guy, bookseller, member of Parliament and investor in the South Sea Company. The Shard looms overhead, encouraging visitors to climb into its lifts to be whisked up to the 69th floor for wonderful panoramic views over London and beyond.

George Inn, Southwark
George Inn, © 2008 Ewan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0

Southwark has its own collection of narrow alleyways leading to secret places, including the site of the Tabard Inn used by 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer as the gathering place for his pilgrims before setting off the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. From here the Wife of Bath, The Pardoner, The Miller and many more were to set off on horseback to spend time together relating their tales, which are still studied and enjoyed to this day. Check out the George Inn, just around the corner to see what a 16th century coaching inn actually looked like – and stand on the cobbles where Shakespeare probably performed with his troop of actors. Certainly, Dickens visited here – his family were inmates of another prison, the Marshalsea Prison just down the road, and the George Inn plays an important part in Little Dorrit.

Marvel at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – the brainchild of American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker. Built to the same design as the original Globe, you can buy a cheap groundling ticket for under £10 and enjoy a performance in the summer sunshine. Then, stroll around the corner to the site of the original Globe where Shakespeare and his actors performed when it was re-erected in 1599, having been dismantled and removed from Shoreditch following a dispute over the lease. Across the road is the site of The Rose Theatre, opened in 1587, the first purpose-built theatre in the area.

Southwark Cathedral and the Shard
Southwark Cathedral and the Shard – © 2021 Ethan Doyle White,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Pop into Southwark Cathedral to see a memorial to Shakespeare’s fellow thespian and family member, his brother Edmund, who died in 1607.  Visit the Harvard Chapel, maintained by Harvard University in recognition of the important role in its foundation by former Southwark resident, John Harvard, who was baptised in the Cathedral and left the area for America in 1627.

Wander along the river and admire the warehouses now providing shopping and eating possibilities, and stumble across the remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s Palace, with its rose window and magnificent former Great Hall. What tales it could tell! It is said Thomas Becket spent his last night as a guest of the Bishop under this very roof.

Golden Hinde
Golden Hinde – © 2007 Jose L. MarinCC BY 2.5 

Heard of Francis Drake? There’s a replica of his ship The Golden Hinde moments away from the palace. Step aboard and hear more of his adventures on the high seas, and how he lies now, a victim of dysentery, buried in a full suit of armour inside a lead coffin in the waters off Panama.

After all this excitement, can I suggest a visit to Borough Market – a foodies’ delight. Stall upon stall filled with fruit, cheeses and breads of all kinds awaiting your perusal. And if you require some food there and then, there are plenty of stalls ready to ply their wares as others have done since 12C.

Much has changed but some things never fail to delight. Get yourself to Southwark pronto!

Six in the City regularly have a walk around the area called: Playwrights, Palaces, Prostitutes and Piracy – A Walk around Southwark If you want to explore the area more.

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