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Turning the tide

London's bridges have transformed the fortunes of the areas they span, from the buzzing East End to the bustling South Bank

Towards the end of the 19th century, the East End had become a thorn in London's side. A burgeoning population brought poverty and overcrowding to an area where gang warfare and robbery was rife. The lack of a crossing to the south side of the Thames was partly to blame for the East's struggle to redevelop and it was because of this that plans to build Tower Bridge began in 1876.

The beautiful structure, with its iconic drawbridge, took eight years to complete and transformed the fortunes of the area, easing pressure on overcrowding and giving the inhabitants greater mobility. It now represents the gateway to everything the East End and the South Bank has to offer.

Goodman's Fields lies to the northeast of Tower Bridge - it's a place that would have been alive with gambling halls and dancing saloons 150 years ago. Now it's a sophisticated, thriving community where art, fashion, and culture meet. Nearby Whitechapel, once best known as the hunting ground of Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper, is now the centre of one of the most artistic communities in London. The fantastic Whitechapel Gallery has premiered work from the likes of Picasso and Gilbert & George.

Just south of Goodman's Fields, St Katherine's Docks is an often-forgotten treasure. It was built in 1825 to clear the area of the evocatively named Dark Entry, Cat's Hold and Pillory Lane slums. A tranquil marina has since emerged, where you can marvel at the luxury yachts, take a walk around the docks or enjoy the waterside restaurants.

When it comes to cutting-edge bars and clubs, the East of London has become the place to be seen. Shoreditch, Old Street and more recently Dalston (who knew?) were previously thought of as run-down areas, but have become social hubs where the cool set hang out. Far from being intimidating, there really is something for everyone here, from catching a new band at Shoreditch's Old Blue Last pub, to discovering underground DJs at Dalston Superstore.

Just across the river from Goodman's Fields, One Tower Bridge lies on the South Bank, taking in views of St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London. Aside from its historical location, the development sits right in the centre of everything that's new and exciting about London.

The two-mile stretch of the South Bank, from City Hall down to the London Eye, is populated with vibrant entertainment. Some, like Shakespeare's Globe theatre, are old treasures, while new attractions, like the view from The Shard, have become modern, must-see experiences.

But it wasn't always the case. Historically, the South Bank took much longer to develop than the north side of the river - in part because sunlight favours the north bank. Improved access across the Thames has reinvigorated the area in recent years. The Millennium Bridge, designed by architect Sir Norman Foster and sculptor Anthony Caro, was completed in 2000, and allows pedestrians to zip across the river in minutes. It's opened up both sides, increasing footfall between the City in the north, and the Tate Modern on the south side (on the day the bridge opened, an incredible 90,000 people made the crossing).

As far back as the Middle Ages, the South Bank developed as a place of 'entertainment' outside the formal regulation of the City of London, which included gambling, prostitution and bear-baiting. Thankfully, the attractions here are more sophisticated these days. The presence of the Tate Modern, National Theatre, Hayward Gallery and Royal Festival Hall dotted along the south of the river, mean you will be the very first to experience all the cultural events London has to offer - new plays, exhibitions, and art shows often make their debut here. The British Film Institute also plays host to the London Film Festival. It's the place to catch new films before anyone else and even engage in a post-movie Q&A with a world-famous director.

This stretch of the South Bank is so packed with attractions, it has now become a destination in its own right - Londoners, tourists, out-of-towners and families flood here day and night to enjoy the bars, restaurants, kids' climbable art installations, the famous Borough market and delectable new Real Food market at the Southbank Centre, towering fairground rides and naughty-but-nice cabaret. There's so much to do, with an ever-changing programme of events, you can leave the London Eye for the tourists.

Whatever the new cultural craze, you'll find it here first.

 

 

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