Shut your eyes for a moment, and then say the word “London”. What images spring to mind? Big Ben … St Paul’s Cathedral … the Thames. Now get yourself to Waterloo Bridge (having first taken the precaution of reopening your eyes) and take in the view. As you swivel on your heels, looking first upstream towards Westminster, and then downstream towards Tower Bridge, everything that makes London the incomparable city that it is will be there. Yes, of course, it’s picture-postcard London but it’s also, at least for this Londoner, quintessential London.
Ideally, you want to be there for a glorious summer sunset. Ray Davies of The Kinks got it spot on when he wrote perhaps his best-known lines: “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset/I am in Paradise.” (And it really doesn’t matter that the lines nearly referred to a “Liverpool sunset” – he ended up with Waterloo, and it works.) In a golden evening glow, the river, the London Eye, Canary Wharf, the Houses of Parliament – all make London look like the most beautiful and magical city on earth.
Thirty years ago, I tended to be apologetic, even ashamed, when people overseas asked me to describe London. “It’s a great city,” I’d tell them, “but, no, not quite on the level perhaps of Paris, Rome or New York.” Now, I feel very differently: London is right up there with the best of them, and the reasons why can all be seen from Waterloo Bridge. The history, of course, is what it always was: St Paul’s and Westminster are certainly able to hold their own in the must-be-snapped lists, along with the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. But now they’ve been joined by the London Eye, the Gherkin, the Shard (yes, I love it, sorry) and the unexpectedly beautiful new Blackfriars Railway Bridge, with its vast solar-panel roof and platforms sweeping out across the river below.
The London on view from Waterloo Bridge is a city that has learnt to take pride in what it should be proud of. The concrete brutalism of the National Theatre is now bathed in multicoloured floodlights at night, turning something that by day looks like a books warehouse into a fairytale fun palace, promising countless moments of magic.
The London Eye was meant to be just a temporary attraction to celebrate the millennium. Now, it’s one of the most instantly identifiable – and popular – of all London’s sights. Just like the Eiffel Tower, derided in its time as “useless, monstrous, ridiculous, ghastly and hateful” by a group of Parisian worthies who described themselves as “writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris”, it has become a universal symbol of a global city.
To me, it’s the word “untouched” that is the key to what makes the view from Waterloo Bridge so special. The London of 2013 is, thank goodness, no longer a city untouched. Instead, it has rediscovered the joys of elegance, beauty – and change. The Eye is both elegant and great fun; the new Golden Jubilee footbridges that run beside the supremely ugly Hungerford Bridge are a huge aesthetic improvement on what went before as well as being of great use to the thousands of pedestrians who cross them daily.
The wonderful art-deco Oxo Tower of the 1920s, just downstream from Waterloo, is now joined on the skyline by the eye-catching, love-them-or-hate-them Gherkin and Shard, symbols of a city that has the confidence to be bold, a city that knows that to survive and thrive must mean to change and innovate. And then, of course, there’s the Thames, a river that threads itself like a silver ribbon through English history and through the capital city. I have just walked along its full length, all the way from its source in a muddy Cotswold meadow to the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, where the gulls screech and the air smells of the sea. At Waterloo, the Thames is wide and noble, busy with tourist launches, wheezing barges and high-speed Thames Clipper catamarans; you can stand on the bridge and watch them for hours without getting bored.
There are many bridges that cross the Thames as it flows through London, and many of them are a great deal prettier than Waterloo Bridge. If you wanted to be unkind, you could say that one of the best reasons for standing on it is that it’s one place from which it doesn’t spoil the view. But if you want to take in the true greatness of London today, the best of the old as well as the best of the new, then Waterloo Bridge is incontrovertibly the place to be.
Robin Lustig is a journalist and broadcaster. For more in our editorial series on London & The World please visit www.ft.com/reports/london-world-2013