While I was walking down Borough High Street earlier in the week, a tourist clutching a map of the capital asked me if London Bridge station was far away. The Tube entrance was only a few metres from where we were standing and the mainline platforms were a little further on down the road, I said.
That was the simple explanation, but in reality I could have pointed him in any number of directions and he’d have still found his train. Numerous entrances and ticket halls link the various different services thanks to a network of underground walkways.
London Bridge station dominates Borough and life in the area seems to radiate from it. Thousands of commuters flood into this major terminus every day and during the Olympics it acted as a important hub in effectively moving sports fans around the capital, particularly the equestrian events in Greenwich.
The station has essentially taken on the role of London Bridge, until the 18th century the only structure bridging the Thames, in explaining why this vibrant area of London exists in the way that it does today.
Borough would not have been the important place that it was in Roman and medieval times had there not been a river crossing point on this part of the river and a major road continuing on to the Kent coast. Immigrants from the continent travelled in one direction and pilgrims went the other way to visit the likes of Canterbury, stopping off at the inns around London Bridge along the way.
Today, it’s no surprise that Europe’s most talked about building project, the enormous Shard, the tallest building in Europe, is pretty much bolted on and integrated with London Bridge station. I walked past an entrance to the tower block at the weekend which was just metres away from some of the platforms.
The Shard will stand at the centre of what is being dubbed London Bridge Quarter, which will also include landscaped public piazza and a major new office block called ‘the Place’. What’s common about all the new buildings is that their positions have been influenced not by the river, the very reason that London came into existence, but by the proximity to rail travel (or what the marketing literature calls a ‘seamless transition from station from workplace’).
How London Bridge station and the area immediately surrounding it are being developed has echoes of the ‘rail mania’ in the 19th century when the first tracks were laid in Southwark. Back then streets, alleys and were carved up, houses were pulled down and many people were made homeless. In the process of train services arriving in these parts coach companies were put out of business, forcing wonderful old coaching inns along Borough High Street which were immortalised by the likes of William Chaucer and Charles Dickens falling into disrepair and consequently being pulled down. Even part of what is now Southwark Cathedral was demolished.
London Bridge station itself is the oldest of capital’s rail termini, a simple earlier building having been opened by the London & Greenwich Railway company in 1836, in time providing a service for business people from Greenwich to halve the commute they would have faced on a paddle steamer. Other rail companies paid for their lines to go into the station and so by 1854 it was being used by 10m passengers annually.
But the numerous rail bridges, viaducts and tracks that were built to criss-cross through northern Southwark cut through established communities, particularly when diversions were put in place to reach new termini like Charing Cross, and have for the past 170 years defined how the area comes across visually. Whether you are visiting Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral or any number of other attractions you can’t get away from seeing evidence for train travel.
While there is no suggestion of people being forced out of their homes without being paid compensation for re-locating, as was the case with the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, the developments around London Bridge station will define how the area in years to come.