Waterloo's Greatest Hits

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The Independent Travel
Thirty years ago, this was a busy week in pop music. Scott Mackenzie's only hit - "San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)" - hit the UScharts. In Britain, the summer of love was a less glamorous affair. The new arrival here was "Waterloo Sunset" by the Kinks.

Ray Davies's gentle love song revolves at 45 rpm around one of the least celebrated but most magical areas of London: the scruffy sweep of shoreline bounded by Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. Armed with a selection of lines from the lyrics, you can spend one fine day on the not-too-long and winding roads of SE1.

"Dirty old river, must you keep rolling ..."

The Thames throws a massive loop around Waterloo, thereby endowing the area with spectacular river views. The bulge of land that comprises the Waterloo peninsula provides a fine 180-degree prospect, sweeping from St Paul's Cathedral to the Houses of Parliament - now, as in 1967,, dominated by a Labour government.

Dirty? The Thames is not nearly as niffy as it was when it acted as main sewer for the whole of London, but probably not yet sparklingly clean enough for a day at the beach. A shame, because when the Thames is suitably low, some genuinely sandy beaches are revealed on the south bank. Low tides this week have revealed a good few patches of grade one sand.

The most accessible beach is just in front of the Oxo Tower - a fanciful redbrick creation that is the most glorious architectural advertisement for stock cubes. Follow the signs for the National Theatre, then walk east along the riverside walk until you're just in front of the tower. A ladder leads down to the sand; don't try this at high tide. If the clouds interrupt your sunbathing,wander further along the shore to the Anchor pub, where Tom Cruise sank a pint at the end of Mission Impossible.

Old? Certainly the Thames followed the same course in Roman times, which is when the invaders set a sociological precedent by deciding they preferred north of the Thames. The reason was not that chariot drivers refused to go south of the river after dark (as taxi drivers are loath to do today), but because the shore comprised mostly uninhabitable marshland. The swamp was drained in medieval times, but is remembered in street names like Lower Marsh - now a straggly market. The neighbourhood took the name of Waterloo from the vast mid-Victorian-meets-21st century railway station, whose platforms lope across SE1 for half a mile.

"People so busy, makes me feel dizzy"

Since the Eurostar terminal opened in 1994, Waterloo has struggled with its new role of international gateway. Because of work on the Jubilee Line extension and the old Bakerloo Line, the station has been a shambles throughout the 1990s, with millions of people swarming like flies around Waterloo's one remaining underground line, the Northern. No doubt taxi lights shine so bright because the drivers are getting so much extra business.

Tourists who persevere with London's biggest building site are rewarded with some of the capital's greatest attractions. The water in the new Aquarium, which occupies part of County Hall, is much cleaner than that in the river. The GLC politicians were evicted from the capital's seat of government in 1986, and replaced six weeks ago by a bunch of sharks.

The Museum of the Moving Image is the best concealed in London, buried beneath the southern approach to Waterloo Bridge. It traces the flickering story of film and television, but for dizzy old Sixties hippies the most appealing feature is the collection of ancient TV advertisements.

To avoid the dizzying crowds at MOMI, head towards the sunset in the direction of St Thomas's Hospital. The Florence Nightingale is the smallest yet most startling museum in SE1. You discover that the Lady performed most of her Lamp duties just across the Bosphorus from Istanbul, well away from the Crimean theatre of war.

"Every day I look at the world from my window"

Ray Davies is a Muswell Hill man, born and bred in London N10. If he were ever to move south of the Thames, though, he should choose Roupell Street. Amid the shambles that surrounds Waterloo East station, this handsome early 19th-century thoroughfare could be a movie set. Aside from the archbishop's residence at Lambeth Palace, this is the most desirable address in SE1. The views are better, mind, from the apartments carved out of the old Shell Building that bullies its way on to the riverside. And the added bonus for residents is that they look away from, rather than towards the Shell Building, a structure that looks as if it was imposed on Waterloo by someone with a grudge against society and a giant Lego outfit.

"Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night"

And why not? Waterloo is quite the most romantic place in London. Amorous weekends to Paris begin and end at the Waterloo Eurostar terminal. But Parisians coming to London get much the better deal; while the area around the Gare du Nord is in a remote part of the capital, French weekenders to Britain arrive in the heart of London. Within five minutes, Thierry et Jules can be hand-in-hand on the Riverside Walk - a location beloved of film producers.

When the makers of Four Weddings and a Funeral wanted the perfect place for the corniest line in the film - Hugh Grant stammering to Andi McDowell: "In the words of David Cassidy, while he was still with the Partridge Family, 'I think I love you'" - they chose the promenade just outside the National Film Theatre.

Buster, the film story of the Great Train Robber, ended at the same place, with Phil Collins manning a flower stall. The real Buster Edwards was a florist, but his stall was located underneath the rail arch on Waterloo Road. The local hero is no more; he hanged himself three years ago.

"I am so lazy, don't want to wander, I stay at home at night"

Anyone staying home at night is missing an extraordinary concentration of entertainment. Within a quarter-mile square, the Royal National Theatre has three auditoria plus live foyer performances; the Queen Elizabeth Hall stages the likes of Ray Davies, and, when it is not hosting Labour's victory party, the Royal Festival Hall is one of Britain's leading music venues. On Baylis Road, you find a couple of Vics (one Old, one Young), and the local cinema is the National Film Theatre.

True, some of the local pubs are the roughest this side of Whitechapel, but decent places to eat have proliferated along Waterloo Road in the past four years. The old fire station has become a trendy restaurant called the Old Fire Station, the flash of blue adjacent to the Old Vic signifies the Bar Central, and the best fish and chips in the South are served at Superfish at number 191 - you can tell by the dozens of taxis parked outside each evening.

"And I don't feel afraid"

Seek sanctuary on Waterloo Road. St John the Evangelist lacks the status and architecture of Southwark Cathedral, a mile downriver, but it has an intriguing history. "Built by a grateful nation in Thanksgiving for the victory of Waterloo", announces the plaque within the milky neo-Classical columns. The tablet then tells of 8 December 1940, when the church took a direct hit from a German bomb:

"This Waterloo church, stoutly built by fine builders, took the shock and shuddered to her depths. In those depths 150 people, including the parish priest, were assembled. The old church, the mother of souls in the parish, true to her maternal instinct, gathered the full force of the blast into her heart and gave her life for her children. Nobody was hurt."

The church was rebuilt to become the Christian Centre for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and is now the only British church to be sponsored by Eurostar.

"Terry and Julie cross over the river, where they feel safe and sound"

Perhaps the lovers are anxious about the homeless people who inhabit the Bull Ring - a circular concrete monstrosity whose undercarriage conceals the underclass of SE1. But in 10 years of living in Waterloo, I have never encountered any hostility from the impoverished residents.

"As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset, they are in paradise"

The view from the bridge has changed surprisingly little in the past 30 years, and even Monet - who rented a room in the Savoy Hotel whence he painted the bridge obsessively a century ago - would recognise the scene. On the South Bank, brutalist concrete has risen from wartime dereliction (and romantic strollers probably wish it hadn't). To the north, the most notable addition is the Eighties embellishment of Charing Cross Station. But the structure barely impedes the capital's miraculous mirador.

The finest sunsets can be seen six weeks from now, when the midsummer sun will appear to crash in flames behind the magnificence of Somerset House. But even better than the Waterloo sunset is the summer sunrise from the bridge, creating a stunning silhouette of St Paul's Cathedral while splashing sharp shadows across Westminster. To respond to the demand from another Kinks song, "Give me two good reasons why I oughta stay": try Waterloo sunset and sunrise.

Tourist information in Waterloo: the London Tourist Board desk in the International Currency Exchange office in the Eurostar arrivals hall, open 8.30am-9pm daily.