Strolling along the Paris Plage the other evening, the splendid imitation beach that has been constructed along the right bank of the Seine in central Paris, I immediately wondered why our capital city couldn't do the same. After all, Ken Livingstone, the London Mayor, is just as much an innovator as his opposite number in Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, and the two cities have similar weather. A few days later, therefore, I took a similar walk along the south bank of the Thames, from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge, to see whether such an idea might work here. The answer, I think, is not so much that it wouldn't work, but that London doesn't need it.
Paris Plage is a summer initiative. From 20 July to 17 August, the road along the right bank of the Seine, which normally sends traffic swiftly through the centre of Paris, is closed. The tarmac has been covered by a beach made out of 3,000 tons of sand. On top have been placed 300 deck chairs with 240 parasols.
It's hard to find an empty place. You lounge back and look across the river towards the left bank, lined as it is with fine 17th and 18th century terraces of houses as well as the grand Institut de France. At certain points, Notre-Dame can be glimpsed. As well as this agreeable view, there is also plenty to do - a climbing wall for children, massages if you don't mind passers-by watching, a lending library and bicycles for hire. Or you can sit in open-air cafés, listen to music and enjoy live performances by entertainers of one kind or another. Its purpose is to provide a cheap day out for the hundreds of thousands of Parisian families who cannot afford a holiday by the sea. It is popular and undoubtedly a success.
In London, however, as soon as you go down the steps from Westminster Bridge to the river walk along the south bank of the Thames, where a beach would be constructed if there was to be one, you are in a completely different setting.
On your left is the river, tidal and smelling a bit of the sea. On your right, sheltering you from the distant traffic, you quickly pass the new Saatchi Gallery, opened a few months ago, and the London Aquarium, and then you come to the London Eye, the giant observation wheel erected in 1999. Keep walking and you pass the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the National Film Theatre, the National Theatre, the Oxo Tower, various old river pubs, shops, the Globe Theatre, the converted Bankside power station that is the Tate Modern art gallery and, finally, Southwark Cathedral.
This is an extraordinary collection of cultural institutions and interesting buildings lining one, traffic-free thoroughfare. Most of them have an international reputation. But only one of them, Southwark Cathedral, is old. Nothing else is earlier than 1950 and much of what we find was created during the past 10 years. For London was born and grew up on the north bank of the Thames. The Roman city was situated within to-day's City. The Saxons settled in the Covent Garden area. William the Conqueror built his great fortress, the Tower of London, further east. Meanwhile, the marshy south-bank area remained undeveloped until the 19th century, except for Southwark at the end of London Bridge.
Paris, on the other hand, had a much more even development on both sides of the Seine. The Roman settlement was on the left bank, and the medieval monarchs had their court on the Ile de la Cité, an island in the Seine itself, before moving to the fortress of the Louvre on the right bank. But the left bank remained vibrant with its monasteries, colleges and university, the Sorbonne, founded in the 13th century. The two banks of the river were developed simultaneously, if in different ways and at varying paces.
This contrast between the layout of the two capitals eventually led to a London inferiority complex. It became a commonplace that London had failed to make anything of its river and that, in this respect, it compared badly with Paris. I have heard this comment many times, and indeed I have made it myself. And from, say, 1850, when the fields south of the Thames began to be built over, until perhaps as recently as 1990, it was a fair assessment. But now it is far from accurate.
I admit that seen from the north bank of the Thames, the south bank is still far from an architectural masterpiece. It lacks that unity of style, whether classical or beaux arts, with subtle variations, that pervades the entire centre of Paris and that is so satisfying. In contrast, London is higgledy-piggledy. Go across one of the bridges from the south bank to the north side of the Thames, and in one glance the eye can take in the strictly classical St Paul's and Somerset House, the lovely mock gothic of the Houses of Parliament, the mid-1890s Charing Cross station and, finally, Sir Norman Foster's new "gherkin" tower block rising above the skyline.
Thus one key difference between the two marvellous cities is that Paris is static whereas London is ever-changing. The Paris Plage briefly livens up a townscape that has scarcely altered since the time of Louis XIV, whereas a London beach would be just another new attraction, jostling with a host of recent initiatives.