The Streets of Southwark


The Streets of Southwark




Southwark is both the origin and the heart of south-east London. It is a place that saw the evolution of London over two thousand years from is origins in Roman times to the vast commercial city we see in the present day on the north bank of the Thames. Throughout history Southwark has stood as a threshold at the entrance to London, like a well worn doorstep that leads to the more magnificant city on the north bank. This function as an entrance or gateway to another place of higher status gives it a distinct identity, an identity that makes it at once part of London but also separate and outside.


It is this separation from the city of London that enabled a special identity to develop in Southwark. The area around the southern foot of London Bridge was destined not to be just an extension of London south of the river but was to become a place in its own right, a place with its own physical and cultural pathway.


Perhaps every place on the surface of this earth, be it seaside, countryside, village, town or city, derives a special mood, atmosphere or spirit from its specific geographic location, from all the features, natural or man made, that have over time built up its topography, its physical being. This "spirit of place", or "genius loci" as the Romans called it, is a mystical concept that attempts to understand the special forces at work in each place we can define as a "place", separate and distinct from all other places.


The unique qualities of each location somehow inspires in us a deep emotional response as we approach and cross an invisible threshold, a liminal point of entry where everything abruptly changes and we become aware of having entered a new and dirrerent space.


Such spaces may evoke feelings of wholesomness, goodness and healing, while others are negative and malign. The good spaces are those that people have gone to throughout history when seeking health and well being in spirit and in mind and body. They have often been called sacred places, and sacred places acquire folk memories over many generations, over many centuries, memories and stories told and retold so that they add to the spirit of the place, add to its perceived special qualities.


In contrast, other places seem more filled with negative forces, perhaps because they are cold, dark, dank and unhealthy, repellant to us as living creatures who need fresh air and sunlight and warmth to thrive. Another factor is that the depressing and negative mood certain places exude at certain times throughout history, exist because we have constructed within them an inadequate, culturally and economically impoverished society, environmentally downgraded and enslaved society that is disfunctional because of its poverty, a society on the edge of survival.


This deep emotional response we have to the "spirit of place" is hard to define, hard to understand. Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, for example, elicits from us a different response than that of the Seven Dials in London's West End. The emotional impact of walking along Victoria Street is different from that of walking along Borough High Street in Southwark. These differences can become very powerful. While some places inspire good and positive feelings in us, like walking along the gravel path around the Queens House at Greenwich, an experience that makes one feel happy and confident and sure of one's place in the world, others leave us feeling insecure and weak and negative, like being trapped in any one of the many neglected inner city council housing estates of our cities.