South London’s residential locales offer parkland, galleries and café culture; places worth a visit include the very different areas of Brixton, Clapham, Blackheath and Dulwich, each with their own distinctive attractions. Back by the river, the naval and military heritage of Greenwich and Woolwich has been preserved and recorded with interactive exhibits at the museums. In contrast to the historical artefacts of this area, the former warehouses that stretch along the river are being rapidly turned into smart apartment complexes; a boat trip down the Thames reveals the extent of this redevelopment, although the streets away from the river remain poorer and more run-down.
The diverse and multicultural community of people in Brixton is what gives this buzzy area its character and energy. Recording the history of black people in Britain are the Black Cultural Archives in Coldharbour Lane, a collection of artefacts and memorabilia. Brixton Market mixes Caribbean produce with traditional fruit, vegetables and fish, plus stalls of second-hand clothes and music. Nightlife is lively in Brixton, with many dance clubs such as Mass.
Villagey Blackheath is most famed for its windy heath, where Henry V was welcomed home after beating the French at Agincourt in 1415. The Paragon, a crescent of colonnaded houses, overlooks the heath. St Michael’s Church (1829) has a tapering spire known as ‘the needle of Kent’.
Bustling Clapham is the preferred residence of many young professionals, something evident in the number of bars, cafés and restaurants that line the roads around attractive Clapham Common. There are few ‘sights’ as such, but the park, dining and nightlife options make it a popular place to live.
With leafy streets, elegant houses and a spacious park, Dulwich is a smart, picturesque enclave in southeast London. The grand building of the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened in 1814 as the country’s first major public art gallery. It contains 300 important works, including by Rembrandt, Rubens and Murillo. A mile to the east in Forest Hill, the Horniman Museum combines rich collections of ethnography and natural history. It was founded in 1901 by a wealthy tea merchant, Frederick Horniman, and is set in 16 acres (6.5 hectares) of landscaped parkland, with great views over London.
The Cutty Sark, a beautiful sailing ship and the last remaining tea-clipper, has been unveiled in all her glory after suffering a huge fire while under renovation. She stands proudly by the river to welcome you to the Royal Borough of Greenwich, a lovely patch of London, with Georgian terraces, interesting shops, a great market and a huge park, with fabulous views over the whole city from the top of the hill.
The National Maritime Museum displays an unrivalled collection of maritime art and artefacts in galleries built around a spectacular space spanned by Europe’s largest glazed roof. The Queen’s House, now displaying the museum’s art collections, was completed in 1637. It was England’s first classical Renaissance building. Greenwich Mean Time was established at the Royal Observatory in 1884, and the observatory has Britain’s largest refracting telescope. A brass rule on the ground marks the meridian. Flamsteed House, designed by Christopher Wren (himself a keen astronomer), has exhibits tracing the history of astronomy from its origins in ancient Sumeria and Egypt.
The elegant Royal Naval College begun by Wren in 1696, was originally a royal palace, given over to the training of naval officers in 1873. The heart of Greenwich lies just to the west of the maritime park, where a market spreads out from Greenwich Church Street, selling clothes, crafts, books and antiques. On the same street is St Alfege’s church, built in 1712–18 by Hawksmoor.
River trips continue downriver, sweeping back up the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs to Blackwall Reach, around the vast area reclaimed and cleared for The O2, formerly the Millennium Dome, an expensive exhibition arena and infamous damp squib used for one year in 2000. Now it’s a hugely successful concert, sporting and exhibition venue, with the superclub Matter in its bowels.
Beyond here is the Thames Barrier, which protects 45 sq miles (117 sq km) of London from the very real danger of flooding. Beyond is Woolwich, once the Royal Navy’s dockyards and arsenal. The main attraction is Firepower, the Royal Arsenal’s museum, which puts viewers in the midst of battle.