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From The Shard to Brigade, London’s new quarter

From The Shard to Brigade, London’s new quarter

I’ve lived over a decade in London and can’t think of a building project that has caught the public’s imagination more than The Shard.

From almost every point of the city we watched its concrete core inch its way into the skyline and saw the quarter-kilometer high crane drivers clad it with a coat of glimmering glass.

Now it is the European Union’s tallest building and the View From The Shard on the 72nd floor is open for customers – even if not much more of its 1,200,000 square foot of space is.

On winter mornings, the top of the tower can be shrouded by mist but now spring is belatedly arriving in the British capital, it’s time to book a ticket for the most amazing view you will ever have of one of the world’s greatest cities.

So what’s the first thing you do when you arrive at the top level, 244 meters up? Well, if you’re a Londoner you start by looking for your apartment, duh! But wider-eyed tourists will see commuter trains snaking their way into London Bridge Station, the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and – on a clear day – 40 miles in each direction. And no, that’s not quite as far as France…

It costs a pricey £24.95 ($39 €30) for an adult (and that is for a ticket booked online 24 hours ahead) so everyone is very anxious to enjoy it. But despite the scarily discordant music they were playing, I did. Geeks and kids can use the digital telescopes to zoom in but I didn’t need any gimmicks – aside of seeing all of London’s landmarks, there are enough hidden gems and secret courtyards to discover you can spend hours just staring.

This steepled skyscraper has already become a landmark for all Londoners. But for those of us who work or live around its base it’s also a symbol of regeneration.

It’s hard to believe that not long ago Bermondsey Street, just around the corner, was a no-go area. Locals can’t believe its transformation into one of London’s coolest and most desirable neighborhoods. Warehouses have been turned into luxury flats and boutique shops, hip cafés, bars and restaurants line the pavement.

It’s so cool iconic British designer Zandra Rhodes has her Fashion and Textile Museum here, which covers style from 1950 onwards.

Cooler still, a little further down the street, is The White Cube gallery, which hosts commercial art exhibitions. So far I’ve popped in to see Damian Hirst, Antony Gormley and gay artist duo Gilbert and George. Hidden behind White Cube, Gay Star News’ London office is just one of the media and design businesses that have moved in.

The area’s revival may seem at first to have most benefited the wealthy – luxury apartments and trendy offices. But it also means real opportunity for people who need it.

On Tooley Street you will find Brigade, a restaurant set in a handsome old fire station. Many of the staff are apprentices, chosen from people who have either been homeless or at risk of homelessness. The team give them training and mentoring to help them into a new career.

If they are still just trainees, I can only say they are amazingly good. We went for lunch and tucked into a delicious take on the childhood classic ‘beans on toast’ for a starter which came with a perfectly cooked egg melting over the top of the beans and cured pork belly. Our other starter of Cornish sardine tart was fresh and zingy with preserved lemon.

For mains the trio of lamb was juicy and hearty without being greasy while the pan-fried lemon sole was light but rich and filling. I ordered some delicious maris piper potato chips (fries) as a side but the portions were so generous I didn’t really need them.

Brigade is big on fresh seasonal ingredients – the meeting and private dining rooms upstairs are named after London’s famous markets – so the menu is likely to have changed slightly when you go there. But the relaxed, friendly, yet sophisticated atmosphere will be the same.

If you don’t have time for lunch or dinner (the latter would be the perfect end to a romantic visit up the Shard), you can at least pop in for a drink as Brigade also boasts a popular bar.

Brigade is on the edge of More London – another very visible sign of the area’s ongoing regeneration; offices and cafés cluster around the City Hall.

Next to City Hall is The Scoop, where you can sometimes see small theater performances, and one of the one of the smartest small parks in London. On a sunny day sit and stare at Tower Bridge, a landmark so famous it has been turned into a model by Lego.

I have two favorite facts I always chuck at visitors to the area: The first is that Tower Bridge’s ‘walkways’ were initially closed to the public because they became a haunt for prostitutes – you can now visit to learn about the bridge’s fascinating history. The other is that Tower Bridge has it’s own morgue, designed to hold up to two corpses, for bodies that get washed up from the Thames.

In the other direction the great mechanical boat in Hay’s Galleria is fun when it’s operating. Wheels churn round, propellers whizz and water gets spouted all over the place.

Head through here, under London Bridge itself, to Southwark Cathedral (more than 1,000 years old) – a church Shakespeare would have known well. Despite its depiction in Doctor Who, there is, sadly, no TARDIS in the stained glass windows though. I’ve looked.

I pass by this way a lot because I’m a Borough Market addict. Sadly it’s so colorful and interesting it tends to attract more tourists than shoppers. But if you are a food-lover like me you’ll definitely want to take a treat or two home. The fishmongers, fruit and vegetable stalls and meat and game is second to none and there are plenty of specialists, from French, Spanish and Italian cuisine to artisan bakers, spice merchants and salt sellers – even muesli mixing is an art-form here.

Stop for a coffee (it’s worth queuing) at Monmouth Coffee House. They don’t serve iced Frappuccino or any of that rubbish. Not even tea. But they do the best filter, espresso, cappuccino and latte in London, by far.

If you want an alternative, gay-owned boutique cake shop Konditor & Cook next door does excellent hot chocolate and loads more treats. And a few doors away the specialist branch of Hotel Chocolat, called Rabot Estate, sells chocolates from their cocoa plantation as well as their usual range.

Finally, just around the corner, any cheese lover has to try Neal’s Yard Dairy. You are encouraged to taste their cheeses from all around the British Isles and the staff are knowledgeable enough to help you with recommendations. It’s cheese heaven.

All of this is hidden in the wiggly streets and hidden alleys around the base of the Shard. But there is always more to discover – like the George Inn, London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn or The Old Operating Theatre, a survivor of the gruesome surgery of an era before anesthetic.

The arrival of the Shard, and all the other development in the area, will mean change. But luckily, so far at least, London Bridge doesn’t seem to be losing its unique character in the process.

Main photo shows the Shard’s opening light show. See details of photo license here.