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A New View of London

Built up and buffed up to greet the millennium, the city's riverfront beckons visitors with a cluster of high-profile new attractions

May 14, 2000|JILL SCHENSUL | Jill Schensul is the travel editor at the Record in Hackensack, N.J

LONDON — In my ears, I kept hearing the nasty staccato chords of the Clash's punk anthem, "London Calling." That came out 20 years ago, the first time I went to London, the first time I went abroad. I was a rock critic for a newspaper, and London was the place to be.

I spent my days in record stores and declasse boutiques, and my nights in slam-dance bars and concerts hearing music that was as much about the sweat as it was about the songs.

London was still calling, but this time it wasn't the Clash who beckoned (although lead singer Joe Strummer is playing with his new band, the Mescaleros, at a club there this month). Aside from a long layover two years ago, I hadn't been back. So in late March I went to check out new art spaces and millennium-era diversions.

"What's kept you away so long?" asked my gregarious cabby, Richard, as we blew through the tony Kensington neighborhood to my hotel, the May Fair Inter-Continental. I'd had other places to see; it's a big world, after all, and a lot of places are more exotic, challenging and culturally stimulating. But after a while, I realized I missed London because it is one of the great cities of the world.

And getting a little bit greater. The millennium brought with it a fine excuse for gussying up the city, including high-profile projects such as the British Airways London Eye, the Millennium Dome, the new Jubilee Line subway service and the opening of more museums and art galleries than at any other time in recent history.

The Millennium Bridge, the Eye, the train and other developments make South Bank the city's new hot spot. Attention was first refocused to the south with the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, about 200 yards from its original 16th century site. Rebuilding the Globe was the mission of actor Sam Wanamaker, who, 40 years ago, realized that the only remembrance of the theater was a plaque on a pub in the area.

T he new Globe opened in 1997 and presents performances between May and September. Just opened in February is the permanent Globe Exhibition, the largest in the world dedicated to Shakespeare and his workplace. Among the bits of history on display are hazelnut shells, shards of tavern mugs, and the skulls of mastiffs used in the bear-baiting contests that were considered entertainment in Shakespeare's day. The exhibit, which helps re-create the context in which the plays were the thing, is augmented by a visit to the theater, where guides do a marvelous job painting a picture of the randy, opinionated Elizabethan theatergoing crowd.

Rising on the skyline to the west is entertainment of quite a different ilk. The London Eye is a Ferris wheel with glass-enclosed pods. The 30-minute ride (the wheel makes one slow rotation) affords spectacular views up and down the Thames. Each pod has a staff attendant who can answer questions. (A more structured, recorded commentary would be even more helpful.) The lines to get on the ride are long, and although tickets are sold for specific times, expect to wait at least half an hour.

Much of the buzz in London has focused on the $215-million Tate Modern, which opened Friday in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames. The Tate Modern has taken over the hulking brick Bankside Power Station, built in the '40s by British architect Giles Gilbert Scott (also responsible for the "red telephone box," as our guide put it).

Among the pieces in the new galleries are major works by Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Duchamp, Gabo, Giacometti, Pollock, Rothko and Warhol, as well as British artists Bacon, Caro, Hockney, Moore and others.

The architects added a glass roof to the Tate building. The top-floor restaurant offers particularly spectacular views: You can look straight down to the new Millennium Bridge, connecting St. Paul's Cathedral to the Tate and the Globe. (It's the first new bridge across the Thames in London since the 19th century Tower Bridge.) To the west, down the new walking path along the Thames, is the London Eye; to the right is the horseshoe-shaped, thatch-roofed Globe Theatre next door. The upper restaurant is sleek, with black wood and an expensive feel. A more casual cafe on the first floor is accessible from the street.

O ther significant galleries are opening soon too. The new wing at the National Portrait Gallery opened earlier this month, adding 50% more exhibition and public space. The project was built on a former courtyard between the Portrait Gallery and the National Museum next door. The new area will be home to the museum's Tudor Gallery, showing some paintings that are now often overlooked by visitors who flock to more contemporary images. From the entry, the towering new escalator will deposit visitors on the top floor and the Tudor Gallery, from which they can work their way down.

Another major addition to the museum will be an IT Gallery, allowing access to all 10,000 portraits in the museum's primary collection and some of the 250,000 portraits in its photo and archive collection.

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