Discerning Drinking, Chapter Twenty-five.


Originally posted 29th July 2013

Appearances can be deceptive. The Queen, for example, alluding to the fact that she has holiday this week in Scotland, must – by definition of a ‘holiday’ – actually do something for the other fifty-one weeks of the year. So there I was, thinking that she sits around, waving and getting involved in other similarly exerting activities? (P.S. congratulations to them all on the birth of Prince George).

The South Bank Centre is a comedically confusing Escher-esque maze of concrete buildings on the Thames. At first glance, they’re not much to look at. In fact, one can walk right past and could be forgiven for thinking that this is just another office complex that has been forgotten in the midst of the flashy new glass structures sprouting up both sides of the river, a little bit eastwards.

Take a moment to linger around though, and there are cool things abound. Notwithstanding seasonal surprises, such as a sand pit for kids to bury each other in (it’s fenced off in the evening in case drunks try to piss in it), there is plenty going on. The skate park in the centre’s undercroft frequently stages serious talent, and the fact that it may soon be shutting is one of few reasons I will side with those of the baggy-trousered persuasion.

The book market nearby is a great place to pick up unusual and cheap reads and Wahaca’s colourful van, along with the pile of shipping containers which have been turned into one their eateries are probably two of the best places to get a cheap quick bite anywhere around here. Not to mention inside the buildings, where artistes – at least those who dislike sandcastles, skates or Sangrita – will be kept more than entertained with um, well, music and creative things and stuff.

For the rest of us, we have to rely on beer and wine, and luckily there is a hidden away bar at the South Bank Centre. Hidden in the context that you cannot see it from street level, not in the sense that it’s a well-kept secret (as the website claims, bizarrely-enough), because last Friday night, as the sun was setting over the Savoy, the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden was fricking heaving.

You can see why. Venture up the yellow stairs from the riverside walk, as far up as you can get, and a vast expanse of grass, flowers, climbing vines and yes, a teeny bit more concrete will greet you, as well as a lovely big bar, as basic, efficient and enticing as the Tuborg tents you get at festivals. Alternatively, you can enter ‘round the back’ from Waterloo bridge, where you venture through another lesser-known undercroft carpeted with faux grass where overheating drinkers can find some shade. This gives way into a overgrown allotment-style garden, if you fancy a drinking experience akin to Russell Crowe gliding through the wavy fields in Gladiator rather than sat on the grass at the front and river-facing end of the terrace. Admittedly, I wouldn’t recommend sitting on the grass at all, seeing as on more than one occasion our party inadvertently dropped empty cups, crisp packets and – eek – at one point, an empty wine bottle, onto the laps of idiots who had somehow materialised at our feet.

Despite me making the roof gardens out to be one massive overcrowded hay-fever risk with a lack of bins or tables, it is actually well-attended-to (the bus boy, who looked like an emaciated version of Russell Brand in a Barcelona shirt, simply couldn’t make it through the crowds to where we were): put simply, the place is worth it. The wine is cold, the crisps are chunky and though the place is packed, everyone is in a good mood – why wouldn’t they be?

And if you’re up here, on the roof of the South Bank Centre, then a) you can’t see what a concrete mess the rest of the building is, b) kids aren’t going to be able to throw sand in your eyes and c) at nine in the evening on a July’s evening, you get to see this:

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