North or South London – Which Is Better?

Houses of Pariliament and Big Ben
Photo by TomasSereda/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Greg Dickinson and Oliver Smith from The Telegraph, October 3, 2018

It is a debate as old as the city itself. Which side - North or South - is best? Our writers put forward their case. 

North London is better than South London

Oliver Smith

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There can’t be many easier jobs than champion for the northern half of our fair capital in a duel with the South. It is like being asked to explain why Venice’s canals are superior to Birmingham’s. Or why a ripe slice of French comté is better than a Cheesestring.

The task is even easier when one uses the obvious dividing line between North and South: the river. In terms of tourist attractions, The South has Shakespeare’s Globe, the London Eye, Borough Market, Greenwich and... not a lot else. Tellingly, these sights actually cling to the Thames, gazing longingly towards the better side. Their location means visitors to London can enjoy them – and dash back across the water as quickly as possible.

North of the river, on the other hand, there’s the Tower, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the V&A, Soho, Covent Garden... The South has the Southwark Cathedral; we’ve got St Paul’s. The South proffers the Tate Modern; you can keep your modern art, we’ve got the National Gallery. It’s too easy.

In fact, it’s unfair. Until the start of the 16th century, the city existed almost entirely within the old Roman walls – there was no London south of the river, just the little exclave of Southwark: a den of vice known for its boozing, bear-baiting and brothels (an inauspicious start). So of course there’s more history, and more to see and do, in the North. To level the playing field, therefore, we’re excluding Zone 1 (as per the TfL’s fare calculator map) from the reckoning.

Alas, the North still wins by a landslide.

Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way first. South London’s transport links are a joke. Just look at the Night Tube map. Not including Zone 1, there are 17 Tube stations in the South. The North has 95. That’s why a shiver runs through the spines of Londoners when a friend invites them to a party in West Norwood or Wandsworth. If they manage to make it home at all, chances are it will involve a night bus, a long walk or an expensive taxi (or all three). But one can explore the furthest reaches of the North - even Burnt Oak - and still be certain of a comfortable journey back to civilization.

Reaching the rest of Britain is also easier from the North. Nearly all the great railway termini lie on the better side of the Thames, promising quicker trips to all points north and west. Unless they’re going to Kent or Sussex, South Londoners must cross the river before they can begin their escape from the capital. Furthermore, the North has Virgin Trains, with its eye-catching high-speed Pendolinos. The South has Southern, with its strikes, delays and and overcrowded trains.

Leaving the capital is also a more pleasurable experience for cyclists in the North. Yes, there are a couple of built-up areas to endure, such as Stratford and Southgate, but you’re soon into the rolling hills of Hertfordshire and Essex. Or else take the green corridor and skip the suburbs. Lea Valley Park links inner-city Stratford with rural Hertfordshire via a series of towpaths, marshes, wetlands and RSPB reserves. For the best part of 26 miles you won’t see a car.

Reaching the green bits to the south of London, in Kent and Surrey, requires a long and perilous schlep through a suburban sprawl. Brixton, Streatham, Mitcham, Croydon, Purley... it never ends.

As for parklife, there’s a certain wildness to the North and its green spaces. Richmond Park, in the South, is lovely early in the morning, but is soon filled with polluting vehicles. Clapham Common is completely hemmed in by traffic; Wandsworth and Tooting Bec commons are bisected by railway lines. Find a quiet corner of Hampstead Heath or Epping Forest, however, and you’ll forget you’re in one of the world’s biggest cities. To step back in time visit Harrow Weald Common, Highgate Wood, Queen’s Wood (also in Highgate) or Scratchwood (in Barnet). These four pockets of tranquility are the last surviving fragments of the great Forest of Middlesex, which once stretched for 20 miles from the city walls at Houndsditch. William Fitzstephen, the 12th century cleric, described it as a “vast forest, its copses dense with foliage concealing wild animals – stags, does, boars, and wild bulls.” The bulls and boars might have gone but the sense of escape remains.

There’s no contest when it comes to cuisine. The new Michelin guide, out this week, lists 71 establishments in the capital; just four are found south of the Thames. Admittedly, the majority of these are in our Zone 1 no man’s land, but there are fantastic restaurants scattered across the more northerly boroughs too. Lardo and Berber & Q are among the top options in the culinary enclave of London Fields, Walthamstow has Yard Sale, Buhler and Co and Eat 17, Stoke Newington has Rubedo, Perilla and more wonderful Turkish restaurants than you can shake a skewer at.

We’ve got a wealth of attractions, both mainstream and offbeat. In the former category, you can file beautiful (and free) Kenwood House (with its sensational art and gardens), Victoria Park (created for the East End’s poor in 1845 and dubbed the “People’s Park”), Sutton House (one of the city’s few surviving Tudor mansions) and Alexandra Palace.

For the latter there’s two of the capital’s most atmospheric cemeteries (Highgate and Abney Park), God’s Own Junkyard (a temple to neon signage), Forty Hall (a hidden gem in the unlikely surroundings of Enfield) and Tottenham’s Markfield Beam Engine (which pumped, er, sewage in the 19th century).

Sports fans can visit Twickenham, Lords and Wembley to cheer on the national side in rugby, cricket and football. You can’t do that in the South. We’ve got Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea; they’ve got AFC Wimbledon and Charlton.

Should Harry Kane and co ever face the might of The Wombles, currently lying 18th in the third tier of English football, the result would be as conclusive as The North’s battle with the South. A drubbing. Let’s just hope the fixture is played in Tottenham and not Wimbledon – or it will take all night to get home.

South London is better than North London

Greg Dickinson

Frogmore will boost Southwark's decreasing hotel room supply with its new hotel plans.

Photo by Karen Roe/CC by 2.0 

“I don’t go south of the river, mate.” While black cabbies may not utter this as much as they used to (with the rise of Uber, they’ll take what they can get) the saying lives on as a running joke among the capital’s five million-or-so North Londoners.

“It’s so far away,” they snort. “Why would I bother going somewhere with such shoddy public transport and nothing to see except for a load of houses? I’ll take Highgate, Hampstead and Highbury over Peckham, Putney and Penge any day of the week.”

They’ll then recline in their £10-per-hour Royal Park deckchair and get back to complaining about [insert: Arsenal, Spurs or Chelsea].

I’m allowed to paraphrase the opinions of a North Londoner because, for some time, I counted myself as one of them. During my six years living in Holloway, Hoxton and Dalston everything north of the Thames in my mental map was “London” and everything south was “There be Dragons”, full of folkloric places like Walworth and Camberwell which don’t even have a station named after them.

It was only after a move to East Dulwich a few years ago that I discovered, in its own wonderfully idiosyncratic way, South London can slingshot a rock in the eye of its northerly neighbour.

Underdog? Yes. Inferior? Absolutely not.

First, some concessions that even the most fervent South Londoner must make (we’re a humble bunch). As my colleague so modestly points out, the vast majority of London’s blockbuster sights do lie north of the river. In the game of trans-Thames poker North London sees our Shard, Imperial War Museum and London Eye and raises us the Houses of Parliament, British Museum, Tower of London, Buckingham Palace (as the list continues South London politely folds). We are also poorly represented on the Monopoly Board, with only one property in Old Kent Road to North London’s 25.

And there’s some truth in the statement that transport in South is, ahem, not quite as sophisticated as North. In our defence, we do have over 150 national rail stations beyond our measly underground offerings, and I've heard whispers that there’s a tram line somewhere in the darkest depths of South. But whichever way you spin it, travelling around South London is a far more thrombotic experience than it is through the northerly arteries closer to the city’s heart.

20 secret sights in London even the locals don't know about

The land south of the Thames is a fairly recent addition to the map of London, and we’re proud of it. Indeed, the Borough of Southwark’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon Suthriganaweorc or “Fort of the Men from Surrey”, a county it remained part of until 1889. The link lives on at Oval Cricket Ground, where Surrey still plays its home matches.

Old maps and records show that for centuries, the Thames’s south bank was made up of undeveloped marshlands and farms. Waterloo was actually known as Lambeth Marshe before being drained in the 18th century; hints of the area’s swampy past can be found in road names like Lower and Upper Marsh near Waterloo. Over time bridges went up (today there are 33), London Bridge and Waterloo stations became transport hubs for the southern counties, and South London’s sprawl expanded for over fifteen miles to the North Downs.

However, zoom out on Google Satellite and you will see that much of that green space remains intact today - and therein lies a first major appeal of South London.

We do commons particularly well. Clapham, Tooting, Blackheath, Peckham Rye, Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Mitcham and Streatham commons (there are more) add up to 1,469 hectares of space that is free for all to use, compared to North’s 826 hectares. These well spread out, sweeping lungs give South London a degree of breathing and headspace that large tracts of the North can't offer.

The public parks are pretty special, too. In these you will find some of the finest views of London’s skyline, which - unlike Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath - you will likely have all to yourself. The summit of Brockwell Park, a bench atop One Tree Hill and Lewisham’s Hilly Fields are among a few of my favourite unsung vistas.

The very best green spot in South London is another that few people know about. Sydenham Hill Wood is the largest tract of London’s old Great North Wood that once stretched from Selhurst to Deptford. Get lost for five minutes and you could be in the heart of the English countryside without another soul in sight - that is, until a squawking parakeet or croaking helicopter breaks the illusion and reminds you that you’re in London.

Those rampant bright green parakeets, once unique to South but now shared by our northern neighbours (you’re welcome), are an example of the area’s eccentricities. The Horniman is one of London’s strangest museums, packed with curiosities and taxidermied animals like its star attraction: an overstuffed walrus. Even more inaccurate beasts can be found in Crystal Palace Park, home to a series of Victorian-era model dinosaurs sculpted before we knew what dinosaurs actually looked like.

Perhaps the most complete example of South London’s diverse personality is the Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park, which brings together enormous vegetables and llama racing in the same space as Afro-Caribbean cuisine and ramped-up Brixton dub music. Only in South London.

There’s also a pretty strong case to be made that South London is - I’m sorry to say it, North Londoners - home to the most exciting developments in the capital’s alternative arts and nightlife. Handed the baton from Dalston about ten years ago, Peckham is now the epicentre of London’s scene with its rooftop bars (Frank’s, Bussey Building), innovative dining spaces (Wildflower, Begging Bowl, Peckham Bazaar) live music and nightlife spots (see the arches beneath Peckham Rye station).

No doubt art students over in Deptford and Lewisham will make a strong claim that their turf is where the real subculture is currently at.

The thing that sets South London apart is the stark variety of its neighbourhoods. From the sense-affronting food markets of Brixton and Brockley to the genteel villages of Dulwich and Greenwich, via the sleepless LGBT+ capital of Vauxhall and Nigerian restaurants along the Old Kent Road. South London is blessed by its lack of homogeneity. Three years in - it still continues to surprise me.

North London? I don’t go north of the river, mate (except for work, and to socialize with 90 per cent of my friends).

 

This article was written by South Londoner, North Londoner, Greg Dickinson and Oliver Smith from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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