Bank Holidays in the UK usually mean one thing: rain. But this May Day dawned bright and sunny, with temperatures high enough to make me put on my first summer outfit of the year. Flaunting bare feet in sandals, toenails newly painted, I wandered along to London’s South Bank.
It is an area rammed with tourists, eager for that holiday snapshot of Big Ben, the Thames and the London Eye – and of course, with practically the first hot day of the year, the crowds were out in force. Call me crazy, but I love the busy, thronging atmosphere; admittedly in small doses.It is not just for tourists, however; the South Bank is also home to the wonderful Southbank Centre, one of my favourite places in the whole of London, because there is always something interesting and a little bit different going on. You can just wander in and see what is going on in the main hall – sometimes a yoga session, sometimes a lecture, sometimes an exhibition – then grab a drink at the cafe and sit outside, watching the hubbub of activity below. With simple, open areas inside and free WiFi, it’s also the perfect place for a rainy day to sit and write, surrounded as you are by so much creative energy.
Since it was May Day – traditional fete day in the UK – there was a little more than usual going on. The first surprise was the sheep, hardly an ordinary sight in the middle of London. The second surprise was that they were dancing sheep. I passed an odd but very happy few minutes watching the sheep boogie to the music, persuaded into the routine by their Aussie farmer.The sheep were just one small part of the Real Food Festival. Around the corner, children oohed and aahed at the wee lambs in pens, not putting two and two together with the fresh, pasture-reared meat on sale at the stall next door. At least the festival lived up to its name: this food was very real indeed!
The stalls selling hot food ready to eat were doing a roaring trade, with lines of people winding all around the place, waiting for their serving. I wasn’t really hungry, or in a standing-in-line sort of mood, so I grabbed an orange and cranberry juice from a nearby stall without a queue (I did pay for it, I hasten to add!) and headed for the Streets of Spain.Considering it was just a few bright yellow kiosks and a similarly cheery sign leading the way under the concrete mezzanine of the Southbank centre, the Streets of Spain section felt surreally like wandering into a Spanish market. Stall holders with giveaway moustaches and tanned faces greeted me with a cheery ‘Hola!’ and gestured to wonderful produce, including Spanish cheeses, wines, mushrooms and peppers.
I don’t actually know what they did with the non-spanish speaking punters, since I answered automatically in Spanish and we conducted our entire conversations in their native language. Seduced by nostalgia for Spain and the visual feast on offer, I ended up with a box of dried chillies and a packet of the ominously named trompeta de la muerte (trumpet of death) mushrooms. Apparently, they are a distinctive and prized variety, and at only £2, it seemed like a good deal. I had a weird moment when I pulled out my purse, as I was almost expecting to find euros inside. Handing over sterling currency and ending with a cheery ‘Adios!’ just didn’t seem right.I left the Streets of Spain and returned to the London sunshine, a bag of chillies and mushrooms and a bit of Spanish conversation richer. I watched the boats on the river for a minute or two, but starting to feel the fatigue of the crowds, I then slipped into the Southbank Centre, where the London Gay Men’s chorus just happened to be singing – jazz hands and all. It was like wandering onto the set of Glee – and it was fabulous! (Though their message is also, more seriously, to fight prejudice and I’m not for a moment wishing to diminish that). Every single person watching was bopping along and had smiles on their faces – a more joyful singing session I could not imagine.
London can sometimes feel like the best place in the world -and a sunny bank holiday at South Bank certainly takes some beating.