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Bridging the Thames: Unravelling the North-South Divide in London

"Photo by Pixabay (Licensed under CC0)"

London really is a tale of two cities, marked by a noticeable separation between the northern and southern banks of the Thames. It might not mean much to outsiders, but for us Londoners, it’s a big deal.


I became notably aware of this difference when a friend living south of the river (Elephant & Castle, to be precise) mentioned that there were no Blank Street Coffee stores south of the river. This struck me as noteworthy because the chain signifies the presence of trendy areas and gentrification – why live somewhere where you can’t get your blueberry matcha? There’s now one singular Blank Street south side, in Battersea, but compare that to the 23 branches that north London boasts, and it seems completely insignificant. Furthermore, a recent YouGov survey reveals that those living in south London are twice as likely to cross the river on a regular basis than their northern counterparts are to head south. As a self-confessed north Londoner, I will admit that I very rarely venture south of the river - only ever to take in the delights of South Bank, like the Tate Modern and the National Theatre. So why is this?

According to capital folklore, cabbies used to refuse to go to the depths of South London. And there is some truth in this – they wouldn’t cross the river for fear of not getting a fare back into the centre of London, a much more densely populated area. The South was seen as the cheaper and rougher viewing platform to the other side of the river, with Southbank being the site of several of London's prisons, including the infamous Clink Prison. Side note, you can still visit the Clink Prison Museum just by Borough Market today, where you can get a gaudy picture of the whole family behind bars included in the price of the ticket, of course. Southbank was also where activities that wouldn’t have been tolerated in the city grew in popularity, such as theatres and brothels. Simply put, it just wasn’t as desirable. 


Perhaps it’s worth delving into London’s origins to uncover the roots of this bias. The division of the capital began with the Romans in the 5th century, when they established their settlement of Londinium in the area where the City of London borough stands today. This was followed nearly two centuries later by the Anglo-Saxons, who based their community Ludenwic near Charing Cross; everything was solidified north of the Thames. As the city developed, most of the politically important and wealthy buildings – Westminster, Parliament, and the Strand – went up on the north side of the river. Recently, though, the divide has lessened. South London is now home to one of Europe’s tallest structures, the Shard, and of course, the iconic London Eye. However, its historical significance just doesn’t extend as deeply. 

South London’s transport links are also not quite comparable. North of the River Thames, London is mainly built on clay, which is better for digging tunnels. The conditions south, however, are poorly suited for tunnelling with marshy and wet soil, especially between Waterloo and London Bridge. In addition to the higher costs of tunnelling, South London, being less densely populated, offered a more cost-effective option for above-ground construction. Many gaps are still not covered by the overground, making transport around South London significantly harder. Transport for London have promised a Bakerloo line extension, which will supposedly connect the city to Lewisham via the Old Kent Road and New Cross Gate. Whether this will indeed come to fruition is a subject of a separate debate entirely.        

All in all, it's true you do have to cross the river for a lot of the good stuff; however you cut it, north London is bigger than south London. The northern bias continues to be either amusing or frustrating depending on where you live, reinforced by centuries-old divisions. In part, the differences that remain are largely psychological; north Londoners view their patch of the capital as culturally richer than south London, and, to a certain extent, they have a point. This hasn’t stopped areas such as Brixton, Peckham and Clapham becoming gentrified in recent years, and these areas that were once seen as just a little bit too dodgy are now sought-after hotspots.

Although London’s north-south divide is lessening more and more each day and the gap in wealth difference closes, the next time you’re wondering why north London gets all the love, it’s because it is, objectively – historically – more important, sorry!


Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor


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