The Unorthodox Website Blog

North/South Division

30 May

There is, and always has been, a great division between London north of the River Thames and London south of the River, or certainly between the Londoners who live in these two areas of the metropolis.

South London, according to the postal districts, extends north of the river, but areas like Fulham, Chelsea, Westminster and Victoria are not part of true South London despite having postcodes beginning SW.

There is also a division between East and West London, but it is not so psychologically significant. Crossing the River Thames, particularly for those living north of it, entails crossing a physical barrier, and many never get much further than the South Bank complex.

I have now lived well over half my life south of the River Thames, having moved to Battersea in 1973, so 41 years ago. However I am still lost if I go much further south than a mile or two from the River Thames, Battersea being on the south bank. I know fairly well a strip along the River to the West as far as Putney, and a strip along the River as far as Tower Bridge, then there is  a big gap until we get to Greenwich, an area many Londoners know because of the river trips there.

My mother grew up in East London (Bow) but futher east than that is a bit hazy to me, and she was born at an aunt’s place in Acton in West London. I don’t know that area at all well, and in fact I’m only really familiar with West London as far as Shepherds Bush, or Northwest London (erroneously called ‘Middlesex’ by many who live there) as far as Wembley, where my uncle and his family used to live.

However the areas with N postal districts I know fairly well, at least as far north as the outer North London boroughs. I was born just off Oxford Street in the now demolished Middlesex Hospital, where I spent a lot of my childhood due to many operations, hospital stays and outpatients visits.

My first six years were spent living in West Hampstead/Kilburn area, where I went to primary school. After my parents split up in 1951 we moved to my maternal grandparents’ house in Wood Green. This is where I spent most of my childhood, and where I went to school, then college in nearby Tottenham (now both part of the London Borough of Haringey). I lived in two places in Wood Green, then when I was 16 we moved out of London to Welwyn Garden City, a place I hated from the outset. After a year working locally, I got a job at CND headquarters in first the Aldersgate area of London, then Grays Inn Road, and commuted for six years, till moving back to first Camden briefly (with my father), then Stoke Newington, and finally Camden where I also lived in two places.

So the areas of London most familiar to me are Hampstead, Wood Green, Camden and to some extent Stoke Newington (where I only lived a few months). Also places in between these areas and Central London.

South London is largely residential. There are few Underground lines which cross the River and extend far into South London. It relies mainly on buses, trams (in the Croydon area), the Overground and other surface trains for public transport.

There is very little reason to travel anywhere in South London unless you live there or are visiting relatives/friends. Even when musical events have been held in South London (by which I mean south of the River) I hesitate to go there unless they are near a rail or Underground station. It is a problem knowing where to alight from a bus or a tram when most of London south of the River is a strange city. Streetview helps enormously though, as you can now do a virtual walk from your destination back to the nearest bus or tram stops.

Physical barriers like the River Thames do psychologically divide towns and cities almost as efficiently as the Berlin or Nicosia walls once divided those cities. In Welwyn Garden City it was the railway tracks, all the social housing and factories being on the unfashionable East side of the railway when I lived there (on the East side naturally), and the shops and posh houses being on the fashionable West side of town. As a member of the local CND group in the 1960s I attended meetings at the Friends Meeting House on the West side of town. A elderly middle-class woman with the equally middle-class nickname of ‘Squib’ was giving several of us a lift home in her car. I was the last one to be taken home, and gave the street name. ‘I’ve never heard of that street, how do I get there?’ asked Squib. ‘You go over the railway bridge….’ I started to explain, as a look of sheer horror crept over her face. I might just as well have asked her to drive through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. ‘Oh, over THAT side of town!’ she exclaimed in disgust. ‘You’ll have to direct me, I’ve NEVER been over there!’

It is much the same with many North Londoners when required or invited to cross the River into South London. They might visit the National Theater, the NFT, the London Eye, even Battersea Park (especially when the fun fair was there), but venture any further into the residential areas of London south of the River and they, like me are lost. Croydon, being on the main line is better known to me, but not most of the places in between it and Battersea/Clapham Junction. As for Southeast London, forget it! This is the part of London I am about as familiar with as the far side of the Moon. I venture there with extreme reluctance, and am not even familiar with many of the names of places there. A friend once told me she lived in Mottingham, and I thought she meant Nottingham! I went to Hither Green to visit another friend,  had never heard of the place, and was completely lost when I arrived. Fortunately my friend eventually arrived to guide me through the jungle of residential streets to where he lived.

So, except in the area immediately around Battersea where I live, I am unable to give directions to strangers for almost anywhere in London south of the River Thames, but am able to give quite detailed directions for places north of the River unless in the extremities of East or West London.

Once a North Londoner, always a North Londoner, even if you end up by sheer accident, like I did, just south of the River!

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