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The expat has returned from voluntary exile and finds herself with a new domain to discover: London.


Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Getting to know Greenwich

The view from Greenwich Park
As a Northern lass who moved darn sarf aged 18 for university and has remained here pretty much ever since (the odd stint in Spain aside), I'm certainly familiar with the notorious North-South divide and all its accompanying prejudices. However, I had no idea that the same feeling was quite so prevalent in London, with the Thames serving as a watery barrier between the capital's two halves. When I announced I would be moving south of the river, my friends' reactions depended entirely on their own postcode, with many in the Ns and Es giving me slightly pitying looks and hoping I'd return soon to the 'right' side. Although I was aware that many of the city's major monuments, its main shopping streets and a considerable share of its nightlife were located above the Thames, I have to confess that my knowledge of south London was largely limited to sitting on the 176 bus to C's East Dulwich flat listening to 'This is the 176 to Penge' on repeat for half an hour. So, after moving to SE7 at the end of August, the quest to get to know my new neighbourhood was officially on. Could it be that after a lifetime of allegiance to the north (north of England, north Oxford, north-west Madrid) I was about to switch sides?

Although pleasant enough, residential Charlton isn't the most interesting of areas - the retail park is certainly handy, but not exactly brimming with culture and leisure opportunities. Charlton House and the surrounding park are its strong points, but for non-chain shopping, sights and a social scene, Greenwich is the nearest port of call. Interestingly, the reactions of my north of the river friends were all softened somewhat when they learned I would be living near Greenwich, an area that general consensus declared 'lovely'. With hundreds of years of history behind it, modern day Greenwich retains plenty of period buildings, from the grandiose Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum to the more modest shopfronts lining its streets. Thanks to its beauty and its impressive history, which includes an important royal role back in Tudor times, Greenwich has been awarded World Heritage Site status and attracts thousands of tourists each year.

I was first introduced to the area by local resident L, who was happy to play tour guide to the new arrival. Walking along the riverside pathway, we passed 'Maritime' Greenwich, although the famous Cutty Sark ship is currently undergoing conservation work. The Christopher Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College, the NMM (both to be explored at a later date) and Trinity College of Music together form an imposing complex facing the water and out towards Canary Wharf. The site is also home to the Visit Greenwich centre, which offers tourists interactive displays detailing Greenwich's history and its present-day attractions in addition to the usual maps and leaflets.

Greenwich Market

Coming inland, we wandered through Greenwich's pretty streets to its undercover market, a small but lively space currently fighting drastic refurbishment plans. Situated on the same site since the 1830s, the Wednesday to Sunday market now offers shoppers a little more than the original meat and veg, with food to go from all over the world (from sushi to salt cod, if you want it, you'll probably find it), fresh produce and arts and crafts. The modish cupcake puts in an appearance courtesy of Ruby Tuesday and vegan-friendly Ms Cupcake, with a mini Monmouth Coffee van offering high quality caffeinated refreshment. The market is surrounded by shops and cafes which open daily, all meriting further exploration. Earlier today I returned for another wander and was tempted inside the smart Rhodes Bakery on nearby College Approach. A modern patisserie-cum-bakery that now also boasts a branch in Notting Hill and a Borough Market stall, Rhodes offers a selection of freshly baked breads, quiches, paninis and a host of sweet treats, many of which are priced under a pound - a bargain for well-heeled Greenwich. I opted for a 99p bakewell slice, and despite the price it was a damn sight tastier than Mr Kipling's version. In addition to its cafes, Greenwich also has a thriving restaurant scene, with the chic Spread Eagle and Rivington Greenwich leading the style stakes.

Given the culinary delights on offer, over-indulgence is fairly likely. Waistline watchers need not fear, however: Greenwich Park offers 72 hectares in which to burn off those cupcakes. The oldest Royal Park is not just a vast green space; it's also home to a herd of deer, the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian Line, the line which divides the world into East and West hemispheres.

And from one dividing line to another: if Greenwich is anything to go by, I could easily be converted to the south side. With plenty of parkland and monuments to explore, one-off shops galore and a villagey atmosphere that makes you feel as though you're hours from the capital rather than a mere 10 minutes to London Bridge, I'm definitely looking forward to getting to know Greenwich better.

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