Is London still a city of two halves, divided transversely by the Thames, are its two sides still fundamentally different and can you successfully move from north to south and vice versa?
First I have to declare an element of prejudice, I’m a London cabbie who was born in Fitzrovia and grew up in one of the city’s most northerly and leafy suburbs.
Historically, it’s easy to see why we are a city of two unequal halves both in landmass, wealth and transport. The South was easily flooded marshland, so was filled with factories and cheap workers’ homes. The North had hills and therefore attracted the rich, who love a vista.
With a measly 29 stations, compared with 241 on the other side of the Thames (at September 2020) southerners have slim pickings. The Northern line at least extends as far as Zone 4, but otherwise, the Jubilee, Bakerloo, District and Victoria lines all make half-arsed efforts at serving south London. It’s often said that the Underground didn’t venture into south London because of the dangers from digging up 17th plague pits or that the gravel beds made tunnelling uneconomic. The reason is far more prosaic. The majority of mass plague graves are north of the river and they proved no obstacle to the growth of the tube running far beneath them, the real reason comes down to cold, hard capitalism. When the first private tube companies began operating after 1863, they focused on north London, where there was more opportunity.
Naturally, the South has more pubs, but most of the theatres lie north of the River.
The accents of Londoners from either half are different, too, and their homes look different; shorter and squatter in the south, taller and of deeper red brick in the north.
But then it starts to get really complicated because the Victorians developed grander areas – Brixton and Clapham which had large semi-detached residences, but just as the south was taking off World War II caused housing shortages and created subdivided homes, which meant the larger properties got poorer.
And then it got really complicated, and bear with me on this one, because the north holds both the east and the west, not the south, and as the city’s core emptied out after the war, Londoners moved east and south but not west, which made it as expensive as the north.
In other words, you’re still either a north or south person. But looking to the future, the south has more potential. It has Bermondsey, Borough, Bankside and plenty of other wealthy enclaves, but is still straddled with vast swathes of social housing, while in the north, due to the paucity of two-up-two-downs prices for these Victorian terraces – even with more working from home – are going through the roof.
The ongoing tragedy for either side is that the areas that really need improving remain in a deplorable cycle of poverty, pulled back and forth by market forces, while prosperous roads have more builders’ skips outside than you can shake a stick at.