As I am usually abroad the month of September, I have had to make peace with missing out on the activities surrounding this festival celebrating London’s great waterway, long a source of commerce, leisure and livelihood, a true source of the city’s lifeblood and development. Outside of a few public displays that begin appearing along the banks of the river just before the start of the month, I have been unable to attend any specific events, of which there are many, anything from talks to concerts to walks to photography exhibitions to boating spectacles. It was my great pleasure to this year have the opportunity to avail myself of two of the central offerings, with wildly varying results.
Bascule Chamber Concert
This choral concert held deep within the bowels of one of Tower Bridge’s counterweight chambers, a Victorian masterpiece of engineering and industry (one of four such cavities that house the mechanisms that allow for the bridge to lift) is the one presentation I have most regretted not to have experienced, so I jumped at the chance to book a ticket early to assure myself of a seat for a truly atmospheric and transporting piece. The descent is quite dramatic, and sparks all manner of anticipation, entering through one of the control room stations and commencing a steep downwards journey via a series of twisting stairwells until you emerge into a vast, sweeping stone vault, vibrations of passing traffic overhead creating its own eerie vehicular rhythm. On the day I attended, rainfall was heavy and unremitting and cascaded in absolute freefall down the back wall (which may have engendered a reshuffle of seating), only enhancing the earthiness of the environment. The seven-strong Marian Consort, performing a programme encompassing works from the Renaissance through to 20th century (music set to Emily Dickinson poems), voices lifting and countering and complementing, crafted spine-tingling feats of tone and cadence, enhanced by the glorious acoustics within the space. I was held captive for the entirety of the hour of the performance (and I will never forget the incongruent visual of the members holding not songbooks with clip lights, but rather the very modern iPad, in a room so clearly claimed by a singularly different age-the audience could sense the close of a piece when the singers moved to click off their devices’ illumination).
The brainchild of the profligately imaginative and inspired Iain Chambers, this is an indelible, unique sensory experience which I can without equivocation highly recommend. Inventory it for next year’s festival. The lineup changes each year, and you may, as happened to me, be required several times to alter the entry time to accommodate the raising of the bridge. I’ll never cross Tower Bridge in quite the same way ever again.
And now, unfortunately, to this woeful auditory promenade through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, which in concept promised much, but in practice fell quite far from intention. After booking a ticket (which even at £8 felt rather extortionate for what was required productionally ), each participant was sent two files to download onto personal devices (phones, iPods), the purposes of which were to accompany and direct you on your journey through the tunnel, the voice of a small girl meant to gently stoke your perceptions and reflections through the prism of water. There was much faffing about as people gathered in front of the tunnel, the organisers assuring themselves that all had properly downloaded the files, handing out earphones (although, as instructed, most people had brought their own, less cumbersome, buds). A big show was made of queuing up and releasing each person into the tunnel in staggered fashion (the first file, seven minutes long, was meant to indicate when each person should be released-you had to listen for your prompt), but this could have been achieved much easier with a guide simply indicating when you could go (really, what was the purpose of the first file if it was just a holding mechanism? Very confusing, and superfluous). The second file (the only one of use) was switched on as you finally made your way down the stairs, but even this proved rather unilluminating, the increasingly irritating cadence of the small girl’s voice exhorting us to touch the walls and listen to the flow of people through the space, contemplate the water held on all sides. The way in which all participants had been dispersed was meant to mimic the choreography of a river dance. Why the voice on the file could not have been more sensibly adult, spoken of the tunnel’s specific history, imparted any rich knowledge of the Woolwich area and its military legacy, is a mystery. Continually, the spell (weak though it be) was broken by the volume at which many passersby spoke, the sounds of distracting public movement all around that violated the headset. On turning around, as recommended by my infantile host just before climbing the stairs that would blessedly bring my walk to its end, to contemplate the tunnel one last time and watch my fellow wanderers, I felt..unchanged and unmoved. I emerged with only a pointedly burdensome sense of disappointment and slight outrage. And shock. The whole experience lacked any sort of sophistication or edge. At least I was able to at last have an excuse to tour the buildings of Royal Arsenal, a long-held unrealised ambition. It is only for this sake that the day was not a crushing disaster.