The tour was led by Chris McCabe, librarian and poet. It began beside the sculpture of Dylan Thomas’ head, situated inside the library. It is the only sculpture made from life, by Oloff de Wet, and was discovered in the basement several years ago. It was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death in the Poetry Library as a natural home for it. Chris read out some of Thomas’ words about the South Bank as a fitting tribute.
We headed outside, gathering by the poetry stones that were laid in the pavement when this area was constructed. These include some words from Wordsworth, who didn’t particularly like the area, preferring his native Lake District.
We also heard about the Lion Brewery that used to occupy the site, and about the murder committed here by William Chester Minor. Minor was committed to Broadmoor, and became one of the most prolific contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, responding to an advert asking for help – let’s face it, he had plenty of time on his hands. The creators of the dictionary had no idea that their helpful contributor was a notorious murderer.
Heading inland from the river, we heard about poet Arthur Rimbaud, who lived nearby (where the BFI Imax is now) in 1888. Stabbed by his lover Paul Verlaine after an argument, he left Camden and returned to France before coming back to London.
We were given audio headsets at this point, and listened to poet Tom Chivers as we explored the area south of the river. We walked by the Waterloo International section of the station, no longer in use, and passed under the station through a graffiti-strewn tunnel.
Along the way we stopped at the point where the former Necropolis Railway depot still stands. This station took coffins and mourners out to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, with first and second class carriages for both the dead and the living.
A little further on and we were standing outside the location of William Blake’s former home in Lambeth, where he lived from 1790 to 1800. His time here was one of great personal happiness for Blake, though he was still deeply concerned about the state of the world: he created his Songs of Experience here. In a nearby tunnel are some utterly stunning mosaics, based on Blake’s poetry and illustrations. They are incredibly detailed and really show the range of his imagination.
A short walk and we were back to the river. We stopped by Westminster Bridge, because the lion statue from the Lion Brewery is now here. The brewery was bombed during the Second World War, but the lion somehow survived.
We continued on the south bank, stopping at the final poetry stone with a quote from TS Eliot, before returning to the Poetry Library.