South Bank, Sunday Morning

Dusty rays illuminate the narrow trail that runs from Borough Market to the South Bank. Outside The Clink, a council worker sweeps last night’s party debris and drunken memories along the cobblestone surface, past a filthy doorway where two young men lie unconscious.

The tide is low, so the river ambles narrow and coy between its widened banks as ripples of water invite the eye across to where St. Paul’s dome glistens like an unlicked ice cream.

Runners with tight shorts and shiny legs feel the sun on their back as they head westward, past the thin line of the Millennium Bridge where I run into her, dressed in a tracksuit and running shoes with camera in hand, smiling.

“Look out for the chewing gum.”

I stop to check the soles of my shoes.

She laughs: “No, on the bridge – look closely and you’ll see the tiny works of art sculpted out of chewing gum. They’re everywhere. The guy’s called Mr. Chewing Gum. Google him.”

And there they are, intricate pieces pasted onto the textured metal surface of the bridge – comic characters, space ships and coats of arms; a surface-bound gallery of discarded muck turned into miniature works of art stretching all the way from the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s, where thousands of feet pass every day without noticing.

I look up to frame a dramatic perspective of the bridge with St. Paul’s in the background, just as a female runner wearing a bright outfit and headphones appears. I snap fast to make sure I get her in the frame.

She stops, taking off her headphones: “Excuse me, would you mind sending me that picture?”

We exchange email addresses. She smiles and runs off, and I continue down the quiet South Bank, reaching the green lawns with their silver birch trees outside the Tate, where more exhausted partygoers lie asleep on the grass, unaware of the growing parade of passing fitness fanatics and dog walkers.

Then I reach his pop-up studio, opportunistically erected on the wet sand left by the tidally receding Thames. Ron, a.k.a. The Beach Captain, is sculpting a boat out of sand, surrounded by a neat display of bowls (meant for collecting coin donations), a bike and an oversized Bart Simpson. He’s constantly interrupted by inquisitive locals, who want to know why he bothers, given that the tide will soon come in to sweep it all away.

“Because it’s art, he says, and I want people to enjoy it. All artists go through the same process, right? They fill up a page in their sketchbook, they turn it over and then they start again on a blank one. It’s the same for me, except it’s the river coming in to turn my pages.”

He poses for a picture, commenting: “I’m just growing the beard again you see, for a few features I’m shooting. The ladies don’t much like it you know, but work is work.”

He turns to dig up more wet sand for his sculpture as a Union Jack waves behind him in the morning breeze.

Some people mentioned in this post:

The Bridge Runner
The Chewing Gum Man
The Beach Captain