A travel journal
to London by actonsteve
Quote: London is one of those cities that always surprises. You turn a corner and there is always something new. The attractions are world famous but my suggestions are those known by Londoners and have yet to be deluged by the tourist hordes. Get there while they are still undiscovered.
One summer evening I took the tube from my home in North Acton to Tottenham Court Road to meet some friends for a drink in Covent Garden. I settled back with a good book - Daniel Defoe's "Journal of the Plague year" sending me back to 1665 and Restoration London. The journey sped by as I was immersed in a world of royals and commoners, actresses and highwaymen, all set in the parish of St Giles and its plague pits and carts. Eventually I finished the book, got off the tube, and went through the barriers. I turned left and - WHACK! I was in St Giles. There was the exact same church, the graveyard and the old parish inn. I was taken back to 1665 in a trice.
That is what is so great about London. Old and new combined. It still has that touch of magic about it....
For accomodation London has evolved little tourist colonies - Earls Court, Queensway, Victoria etc. But for my mind the best place to look is in Cartwright Gardens in Bloomsbury which has some good value hotels and you are not far from the West End. The guidebook TIME OUT has a list of the best accomodation agencies and along with Rough Guide and Footprint is the best guide to London (avoid Lonely Planet and Let's Go)But above all enjoy this fabulous, ever-changing cosmopolitan city that I am proud to call home...
For the visitor the best mode of transport will be the Tube. Still the best way around teh cities, this used in conjunction with the trains and buses means no corner of the city is unreachable. I still enjoy the buses and the old Routemasters have platforms at the back where you can jump on and off. But the best thing to do is walk. That way you get to see the city properly as it is made up of tiny neighbourhoods such as Soho, Highgate, Westminster, Southwark and Notting Hill. If asked what the essence of London is I would have to say these neighbourhoods - and of course the good old British pub. Enjoy.
Attraction | "Somerset House - Palladian Mansion on the river"
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 4, 2000
London, England WC2R 1LA
+1 020 7845 4676
Attraction | "Vikings, Tudors and the Blitz - Museum of London"
To reach it take the circle/district/metropolitan line to Barbican. Then follow the signs of Dick Whittington and his cat out of the tube station and across the overpass. The Museum is part of the Barbican brutalist arts complex - one of the largest in Europe. Notoriously difficult to find your way round this can start as a pre or post museum stop and is the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. If you can snap up tickets (£10-30)you will not regret it as it is one of the best theatre companies in the world.
The museum does free tours and these are worth taking up. the first section is prehistory including a disturbing picture of the Thames valley imagining if London never existed. Then the Roman section which cannily incorporates the museum design so that you can look down on a fragment of Londons Roman wall. The Celts, Danes, Saxons, Normans and Vikings all whoosh by and there are some fantastic reconstructed models of medieval buildings that are no longer with us. Such as Old London Bridge which was lined with houses,taverns and brothels. What a shame that they hadn't survived to this day.
The Tudors were next with great portraits of Henry VIII. Did you know that the man had not one but fifty three palaces dotted around London with only St James, Hampton Court and Lambeth still surviving. London looked rather green and suburban in those days (see picture)and the great fire of London was shown in a rather tame diorama narrated by Samuel Pepys. The fire destroyed most of the old medieval/Tudor city and plans were drawn up by Sir Christopher Wren to reconstruct London along baroque lines to make it as grand as Rome or Vienna. But they returned to the old medieval streetplan and it was not to be. Shame really.
The final section of the museum had some stunners. The highlight has to be the gilt covered Lord Mayors coach. But also on show are 17th century court ladies costumes, a door from the septic Newgate prison, and the original art-deco lift from Selfridges department store. The museum finally winds up in the London Now! exhibt showing life in the 21st century. It explores the role of multi-ethnic London and celebrates the cities diversity. The Indian Tandoori restaurant is just as much part of London as Oliver Twist or Geoffry Chaucer. And after visiting this lively museum you may think the same....
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London, England EC2Y 5HN
+44 (207) 814 5613
Attraction | "A touch of elegance - Chiswick House and gardens"
To find it, come out of Turnham Green tube, turn left onto Chiswick High Street until you reach the signs pointing south for Chiswick House. Or alternately walk along the river from Hammersmith, Chiswick House is at the end of the Thames Walk.
The house itself was built as a "temple to the arts" and was where Lord Burlington used to entertain his friends Swift, Handel and Alexander Pope. It's front facade is a magnificent with a Corinthian portico complete with Doric columns and statues. And its octagonal shape houses beautiful rooms, with the upper floor containing the sumptuous Blue Velvet room that has impressive views of the gardens.
The gardens themselves, for me, are the main attraction. Hedges, topiary, urns, fountains and copies of Roman statuary all blend together. A recreated Greek temple runs the length of a lake where a newly restored cascade pours into the waters.
If you tire of the House and gardens, follow the north entrance out and walk east along the A4 for a few minutes and you will come to Hogarths house. Built in the 18th century when the surrounding area was all fields and countryside, this contains works from the artist and satirist including 'a rakes progress' and 'gin lane'.
Only in London could you have an aristocrat and an anti-establishment satirist living side by side.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 10, 2000
London, England W4 2RP
+44 20 8995 0508
Attraction | ""Beowulf, anyone?" - the New British Library"
It can be reached by walking along the Euston Road from either Kings Cross or Euston Tube stations. Or by Number 73 bus from Trafalgar Square. Before you enter is a giant piazza dominated by a Paolozzi's bronze statue of Newton with compass plotting the immensity of the universe. Inside is the great research library (you need to prove you are there for research to use this), an excellent bookshop, cafeteria, and a six-story glass tower containing the collection of books from George III which was given to the nation.
But the best thing about the BL is the free exhibitions. To the left as you enter is the John Riblat gallery - an absolute gem. Under high-tech conditions are the most precious books in the world. The oldest surviving manuscript - the priceless 'Diamond Sutra' is on display from 638 AD. Also under glass cases are Buddhist and Hindu texts, Gutenberg bibles, gilt inlaid Qu'run's and Korans and the 'Lindesfarne' gospels. A room to one side allows you to handle these through interactive television screens.
You can wander around viewing Henry VII's maps of Calais, Nelson's battleplans for Trafalgar, the diaries of Babur and the scribblings of Newton and Michaelangelo. My favourite are the notes of Charles Babbage to the Duke of Wellington trying to get him interested in his new calculating machine (computer). Nearby is Jane Austens writing desk and papers from the Brontes, Wordsworth, Bach, Elgar, not to mention Beethovens tuning stick. And once you have seen the three Magna Carta's it is time for Shakespeare's mortgage and original lyrics and records by the Beatles. One seeing these my father said "You mean to say those records I have at home belong in a museum - Lord, I feel old..."
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 3, 2001
96 Euston Road
London, England NW1 2DB
+44 20 7412 7000
Most people start at Westminster and the tube station can be reached on the District/Circle line. The station itself is worth a look with its metallic high-tech design and will deposit you outside the looming clocktower of Big Ben. Westminster Bridge is the start of the walk, giving expansive views up and downstream. This seems to be the new tourist heart of London with crowds making their way between Big Ben and the new London Eye. Hawkers and food stands now line the bridge. The view famous from Monet's paintings of the Houses of Parliament can be seen if you turn right after completing the bridge and step down to Albert Embankment. If you continue west along the embankment you will eventually reach the Tudor gatehouse of Lambeth Palace.
But most visitors head east down the steps to the London Eye. The great Palladian building before the Eye is the famous County Hall where 'Red Ken' faced up to Margaret Thatcher across the river. But the Eye is exceptional and now thronged with tourists and tour guides, buskers and ice-cream vans. If you continue onwards you pass Hungerford railway bridge which is currently being renovated and will feature a light and airy footbridge. Facing the river is the capital's arts and entertainment complex - the South Bank centre. It is one of the biggest and most important in Europe and features the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, National Film Theatre, and most importantly, the Royal National Theatre founded by Laurence Olivier. There are always crowds milling around here killing time before and after a show/exhibtion/performance and all the buskers around here seem to be retired Opera singers.
If you are here on a Sunday there is a wonderful book market set up under the arches of Waterloo Bridge (see photo) and the views of the Thames from here are magical. The Thames itself is a very clean river, though it may not look it from its creamy/brownish hue. This is because of the sediment stirred up by two tidal reaches (riverine and maritime)which stretch up as far as Teddington. As of writing a porpoise has been spotted as far as Blackfriars after straying in from the North Sea.
The Oxo Tower with its fashionable restaurant overlooks Gabriels Wharf - a terrific little conglomeration of shops, cafes and restaurants with a garden that hosts performance artists. But the big attraction is along the promenade and under Blackfriars bridge - the Tate Modern (I have covered this in a separate journal)and Shakespeare's Globe. This mock Tudor building stands near Bankside pier and is a recreation of the 16th century playhouse that stood near this site. It was built of the original Tudor materials including a thatched roof and wattle and daub walls. The inside stage is open to the elements, as it was in Shakespeare's time and balaustraded balconies and stage are amazing in their accuracy. I was lucky to see a performance of 'Love's Labours Lost' with Vanessa Redgrave last year and the experience was unforgettable. If you can't see a performance then there are tours every hour costing about £7.50. These I would strongly recommend.
By the time you have reached the Globe your feet may be aching and your thirst may need quenching. The 17th century Anchor Inn overlooks the river (see photo)and my suggestion to you is order up a good pint of ale, take it outside, sit down and enjoy the views of the river.
Bankside and Southwark have always had a nefarious reputation. It was outside the puritancial jurisdiction of the city and all manner of vice sprang up - brothels, theatres, alehouses, bear-baiting, gambling houses, breweries, cockfighting and even gladitatorial contests. It was the abode of cutpurses and thieves, of prostitutes and gin-factories - all looked over by the Bishop of Winchester. In fact prostitutes were known as 'Winchester Geese' in the old slang. This area of ill-repute was a favourite pleasure-ground of Tudor and Medieval London. And nowadays gives just as much pleasure to modern Londoners in its riverside walk.
To keep a lid on so much sin the Bishops had a prison in their jurisdiction - the Liberty of the Clink (hence the expression - 'in clink')This prison has been opened as an attraction and can be reached by following the railway arches after the Anchor Inn on Clink Street. If you decide to enter (£4.00)you will get to view this septic prison with its torture instruments and dank cells. Not just criminals were incarcerated here but debtors as well, and those with money could buy luxuries. The other side of the Clink Prison is a real surprise - the ruins of the Bishop of Winchester's Palace. Most of the building is gone but the beautiful rose window is still visible. If you follow the narrow, atmospheric lane you will end up at St Overies dock where a replica of the Golden Hinde is moored. This Tudor ship is famous for Sir Francis' Drakes 1577 circumavigation of the globe and really adds to the Tudor atmosphere.
Something even older is further along the trail - Southwark Cathedral. This is a beautiful church and very important to the community today. It dates back to the 7th century though most of what you see today is 15th Century and the interior is superb. The nave is carved in marble and the ceiling is of lace-like gothic. Beautiful little side-chapels add something to the church and contains the tomb of John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucers. And don't miss the effigy of the 15th Century knight in his shining armour. To the north of Southwark Cathedral is the bustling Borough market. A market has been on this spot since the middle ages and the current one is under threat from developers. It concentrates on hearty fresh produce and it is not unusual to find unusual food from the shires such as venison and wild boar sausages.
If you follow the trail you will end up on Tooley Street, you may cross the road to the London Dungeon. Better still is to follow the river to Haye's Galleria an old converted spice warehouse which now is a very classy shopping arcade (see photo). There are some exceptional shops and pubs and good views of the mighty HMS Belfast. A moored World War II battleship which you can visit and the kids will enjoy playing on the guns. The ultimate kodak moment is to align this ship up with nearby Tower Bridge. The bridge itself is impressive but if you duck underneath it and stay on the south side you will find yourself in one of my favourite streets in London - Shad Thames.
This narrow street (see photo)is squeezed between old Victorian sugar warehouses, and the galleries where the dockers used to carry sugar from one warehouse to the other still soar above the street. This area is very atmospheric and was used as a location in the film 'The Elephant Man'. If you carry on past the Design Museum you will come to Concordia Wharf (see photo) with its expensive flats overlooking the Thames. But most people settle down, perhaps at the nearby Conran restaurant Pont de Jour, rest easy and congratulate themselves on finishing one of he best urban walks in the world.
To reach it come out of Paddington Station and head north, taking the underpass under the Westway to the periphery of St Johns Wood and Little Venice . This was a phrase coined by the poet Robert Browning to describe the area. The Regents Canal opens up into a basin overlooking by Georgian and Victorian houses. The basin sports flower-strewn gardens and in its centre is a willow covered island providing refuge for waterfowl. The narrowboats themselves are very colourful and are usually inhabited (they aren't that expensive, about £30,000)and each Spring Bank Holiday the Canal cavalcade is held where narrowboats from all over England congregate for a festival.
Heading east takes you along the canal where the narrow boats are so packed together it resembles Amsterdam. Then across Maida Vale Road and along Aberdeen Place and past the pub down to the Regents Canal. A staircase descends to the canal bank where for the next two miles there is a pleasant walk to Regents Park where you can observe life on the river and watch the boats ply up and down. The banks of the canalbank are lined with trees and greenery and fisherman share the water with ducks and canalboats. On a summers day it is charming to walk along and see the residents sunbathing or enjoying a glass of wine.
Passing under a number of bridges you will arrive where the Regents canal slices into northern Regents Park and its grand baroque mansions. Nearby London zoo is cut in half by the Regents canal so you can have a free look at the animals without leaving its banks. Canal boats chug up and down looking at the giraffes and camels on the south bank and the vast expanse of the Snowdon aviary on the north. This aviary is huge and allows storks and ibis' to fly around.
Under a few more bridges and you are approaching the fun bedlam of Camden Market. The music from buskers is the first indication that it is not far away. And . Camden Lock itself is a sight to see and is a series of gates modifying water levels on the canal so that boats can pass up and down. . And when you have tired of the market tickets can be bought from the Lock Keepers cottage for canal boats to take you back to Little Venice.
All in all, an enjoyable walk, especially in the summer. But the highlight for me is peeking at other peoples lives living in the narrowboats and wondering how they manage to get power for their televisions without electricity.
Attraction | "Karl Marx and Vampires - Highgate Cemetery"
To reach it from Central London take the Northern Line to Archway tube station. There take the exit leading to Highgate Hill. Walk past the Lloyds bank, Whittington Stone pub, (with a statue of Whittington's cat dating back to 1393)and uphill. When you reach the neo-gothic dome of St Josephs church (opposite 'The Old Crown'pub) take a left and it will take you to Waterlow Park. This is a beautiful park rolling downhill with lawns, gardens and lakes containing coots and mallard ducks. We visited when the first snows of winter had fallen and the park was full of snowmen and tobogganists. Cross the park to the South west exit and you will find yourself in Swains Lane. Here are the entrances to the East and West Cemeteries.
Highgate cemetary dates back to 1839 and it soon became the preferred resting places of Victorian families. Their tombs and graves became even more ornate and by the turn of the century the cemetery was full to bursting point. Thirty years ago it was take over by 'The Friends of Highgate Cemetery' who restored it to its former glory. They now do tours each day (£3, 11-3pm) where you can follow the trail around the cemetery and see how it inspired Bram Stoker and his tale of 'Dracula'
While waiting for the tours to start it is often better to visit the East Cemetery (£2). Here you can wander at will amongst the tombs and graves. The are usually decked in clinging ivy and lichen, and when we were there there was a light sprinkling of snow on the statues of angels and celtic crosses making it very photogenic. Most people head for the great bust of Karl Marx, where he and his family are buried. The great monolithic bust which would not look out of place in Minsk or Moscow was put there in 1954 by the British Communist party. It reads 'workers of each lands, unite'. His wife, the patrician, Jenny Von Westphalen, is buried nearby. And they all used to live in a house not far away in Hampstead. For a social revoloutionary, Marx had very bourgois tastes. While we were there there were fresh flowers under the statue and East European women were there to pay their respects.
But the highlight is undoubtedly the West Cemetery which resembles the creepy set of a horror film. The tour we joined was led by an old lady in her seventies who was a 'friend of Highgate cemetery'. Her black and white cat, Domino, followed the group along the trails as she led us into the cemetery. This was probably more overgrown and was full of graves, statues, tombs and mausaleoms. One of the most amazing was the Egyptian avenue guarded by obelisks and pyramids. Inside were the tombs of numerous Victorian families which led to a wide circular array of tombs arranged around a central catacomb. This was the most ornate section of the cemetery and contained the coffins of the lesbian novelist Radcliffe Hall and her lover Mavis Batten.
But if you ask a Londoner what they remember about Highgate cemetery - they will answer vampires. In the 1970s, the leader of the British occult society was caught trying to open the graves at the far back of the cemetery. When questioned he answered that he was there to defeat the 'Highgate' vampire and he was armed with stakes and crucifixes. Was there a vampire or was he just a crackpot? We will never know - but do you dare to visit Highgate Cemetery.
London, England N6
+44 20 8340 1834
Attraction | ""Oh what a lovely war" - Imperial War Museum"
Inside are exhibits about the wars of the 20th century. Spitfires and V-2 doodlebugs hang from the ceiling overlooking WWI tanks and lifeboats from destroyers. But the centrepieces are the exhibits on WWI and II.
WWI contains old uniforms, gasmasks and pieces of old zeppelin. There is a recreation of a Flanders trench complete with mannequins and dialogue to show what a terrible experience it must have been.
The WWII exhibition includes Nazi uniforms, Chamberlains 'peace in our time treaty', plans for the invasion of Britain and, my favorite, one of the bronze eagles from the Reich chancellery complete with bulletholes.
Nearby are interactive galleries on recent wars including an excellent one on Korea. And the espionage gallery has enigma decoders galore and tells the story of cold war espionage brilliantly. And enough spy gadgets such as exploding briefcases to keep Q Branch happy in the James Bond films.
But the pride of place is at the top of the building in the newly-built Holocaust exhibition - the third largest in the world. Tracing the history of anti-semitism in Europe, this is the most moving exhibit I have ever seen. The silence in the galleries was palpable. The entire history of the holocaust is traced complete with television witnesses, dissection tables, station signs from 'Sobibor' and mountains of shoes found in the death camps. I saw people moved to tears.
All in all, the Imperial War Museum is a good afternoon out, you may not have time to do it all. But as someone said as we were coming down the steps - it was the best museum he had ever been to.
Imperial War Museum London
London, England SE1 6HZ
+44 (20) 7416 5000
Attraction | ""But is it art, sweetie?" - the new Tate Modern"
The collection of modern British art outgrew its old home in Pimlico and was moved from the gallery now christened the Tate Britain to the new gallery. It stands in a converted power station on the south bank of the Thames opposite St Pauls. It is a striking landmark with a great colossal bulk and a central freestanding chimney that towers above the river. It was converted by the Swiss architects Herzog and Meuron who turned a derelict power station into a sparkling new art gallery.
To reach it is very easy. It forms the focus of most people's wander along the Thames Walk (see other entry) so you could walk to it from Waterloo if you arrive on the Eurostar. But from another part of London alight at Blackfriars tube where you can stroll across the river or Cannon Street where you can cross on Southwark Bridge. Entry can be from the river side or more impressively from the east which takes you directly into the main turbine hall.
This is colossal and designed for gigantic works of art, many of them so big you can crawl inside. The turbine hall is seven storeys high and on the eastern face, reachable by escalators are the galleries themselves. They have broken with the usual historical and chronological order of hanging the artworks and have grouped them under the headings Still life,Landscape,Nude and History. The artworks are rotated so that you will not see the same thing when you revisit and are enlightening and very entertaining.
On the first level are the landscapes/still life including surreal sculptures and paintings. Salvador Dalis 'Transfiguration' is on display and the sculptures including his 'lobster telephone' are very impressive. On the second level is Max Ernsts' Celibes and impressive work by Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso and Andy Warhol. Fascist art also seems to be on display and the exhibt on propaganda in the Spanish civil war was very moving. But it is the next level - Nude/Action/Body - which gets the most reaction. At one point you enter a darkened cinema auditorium where a bearded man dances naked in slow motion to music. To observe the reaction of old ladies up from Surrey for the day is hysterical...."Ooohh... look at that man...he's showing his...."
But the Tate Modern has shown considerable flair in its design. Terraces face the river with comfy armchairs and reading matter for visitors. The views across the Thames taking in the Millennium bridge and the dome of St Pauls are fantastic. There are better views from the 7th level where you can look down on Shakespeare's globe and see Tower Bridge in the distance. There are plans to take people up another 93 feet to the gallerys central chimney
for 360 degree views across London.
POSTSCRIPT FEBRUARY 2002
Hurrah! The Millennium Bridge is finally open. After nearly two years and five million pounds - 'the blade of light' is now accessible to the public. Having traversed it for the first time I have to say that it is an exceptionally beautiful bridge. The intricate silverwork set against the dome of St Pauls or the monolith of the Tate Modern is something special. It is rather high which means good views up and down the Thames as far as Tower Bridge. The Globe and HMS Belfast can now be seen from a birds eye view.
And what about the famous wobble? The engineers at Ove Garup have cured it with stabilisers and it is as solid as a rock. Unfortunately the damage has been done and every guidebook for the rest of time will probably mention the wobble as a cautionary tale (especially the mean ones such as Lonely Planet). But on the other hand there is the fact that all publicity is good publicity....
London SE1 9TG
+44 20 7887 8000
Attraction | "Notting Hill: In search of Hugh Grant"
Notting Hill has been around about a thousand years and was famous for its piggeries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the rich built mansions in the area to take advantage of the royal connections at Kensington Palace. The gentry and aristocracy were the ones who mainly were responsible for laying out its mews, crescents and squares and some fine buildings were built. During the 20th century the area hit hard times and became a low-rent area populated by immigrants who had just arrived from the West Indies. Its Caribbean connection is still celebrated each August bank holiday with the famous Notting Hill carnival where reggae music and outrageous costumes take to the streets. Only in the last twenty years has Notting Hill cleaned up its act with most of the problems being pushed out to Ladbroke Grove or Willeseden and the rich and famous have returned. Notting Hill is now an area populated by pop stars, models and the super-fashionable. Hugh Grant himself lives not far away in Holland Park, as does John Cleese, and a Labour minister recently lost his job on the price of a house in Notting Hill. The place has now got that much cachet.
To reach its most popular attraction - Portobello Road Market - take the Circle/Central line to Notting Hill Gate and take the exit to the north side. On the corner will be the "Endsleigh Arms" pub leading to the Pembridge Road. Follow the Pembridge road past its cake-shops, pubs, greengrocers, Indian restaurants and the like and take a left onto Portobello Road. The road leading to the market is rather charming full of 18th century cottages (one of them once owned by George Orwell) and the first of the stalls start to appear.
Portobello Road itself extends half a mile northwards and goes under the westway. Only really at its best on a Saturday morning the part of the market that tourists mainly see is the first stretch where stalls are set up between Regency houses. This first part resembles an English country fayre and is a good place to buy that birthday present for your mother. On show will be pewterware, china-dogs, pub signs, silverware, paintings, furniture and brassware. There is always a busker or singer near this stretch which gives it a festive air.
If you take a left on Elgin Crescent you will come to a small unobtrusive bookshop. This is the bookshop from the movie and is full of Italian tourists asking where Hugh Grant is. But the staff are helpful and the range of travel guides is exceptional (I used to use it before it became famous). Back in the main market the tourists begin to thin and it becomes more authentic with stalls selling leatherware, reggae music, chinaware and fruit and veg (Do you wanna squeeze my mellons darling?) Even further on under the Westway the market becomes even bigger and spreads into the nearby roads. Here you can pick up televisions, furniture, kitchen equipment, clothing (I always end up with a pair of socks) and even computers and modems. If the market becomes too much for you, you can dip into the nearby leafy crescents and squares and try and guess which one of those mansions belongs to Tina Turner.
For a more relaxing break, I recommend the exquisite Holland Park just to the south. Set in a very patrician area full of white stucco mansions this area is inhabited by the rich and pampered and some of the last old-money still living in London. The park itself is beautiful and its nearness to Kensington Palace still gives it a certain snob appeal and is full of duck ponds, teahouses, nannies wheeling prams, woods, winding paths and exceptional rose gardens. Do not miss the ruins of Holland House in the centre of the park. The southern exit will lead you onto High Street Ken leading to the abode of Princess Diana. One morning back in 1996 I saw her get out of her Maserati on the way back from the gym, she got out and nipped into a nearby coffeeshop pursued by the paparazzi. A taste of things to come really...
Despite spending large amounts of time travelling and living in Paris - 'the big smoke' of London has been my home. I know it like the back of my hand, and have absorbed and come to love its ways, peoples and culture. And now is a good time to reflect on the changes to London that have occurred over the last ten years as it is a very special city.
As a small boy I was stunned by the grand buildings and towering cathedrals. I grew up east of London and we would drive through on our way to Wales. The memory is still fresh of driving past the Tower in the early morning when the fish market used to be down Lower Thames Street, and my father having to nudge his way through all the costermongers selling their wares. As I grew older I explored more - the first sight of Leicester Square at night, floating past Greenwich palace on a river cruise and being bowled over by the sheer profusions of nationalities. For a small lad from the provinces it was intoxicating. London to me, was the most wonderful place on earth.
You may not think so at first. It is not as classically European as say Vienna, Lisbon or Munich. And in size it dwarfs every other city on the continent including the real giants such as Paris, Berlin and Moscow. It belongs in the world's list of mega-cities such as Tokyo, New York, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Bombay, Beijing, Los Angeles and Mexico City. It has the grandeur of Paris, the energy of New York and the hipness of Barcelona. In many ways it is the ultimate city.
It has problems. Massive problems. But for city addicts there is no where else to live in the world - much to the annoyance of the British regions. It maybe is not as pristinely beautiful as a Florence or Venice. London has always been a working city. It didn't slide into genteel delipadation like the above only to be breathed back into life by the arrival of tourists (Bath is the British example of that) but has always been a working city. Steel from its factories were put together as ships in its docks which in turn were insured by its brokers. London has always been a city for making money. Its GDP has overtaken that of Russia.
It also is one of the world's most beautiful cities. The Victorian, Georgian and Regency builders created vast squares, white crescents, green parks, and exquistite mews'. All very lucky to survive the Blitz. And it is opening up. It is ostensibly a tangled city still hanging on to its medieval streetplan. This wasn't designed for the modern motor car and the congestion has to be some of the worst in Europe. Steps are being made to eradicate this problem by charging motorists to enter central London. A scheme which has worked in Edinburgh and Durham. But this will be the first big city to do so, once again London leads the way.
But it does have its problems - the cost of living is extortionate, begging, overcrowding and crumbling public transport. Crime is comparatively low for a city of its size and Paris, Rome and Madrid are far higher then it on any crime tables. The policemen still do not carry guns. Do you know how rare that is in a 21st century city?
For the tourist or traveller there are a wealth of experiences. It's not a backpacker city - you can't live here on a couple of dollars. It is a place to make money rather then exist on pennies. But there are a thousand things to see and do. Drinking with the locals in a market pub, following the alleys of the East End, looking at Harvards grave at Southwark Cathedral, ice-skating at Somerset House, riding in Rotten row, speedboating around Docklands, exploring Tudor palaces, bungy-jumping in Battersea, and hanging out with rock stars at the 'Groucho Club'.
But is it also very English?
Yes and No. It is a world city. If you looked hard enough you could find every nationality on earth here somewhere. There are Bangladeshis in Whitechapel, Turks in Manor House, South Africans in Wimbledon, West Indians in Brixton, Nigerians in Kidbrook, and Poles, Russians and Japanese in Acton. But it still clings to its English roots with life still revolving around the corner shop and pub. There you will find the true Londoner letting off steam about his city just has he has done for hundreds of years. There isn't the same intimacy in a French or Italian cafe (which are really for preening) as a London pub. The English relax in their pubs; it's as if someone has moved their sitting room out onto the high street.
And of course there is the infamous weather. Love us love our weather. Britain is at the end of the gulf stream which means it is never too hot or too cold but also has lots of rain. Don't worry; you soon get used to it. And after all what could be more English then rain? It's up there with snow in Russia and sandstorms in the Sahara.
For most travellers London is at the top of their itinery. It is one of the cities along with New York and Paris that you must see in your life, and it seldom disapoints. Americans in particular tend to get a lot out of London. So get yourself on a plane or boat and come over here.
And hopefully, in ten years time, I'll be writing about twenty years as a Londoner....
London, United Kingdom