Government, Greenery and Glory - Public London

Explore the public aspects of London in detail - the royal, democratic buildings of a old capital, the squares, parks and walks that make it the wonderful city it is.

Government, Greenery and Glory - Public London

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

London is not a planned city, but one which grew vigorously when needed. Part of the need was green space, which London has aplenty – from the small squares of Georgian London to the large parks such as Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Hampstead Heath. All represent an opportunity to take a break from the hectic pace of sightseeing and enjoying London, and each has its own fascinating history and spaces.

Beginning in the Elizabethan 16th century, London was the capital of a nation which increasingly dominated the waves and the world – and public spaces reflect much of this empire building. The public areas of London are of varying age – Westminster Hall is now a millennium old, but the paint is hardly dry on the new London assembly building. Many of London’s government buildings and areas are fascinating and open to the public. ${QuickSuggestions} A lot of the parks have bye-laws about behaviour in them, usually posted on boards at the entrances. Roller-blading is often forbidden, for example, and in some gardens dogs have to be on a lead or at least carefully controlled. Roads which go through parks, such as the roads to and from Buckingham Palace in St James’ Park or Blackheath Road in Greenwich Park are closed at particular times – Constitution Hill, for example, is closed on Sunday. If you are driving through London, you can make sure you are aware of these by looking at an A to Z of London, which usually marks such closures.

Security is tight in many government areas – Downing Street has gates at both ends, and the Houses of Parliament have stringent metal detectors and bag searches. ${BestWay} Almost all this journal is about central London – which means zone 1 of the 6 zone public transport system. You can buy a travelcard for different zones (check which zone your accommodation is in, to make sure your trip in and out of London is covered) for periods of time varying from a day to a year. If you are making several trips a day by train, tube, or bus, these travelcards save you money. The tube carnet costs £10, and for this you get 10 single trips on the tube (usual cost £1.40). Buses cost 70p for trips not including central London, £1 for trip involving the centre. Carnet tickets are available for buses. If you are seeing a number of sights in the centre of town, it makes no sense to drive – parking is very expensive, and buses and tubes are much more convenient anyway. Walking in London is easy (pavements everywhere), vehicles stop at zebra crossings, and you can cross the road anywhere you chose, there is no such thing as “jay-walking” in the UK – but it could ruin your whole day if you end up under a bus, so keep your eyes peeled!

Downing Street, the Prime Minister's home

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

Downing Street – just off Whitehall and within minutes of Parliament, is home to the Prime Minister (PM) and Chancellor of the Exchequer, among others. Number 10 is the Prime Minister’s pad, 11 the Chancellor’s. The downstairs area of number 10 is extensive – there are state reception rooms for the PM to use, and also a Cabinet room for the senior members of the government to meet and form policy. The flat is at the top of the building, across the whole size of it, and has large rooms.

Statements are often made by the PM or his spokesmen outside the well-known door of number 10, with the media in avid attendance. The present PM and Chancellor, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have swapped flats as the PM has the larger family and number 11 the larger flat. Both "Downing Street" and "Number 10" are used as shorthand for the PM and his staff, on the news and in general discussion. The house is actually occupied by the PM in his office as First Lord of the Treasury, the term "Prime Minister" being a relatively new one, used only since the early 20th century.

The street itself is not amazingly grand, and nothing as extravagant and isolated as, say, the White House in the USA. It’s a charming row of terraced Georgian town houses (built in the 17th century), gated and guarded by uniformed police officers at either end. The houses are a lot bigger than they appear from the outside, as they go back a long way and have been extended and altered over the years to make more space for official functions. There’s been life on this spot for a long time – Saxon and Roman building remains have been found within the garden of number 10, and several generations of medieval houses were built on the site before the present street was laid out in the 1680s. George Downing, after whom the street is named, was born in New England and came to London as a senior member of the Republic theocracy founded and run by Oliver Cromwell. He saw which way the wind was blowing, and became a spy for the future Charles II, thereby keeping both life and property at the Restoration, when Cromwell died and Charles II came to the throne. He built the row of houses in Downing Street, but the first government minister to move in was the man generally regarded as the first Prime Minister – Robert Walpole in 1732. Not all the PMs since him have lived in the house – many have, and since 1900 all of them have moved in (it’s jolly handy for the office……) People meeting the PM, presenting petitions, or media people waiting for statements go in and out, but the wandering tourist is less likely to be allowed entrance. As it’s a small street, though, you can see a lot from the wrought iron gates on Whitehall or Horse Guard’s Parade.
Number 10: Official Residence of the British Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
Westminster, London


Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

Whitehall is the long, wide street running from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. As "Downing Street" is used as a synonym for the Prime Minister, so Whitehall is the domain of the civil servants who run the government’s departments. Until the 1530's York House was a palace in the hands of the Church – Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York and the son of a Norfolk butcher who became the most powerful cleric in the country owned it for a while, until he fell out with Henry VIII over the latter’s desire to annul the marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Wolsey died on his way back to London to be accused of treason (his dying words are supposed to have been "Had I but served my God as I served my King he would not have deserted me in my grey hairs"). The King confiscated the House, and renamed in Whitehall. It was re-built, added to and was huge by the time it burned down in 1699 – only the Banqueting Hall survived the blaze. The building is open to the public and is well worth a visit – not only to see the neo-classical beauty of the building but also to admire the Reubens ceiling which Charles I commissioned over the Banqueting tables. Open Monday to Sat, 10am to 5pm, not open Bank Holidays. Govt. functions can cause it to close – ring the information line on 020 7839 3787 before you visit to check it’s open.

Mid-way down Whitehall is the Cenotaph. From the Greek for "empty tomb", this white marble monument is the main UK war memorial site. On 11th November each year, the date of the Armistice in 1918 ending the First World War, Remembrance Day is held, with a 2 minute silence widely observed at 11am. The nearest Sunday to the 11th, Remembrance Sunday, is marked by a ceremony at the Cenotaph attended by the Royal Family, politicians from all the main parties, Commonwealth leaders, and thousands of soldiers who survived conflicts from the First World War to the most recent of conflicts. Poppy wreathes are laid – the poppy is the symbol of remembrance and many people wear a poppy in the week or so before the day.
Whitehall Theatre
London, England, SW1 2DY
+44 20 7369 1735

The River Thames

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

The River Thames is central to London’s history and development. London was a major port for its whole life – starting with the Romans who established the city of Londinium. When the Romans settled in the area in about 20BC, the Thames was a wide, shallow, marshy river, far from the deep, neatly channelled beast that flows fast through the city today. They laid out their city on the north side of the Thames, and built a bridge across the river (near to the current London Bridge), which led to a large, relatively solid and high island, the centre of modern-day Southwark.

The river continued as an important port for medieval England, and the City grew rich on the proceeds of ships from all over the world up until the late 20th century. Many of the roads along the river are named after the parts of the world ships came from to dock there, or after the produce they brought with them. Jamaica Road, East Indies Docks, and Sugar Wharf are just a few examples of this. From the 1960s onwards, though, container shipping developed and these vessels were much too large to enter the River Thames and its docks, and the shipping industry moved downstream, leaving the docks derelict. From the 1980s onwards, many of these became housing and leisure areas, close to the centre of town and filled with Georgian and Victorian warehouses ripe for conversion.

The river today is used more than a few decades ago, for transport and for leisure. The tourist might take a boat trip upstream to Greenwich, or downstream to Kew or Richmond, or go sailing in the docks. The river is also cleaner – having failed to support life for many decades (before the sewage system was built in the 1860s onwards the river was one big sewer that forced London life to a halt in hot summers; the sewers were built after the "Big Stink" forced Parliament out of town in the 1850s), fish and other animals are returning to the river.
Cruise on the River Thames
Tower Bridge
London, England

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 10, 2002

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens run into one another, are side by side without a boundary, but are different both in history and in content. Between them, they occupy a large area (637 acres) of west central London, and are a delightful place to spend time during pleasant weather.

Hyde Park is mostly an open green area – gently rolling, well-kept and pleasant grass and tree space. It’s great for picnics, impromptu football or Frisbee games, or just lying on the grass and watching people wander round and play. It was originally one of Henry VIII’s hunting parks, before becoming a public park. Lord Byron said that "here the fashionable fair can form a slight acquaintance with the open air." The wonderful early Victorian gates at the southeast corner of the Park, at the end of very fashionable Park Lane, lead you into the park. If you walk along the inside of the park, parallel to Park Lane (where there are some seriously swanky houses and a lot of Rolls Royces) you reach the opposite corner of Hyde Park – Marble Arch. This Arch, now marooned at one end of Oxford Street in the middle of a large roundabout, was once the very impressive entry gate to Buckingham Palace, but was moved from there as Queen Victoria thought it obstructed her way in and out of the Palace.

The side of Hyde Park nearest Marble Arch is Speakers’ Corner. From here, anyone may mount a soapbox and harangue the crowds on a topic of his choice. It’s great fun to go at a weekend and hear the current pre-occupations – there’s always a Marxist / Socialist worker type preaching imminent revolution by the Proletariat, an end-of-the-world-we-are-all-in-sin type, and a selection of others, sometimes on current political issues, sometimes on very odd things hard to understand. Anyone who speaks there has to be quite tough, the heckling can be fierce!

Kensington Gardens is much more of a garden than a park – lots of flower beds, the long winding pond called the Serpentine – a mile long, fed by an underground river, the Westbourne. There’s also the Round Pond (which isn’t quite round) and children feed ducks and sail model boats on both of these stretches of water.

Kensington Gardens was also associated with Diana, Princess of Wales, who lived nearby in Kensington Palace. A memorial to her is constructed in the park, much bickering over it has ensued.

To get to the parks, there are several tube stations – for the south-east corner of Hyde Park, take the 3rd exit from Hyde Park corner tube station. For the Speakers’ Corner end, Marble Arch tube. Kensington High Street is the best option for the west part of Kensington Gardens.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens
W Carriage Drive
London, England, W2 2UH
+44 20 7298 2100

St. James' Park

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 10, 2002

St. James’ Park is the grass area which lies between The Mall and Birdcage Walk, with Buckingham Palace at one end and Horse Guards Parade at the other. It’s smaller than many of the central London parks – only some 95 acres in area. It was created by Henry VII, who fenced in the area to create a deer park for his own benefit. In some ways it was always a more public Royal area than some – Elizabeth I held jousting contests and public fairs here during her reign, for example. It was laid out in its current state by George IV in the 1820s; this is when the lake was created and flower beds designed. Along with many other of Henry’s hunting grounds, it is now a Royal Park, open to the public.

The Mall is the road which leads from Admiralty Arch, at the side of Trafalgar Square, to Buckingham Palace. It’s a very wide road, lined with mature trees and a wonderful perspective of the Palace at the far end – it’s the main route down which the Queen processes when she’s opening Parliament or attending other state occasions. Birdcage Walk, on the other side of the park, is the route from the Palace to Parliament Square, and is an equally pleasant walk.

The park itself is mostly grass, with a large, irregularly formed lake in the middle. The park used to be a swampy area, until the land was drained into the lake in the middle, where ducks are now overfed by children and other visitors; pelicans are also a highly visible feature. Around the edges especially, there are some gorgeous flower beds with lots of red and yellow tulips in particular. The architecture around the Park is stunning, and makes this a great place to relax and take in the view, apart from its advantage in being between some of the many tourist sites in London! Anyone walking from the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace on a pleasant day would be well advised to stop here for a while and rest. Along the Mall are various elegant neo-Classical buildings, called "Barracks" but much more elegant than the image the word conjures up. There are three palaces boadering on the park – Westminster Palace (Parliament), Buckingham Palace (the Queen’s home) and St. James’ Palace (the Queen’s offical residence – ambassadors to the UK are sent to the Court of St. James). Clarence House is also nearby – until March 2002 this was the home of the Queen Mother, and it’s not clear what will happen to it now; perhaps the Prince of Wales will move there.

The nearest tube is St. James's Park or Westminster (District and Circle lines).
St. James's Palace
Cleveland Row
London, England, SW1
+44 20 7930 1793

Green Park

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 10, 2002

Green Park is one of my favourites – the smallest of London’s Royal Parks is a relaxing expanse of greenery right in the centre of London. It's just to the east of Westminster and Buckingham Palace, and therefore not far from either Hyde Park or St. James'. In medieval times this area, like many low-lying places near the Thames, was a marshy wasteland, used for the burial of people who’d died of infectious diseases. Once the river walls were built up, the land was drained. The park’s another of Henry VIII's acquisitions - when he was dissolving the Catholic church's property he came by quite a lot of land in the centre of London, and made a lot of it into Royal hunting grounds, (now Royal Parks, open to the public).

Unlike Hyde Park / Kensington Gardens and St. James’ park, Green Park doesn’t have a pond or a lake, so there are no ducks to feed or model boats to sail here. If you look closely at the lie of the land, you can see the remains of the river valley belonging to one of London’s long-vanished rivers, the Tyburn. Instead it’s a haven of pedestrian paths, lined with mature trees of different varieties (one path near the west side has a mixture of black and silver birch trees, particularly lovely when they are in leaf in the summer and there is a gorgeous dappled pattern of sunlight coming through the canopy). Along some of the paths flowers are planted – there are lots of daffodils here which may it a bright and pleasant place in the spring. One of the reasons I like this park is that it’s quieter than many of the main green areas – there are fewer children and noisy ducks running around, so if what you fancy is some peace and quiet, this is the place for you to come and chill out.

The main gates into the park are called the Canada Gates – so-called because that country made a gift of them to London in 1911, and this is where they were placed. They are very large and ornate, with tall stone pillars framing the wrought iron black and gold centrepiece – and impressive sight and wide enough to allow a fleet of buses through!

If you are coming to the park, the nearest tube station is Green Park tube (Jubilee, Victoria and Piccadilly lines). Hyde Park Corner, St James Park and Westminster tubes are also within walking distance.
Green Park
Near Buckingham Palace
London, England

The Georgian Squares of London

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

Many areas of central and west London were built during the Georgian period. Areas such as Holborn and Bloomsbury were still open space until the early 18th century, and these areas therefore have a more regular pattern than some parts of the city. The Georgian builders liked geometric patterns, and many houses and other buildings were built around squares. (Hence the saying that the Bloomsbury set lived in squares, wrote in circles, and loved in triangles.) Most of these houses do not have private gardens, but instead share the square in the centre. Some of the squares are private, and locked, with only residents of the area having keys to the gates, but many if not most (which still have iron railings and gates) are open to the public, during the day, and shut to everyone at night. As the square in central London are now at least 200 years old, they are charming places with mature trees to cast shade in the summer, and well-maintained flower beds and grass.

Near the British Museum are several public squares, which make a great place to take a cold drink or some lunch during the summer, in a break from the sightseeing whirl. Russell Square is one the largest, and has its own café in the north-east corner of the square – it is a few minutes walk north of the British Museum. The square was being renovated in the winter 2001/2, with paths being re-laid and grass re-turfed, but as of early April 2002 the work is substantially finished. Queen square is also pretty close to the museum, just slightly to the south of it. Red Lion Square is also very close by, and has an interesting history, as the site of a riot by Gray’s Inn attorneys against the builders of the area. It also has the dubious distinction of being the site of one of the first pay-to-use car parks in London.

Central London is not the only place to have these squares; Notting Hill, Chelsea, Holland Park and Kensington also have many, but I understand more of the square in these (much more residential) areas are private and cannot be accessed by the tourist or general public.

In conjunction with the larger and better-known parks in London, these squares represent the lungs of the city, and provide much needed greenery in the midst of traffic, brick, stone and concrete. The city would be a much poorer place without them.
The Georgian Squares of London
All over London, mostly central and west
London, England

The Houses of Parliament

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

The Houses of Parliament are newer than one might suspect – most of the current Palace of Westminster was built in the 1860s, after a fire destroyed much of the Tudor building on the same site. (The first building on the site was built by Edward the Confessor in about 1040.) The vast, rambling structure contains the chambers of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and many offices for MPs and parliament’s staff, as well as living accommodation for the Speaker and others.

The House of Commons (decorated in green) and the House of Lords (red) are the two legislative houses of the UK governing system. In order for a Bill to become and Act of Parliament, it must be passed by both houses and signed by the monarch, although in most cases the House of Lords (made up of some hereditary peers, appointed life peers, bishops of the Church of England, and the Law Lords) has power only to delay legislation by a couple of years rather than refuse it altogether. The Speaker of the House of Commons is elected from amongst MPs, and after he is elected ceases to vote or take political positions. The Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a woolsack, representative of the source of England’s wealth for many centuries in the Middle Ages. The country’s highest court is also called the House of Lords, and is made up only of Law Lords, who are appointed by the Lord Chancellor from amongst Court of Appeal and High Court judges.

Both houses are, unusually in international terms, made up of benches which face each other across the floor. The government party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) sit on one side, all opposition parties on the other side. The floor is marked on each side by lines, and an MP may only speak when he is inside those lines. (The lines are two swords-lengths apart, a relic of a more aggressive time in politics.) It is possible to get tickets to watch the Houses in action, but this is easier if you are a UK voter and can go through your MP to get them. See here for the Houses of Parliament website on obtaining entry to the Palace of Westminster.

Big Ben is technically the name of the biggest bell in the tower at the end of the Houses of Parliament, but the tower itself is often called by the same name. The Speaker of the House of Commons had a flat in the tower, as does the Lord Chancellor (Speaker of the House of Lords, who also makes judicial appointments.)
Palace of Westminster/Houses of Parliament
North Bank of River Thames
Westminster, London, SW1A OAA
+44 (20) 7219 4272

Trafalgar Square

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 8, 2002

Trafalgar Square is named after the sea-battle that saw Napoleon’s defeat – and the statue of Nelson in the centre of the square commemorates the victor. Like most cities, London is swifter to commemorate its military victories than it is to immortalise the defeats, and there are consequently many more Waterloo and Trafalgar sites than Gallipoli ones! The message doesn’t always seem to get through to foreign visitors, though. My family had several Swiss au pairs when I was a child, and the parents of one told us, when they were visiting their daughter in London, that it was very generous of London and the English to commemorate Napoleon in such a fashion. Trafalgar Square is flanked by interesting buildings, such as the National Gallery (on the north side), and the adjoining St. Martin-in-the-Fields church on the east side of the square.

The square , designed by Sir Charles Barry, is a huge, grand, Imperial affair, with Admiralty Arch at the western end leading towards the centre of political power. The square was built in 1829, the 185 foot high Nelson’s column was added by 1843, to round off the commemoration of Napoleon’s defeat at sea. Pigeons abound in the square – they are either picturesque or flying rodents, depending on your point of view. The large pedestrian centre of the square is occupied by ponds and large lion fountains, added in 1868, and around Nelson’s column are 4 huge plinths for statutes. Three of them are occupied by long-dead and largely forgotten military heroes (Napier, I think, and a couple I really can’t remember), and the fourth which was empty for a couple of centuries is now filled by a series of temporary statues and sculptures, each up there for a few months. At the bottom of the north wall is the Imperial Standard, placed there by Act of Parliament in 1876 and showing the legal inch, foot, yard, rod, pole, and perch.

The Square is a London public gathering point – for tourist and pigeons, but also for native Londoners. Demonstrations and marches often start or end here, and most weekend days there will be at least a few people waving placards or banners about something. It’s also the main London gathering point for New Year’s Eve, when thousands of people come to the square for the countdown to midnight. Given London winter weather, warm and waterproof clothing is a good idea should you decide to attend!
Trafalgar Square
Northumberland Avenue
London, England, WC2

Westminster Hall

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Amanda on April 10, 2002

Westminster Hall is by far the oldest part of Parliament, and while next to the rest of the building is a discrete entity, in form and function. It was built following the reign of Edward the Confessor in the late 11th century (he who seems to have bequeathed his throne to both William the Bastard of Normandy and Harold Godwinson, thereby causing no end of trouble.) Edward was responsible for nearby Westminster Abbey, in which Harold (probably) and William (definitely) were crowned in 1066.

After building the Tower of London, William moved downriver to Westminster, and established a seat of power. The Palace of Westminster was precisely that – a Royal Palace for the Crown. William built the Great Hall for banquets, feasts, and gatherings of his advisers. Formality crept in, and the King’s Council met in the Hall, the largest such building in medieval Europe. The King’s Council, when sitting in its legal capacity on appeals to the King from other courts, or for important trials, sat here for many crucial moments in English history. Thomas More, the Catholic who refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the Church, following the Act of Supremacy in 1533, was tried here for treason, and later executed. Guy Fawkes, who headed the Gunpowder plot which is commemorated each November 5th with bonfires and fireworks was tried here, in the 17th century. Many smaller trials took place here also, with groups of judges in different corners.

The appearance of the Hall is awe-inspiring. It’s a huge building, some 1900 square yards, with large flagstones on the floor and a huge roof span, not held up by columns or pillars. It’s always cooler in here than anywhere else in the Houses – I first came into the Hall as a 16 year old, work shadowing with my local MP. At the height of summer, it was always a refreshing place to go. The Hall escaped both the fire in the 19th century that burned down the rest of the Palace, and the bombs during the Second World War.

Most of the time now, it is used as a place for MPs to meet, chat, and wander about. It’s also used for big State occasions – since Gladstone’s death in 1897, the Hall has been used for lying-in-State – the coffin and guard are placed in the centre, and the public files through to pay its respects. My mother and grandmother attended Winston Churchill’s lying-in-State in 1965, and recently many of you will have seen the Hall in pictures of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state.

The bad news is this – it's wonderful, but only open to the public in August and September, as the rest of the time it's part of the operational area of Parliament. It is, however, free to get in during those months. If you are here during the summer recess, take the opportunity to visit this most wonderful and historic of halls.
Westminster Hall

Westminster, London

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