London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First Worlds, ofchauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class andthe avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looksunplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is likebeing let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Eventhough you probably won't know where you are exactly, the names will at leastlook reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, visitors will need to makemaximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates thecity's geography and makes it hard to get your bearings. Doing some travellingby bus helps fit the city together.
The main geographical feature of the city is the River Thames,which meanders through central London, dividing it into northern and southernhalves. The central area and the most important sights, theatres andrestaurants are within the Underground's Circle Line on the north bank of theriver. The trendy and tourist-ridden West End lies within the western portionof the loop, and includes Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, LeicesterSquare and Regent St. The East End, so beloved of Ealing comedies, lies east ofthe Circle Line; it used to be the exclusive preserve of the Cockney but is nowa cultural melting pot. There are interesting inner-city suburbs in North London,including Islington and Camden Town. South London includes a mess of poor,dirty, graffiti-ridden suburbs, like Brixton, which have vibrant subcultures oftheir own.
Accommodation in London is ridiculously expensive and in shortsupply in July and August. There's the usual mix of hostels, universitycolleges, B&Bs and hotels. Earl's Court is a major centre for cheap hostelsand hotels, but there are other good centres in Bloomsbury and Notting Hill.Less-cheap alternatives are Paddington, Bayswater and Pimlico. Eating out isalso expensive, though Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants are lessthreatening to your wallet. Culinary hunting grounds are Covent Garden, Sohoand north of Leicester Square.
Heathrow airport is accessible by bus, London Underground(Piccadilly line) and the Heathrow Express, which makes the journey fromPaddington Station to Terminals 1-3 in 15 minutes and to Terminal 4 in 20. Acab to or from the airport will cost around US$35 to US$50. The Gatwick Expressruns between Gatwick airport and Victoria station in 30 minutes, or you can geta cab for around US$60. The Stansted Express will get you to Stansted airportfrom Liverpool Street station in 60 minutes or you can get a cab for US$100 (asif!).
London's tube is legendary, but mainly because it's not that muchfun to use. Although the tube network is immense, buses are more pleasant andinteresting, as long as the traffic's not gridlocked. Travelcards can be usedon all forms of transport. Several rail companies now run passenger trains inLondon, most of which interchange with the tube.
London's famous black cabs are excellent but expensive. Minicabsare cheaper competitors, with freelance drivers, but you can't flag these downon the street. If you'd rather drive yourself, you're in for a parkingnightmare — it's almost impossible to get a park in the city centre, and thepunishments for parking illegally are cruel and unusual indeed.
Although a Celtic community settled around a ford across the RiverThames, it was the Romans who first developed the square mile now known as theCity of London. They built a bridge and an impressive city wall, and madeLondinium an important port and the hub of their road system. The Romans left,but trade went on. Few traces of London dating from the Dark Ages can now befound, but the city survived the incursions of both the Saxons and Vikings.Fifty years before the Normans arrived, Edward the Confessor built his abbeyand palace at Westminster.
William the Conqueror found a city that was, without doubt, therichest and largest in the kingdom. He raised the White Tower (part of theTower of London) and confirmed the city's independence and right toself-government.
During the reign of Elizabeth I the capital began to expand rapidly- in 40 years the population doubled to reach 200,000. Unfortunately, medievalTudor and Jacobean London was virtually destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666.The fire gave Christopher Wren the opportunity to build his famous churches,but did nothing to halt the city's growth.
By 1720 there were 750,000 people, and London, as the seat ofParliament and focal point for a growing empire, was becoming ever richer andmore important. Georgian architects replaced the last of medieval London withtheir imposing symmetrical architecture and residential squares.
The population exploded again in the 19th century, creating a vastexpanse of Victorian suburbs. As a result of the Industrial Revolution andrapidly expanding commerce, it jumped from 2.7 million in 1851 to 6.6 millionin 1901.
Georgian and Victorian London was devastated by the Luftwaffe inWWII — huge swathes of the centre and the East End were totally flattened.After the war, ugly housing and low-cost developments were thrown up on thebomb sites. The docks never recovered — shipping moved to Tilbury, and theDocklands declined to the point of dereliction. In the heady 1980s, that decadeof Thatcherite confidence and deregulation, the Docklands were rediscovered bya new wave of property developers, who proved to be only marginally morediscriminating than the Luftwaffe.
London briefly regained its 'cool' reputation in the 1990s, buoyedby Tony Blair's New Labour, a rampaging pound and a swag of pop, style andmedia 'names'. Blair's blane Ken Livingstone donned the mayoral robes in May2000, opposing plans to sell off the tube and pushing for improved publictransport and safety. The face of the city changed with the construction of the£1bn white elephant Millennium Dome, the London Eye observation wheel,the Tate Modern (linked by the when-will-it-ever-open Millennium Bridge) andthe creation of the British Museum's Great Court. But some things never change:London's cost of living outdoes itself year after year, its chic quotientcontinues to soar and the gap between the haves and have nots looms everlarger.
What is in London?
It's the heart of visitors' London, beating with tour buses,cameras and flocks of persistent pigeons. On the square's northern edge is thecash-strapped National Gallery, which has one of the world's most impressiveart collections. Famous paintings include Cézanne's The Bathers and vanEyck's Arnolfini Wedding. Entry to the gallery is free, which means if you feellike dropping in and looking at just one or two pictures, you can do so at yourleisure without feeling obliged to cover extensive territory.
Also in the vicinity are the National Portrait Gallery, a place tosee lots of faces from the Middle Ages to modern times, and St Martin in theFields, with an adjoining craft market and a brass-rubbing centre in the crypt.
The resting place of the royals, Westminster Abbey is one of themost visited churches in the Christian world. It's a beautiful building, fullof morose tombs and monuments, with an acoustic field that will send shiversdown your spine when the choirboys clear their throats. The roll call of thedead and honoured is guaranteed to humble the greatest egoist, despite theweighty and ornate memorabilia. In September 1997, millions of people round theworld saw the inside of the Abbey when TV crews covered Princess Di's funeralservice. Since then the number of visitors has increased by 300%, and the visitis now more restricted, with some areas cordoned off.
Houses of Parliament
The awesome neo-Gothic brilliance of the Houses of Parliament hasbeen restored thanks to a recent spring clean of the facade. The buildingincludes the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so the grandeur of theexterior is let down only by the level of debate in the interior ('hear,hear'). There's restricted access to the chambers when they're in session, buta visit around 6pm will avoid the worst of the crowds. Check the time on themost recognisable face in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben.
Nearby, Downing St, the official residence of the prime minister(no 10) and the chancellor of the exchequer (no 11), has been guarded by animposing iron gate since the security forces realised that the lone iconicbobby outside Maggie's door was not sufficient to stop the IRA mortar bombattack in 1989.
The Tate Britain is the keeper of an impressive historical archiveof British art. Built in 1897, the Tate is currently undergoing an ambitiousprogramme of expansion. When all is complete, there will be six new galleriesfor temporary exhibition and nine new or refurbished ones for the Tate'spermanent collection of peerless Blakes, Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Hogarths,Constables, Turners and Pre-Raphaelite beauties.
Its sister gallery, the brand-spanking new Tate Modern, is housedin the former Bankside Power Station. The Tate Modern displays the Tate'scollection of international modern art, including major works by Bacon,Dalí, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko and Warhol, as well as work by morecontemporary artists. The building is as exciting as the art: gorgeousindustrial-strength red brick with a 325ft-high (99m-high) chimney. The formerturbine hall, below street level and running the length of the vast building,now forms the awe-inspiring entrance to the gallery.
The Queen opened Buckingham Palace to the public for the firsttime in 1993 to raise money for repairs to Windsor Castle. The interiors rangefrom kitsch to tasteless opulence and reveal nothing of the domestic life ofthe Royal Family apart from a gammy eye when it comes to interior decor. Thechanging of the guard is a London 'must see' — though you'll probably go awaywondering what all the fuss was about.
Not far off and definitely worth a stroll is St James's Park,which is the neatest and most royal of London's royal parks. St James's Palaceis the only surviving part of a building initiated by the palace-mad Henry VIIIin 1530. Just near the park's northern edge is the Institute for ContemporaryArt, a great place to relax, hang out and see some cutting-edge film, dance,photography, theatre and art.
Once a vegetable field attached to Westminster Abbey, CoventGarden became the low-life haunt of Pepys, Fielding and Boswell, then a majorfruit and veg market, and is now a triumph of conservation and commerce. Thecar-free piazza is surrounded by designer gift and clothes shops, hip bars andrestaurants. Stalls selling overpriced antiques and bric-a-brac share thearcaded piazza with street theatre, buskers and people-watchers.
The most trafficked attraction in Bloomsbury, and in the entiretyof London, is without a doubt the British Museum. It is the oldest, most augustmuseum in the world, and has recently received a well-earned rejig with NormanFoster's glass-roofed Great Court. The museum is so big and so full of 'stuff'collected (read: stolen?) by Victorian travellers and explorers that visitorsoften make the mistake of overdosing on the antiquities. See as much as youwant to see, not as much as you believe you should. Highlights include theweird Assyrian treasures and Egyptian mummies; the exquisite pre-ChristianPortland Vase and the 2000-year-old corpse found in a Cheshire bog. With theremoval of the British Library to St Pancras, the Reading Room is now open tothe public, sadly making Reader's tickets a thing of the past.
Bloomsbury is a peculiar mix of the University of London,beautiful Georgian squares and architecture, literary history, traffic, officeworkers, students and tourists. Its focal point, Russell Square, is London'slargest square.
St Paul's Cathedral
Half the world saw the inside of St Paul's Cathedral when Charlesand Di tied the knot here in 1981. The venerable building was constructed byChristopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, but it stands on the site of twoprevious cathedrals dating back to 604. Its famous dome, the biggest in theworld after St Peter's in Rome, no longer dominates London as it did forcenturies, but it's still quite a sight when viewed from the river. Visitorsshould talk low and sweetly near the whispering gallery, which reputedlycarries words spoken close to its walls to the other side of the dome.
Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum, on Cromwell Rd in South Kensington,has an eclectic mix of booty gathered together under its brief as a museum ofdecorative art and design. It sometimes feels like an enormous Victorian junkshop, with nearly four million artefacts on display. It's best to browsethrough the collection whimsically, checking out the Chinese ceramics, Japaneseswords, cartoons by Raphael, sculpture by Rodin, the Frank Lloyd Wright studyand the pair of Doc Martens.
Also on Cromwell Rd, the Natural History Museum is one of London'sfinest Gothic-revival buildings, but even its grand cathedral-like mainentrance can seem squashed when you're confronted with hordes of screamingschoolkids. Keep away from the dinosaur exhibit while the kids are around andcheck out the mammal balcony, the Blue Whale exhibit and the spooky, moonlitrainforest in the ecology gallery.
The huge Camden Markets could be the closest England gets tofree-form chaos outside the terraces of football stadia. They stretch betweenCamden and Chalk Farm tube stations, incorporating Camden Lock on the GrandUnion Canal, and get so crowded on weekends that you'll think you're in theThird World. The markets include the Camden Canal Market (bric-a-brac,furniture and designer clothes), Camden Market (leather goods and army surplusgear) and the Electric Market (records and 1960s clothing).
After Camden Market, the colourful Portobello Market is London'smost famous (and crowded) weekend street market and is best seen on a Saturdaymorning before the gridlock sets in. It's full of antiques, jewellery, ethnicknick-knacks, second-hand clothes and fruit and veg stalls. Starting near theSun in Splendour pub in Notting Hill, it wends its way northwards to just pastthe Westway flyover.
Humongous Hyde Park used to be a royal hunting ground, was once avenue for duels, executions and horse racing, and even became a giant potatofield during WWII. It is now a place of fresh air, spring colour, lazysunbathers and boaters on the Serpentine. Features of the park include sculpturesby Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore and the Serpentine Gallery, which holdstemporary exhibitions of contemporary art.
Near Marble Arch, Speaker's Corner started life in 1872 as aresponse to serious riots. Every Sunday anyone with a soapbox — or anything elseto stand on — can rant or ramble on about anything at all.
Kew Gardens, in Richmond, Surrey, is both a beautiful park and animportant botanical research centre. There's a vast expanse of lawn and formalgardens and two soaring Victorian conservatories — the Palm House and theTemperate House — which are home to exotic plant life. It's one of the mostvisited sights on the London tourist agenda, which means that it can get verycrowded, especially in the summer. And with nearby Heathrow continuouslyspitting out jets, there isn't much chance of total peace and quiet.
Off the Beaten Track
Hampstead Heath is one of the few places in London where you canactually forget that you're in the middle of an 800-sq-mi (1300-sq-km) city.There are woods, meadows, hills, bathing ponds and, most importantly of all,lots of space. After a brisk walk on the heath, pop into the Spaniard's Inn fora tipple or have a look at Robert Adam's beautiful Kenwood House and wanderaround its romantic grounds. You can lose the 20th century altogether in ChurchRow, Admiral's Walk and Flask Walk, which have intact Georgian cottages,terraces and houses.
Highgate Cemetery can't be beaten for its Victorian Gothicatmosphere and downright eeriness. Its extensive and overgrown grounds includecypress trees, Egyptian-style catacombs, enough chipped angels to please themost discerning Joy Division fan, Karl the more serious Marx brother andpersonalised tombs reflecting their eccentric inhabitants.
Kensal Green and Brompton cemeteries are also Victorian delights,complete with catacombs and angels.
Holland Park is both a residential district, full of elegant townhouses, and an inner-city haven of greenery, complete with strutting peacocksand scampering bunnies, the restored remnants of a Jacobean mansion (now setaside for the world's backpackers), two exhibition galleries and formalgardens. Nearby, the Arabesque splendour of Leighton House is full ofpre-Raphaelite paintings of languorous, scantily dressed Grecian ladiesslipping their hands into the milky waters of public baths.
Brick Lane Market
Sunday morning means bagels for breakfast at Brick Lane market inthe East End. The ground is strewn with blankets covered in everything fromrusty nails to gold watches. Haggling's the key, though consonants drop offvowels faster than zeros drop off prices.
Ye olde Kensington Market is the place to go to replace your punkmohair jumper, bum bag and kilt, and why not get a haircut, tattoo, piercedupper ear and a new slogan painted on your leather jacket while you're there?
For a pot of treasure at the Victoria Line's end, head south toBrixton Market, a cosmopolitan treat made up of a rainbow coalition of reggaemusic, slick Muslim preachers, halal meat and fruit and vegetables. Itsinventory includes wigs, homeopathic root cures, goat meat and rare records.
Bill Bryson, Notes from a small Island, L, 1999
Christopher Daniell, A Traveller’s History of England, Birminghem,1995
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, L, 2000
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