LONDON is one of the most popular cities on the planet yet it’s a national hobby to dislike it. Many who live in the surrounding counties wouldn’t drive 50 miles to see it. They say “you can keep London”. They say it’s full of pollution, politics and expensive pints. To the office worker there’s another story: London means a long commute, crowded trains and the nine-to-five. The greatest virtue to them is that they can get in and out quickly. Even to Londoners, the city is a mystery. It comes with a history which many don’t like – but others don’t know.
How is it that so little is known about a city so big? London is lost. My mission during lockdown has been to find London and to remind people this is no ordinary metropolis. Everything we travel for is here on our doorstep: history, art, culture, architecture even islands and beaches – with real sand.
London is an ancient city, a royal city, a cathedral city, a capital city and more recently an Olympic city. It’s filled with parks, palaces, pubs, and markets. London is yet to be discovered. It should be the eighth wonder of the world so here are a few things to know about this city.
One: Roman City
The story begins about 2,000 years ago when the Roman emperor Claudius sailed across the Channel and up the Thames.
I hope it was a sunny afternoon when he arrived. Maybe there were foxes on the bank. Some wild flowers. Possibly a few people were sitting in the back wondering what was going to happen next. Then perhaps some drizzle fell when they came ashore and they talked about the weather while they put the kettle on. How very English!
Poor Claudius doesn’t get a favourable write up in the history books. He’s painted as being unloved, a bit dim, but still he is the man who founded our Londinium – just a port town, in the year 43.
I guess he wasn’t happy here as he stayed for just two weeks– although the London branch of the Roman Empire lasted 400 years. That’s not a little bit of time. What they did for us was build the London wall. It’s not Unesco listed and the parts that remain are ruins. Importantly, it outlined the City of London, the backdrop known today as the financial district.
This area is no longer considered the centre of London, Google maps gives that accolade to Trafalgar Square or to the Eleanor Cross in the car park at Charing Cross train station (Eleanor was mum to the first Prince of Wales in 1301) in Westminster.
While the Roman settlement, known also as the Square Mile, has become invisible, the City retains its special status with a separate police force, who wear red cheques in their helmets not blue like the Metropolitan Police, and its own Lord Mayor who lives at Mansion House and presides over the 800-year-old governing authority, the Corporation of London.
You could call it the Old Town. I bet it’s one of the most instragammed square-miles in the world. But this isn’t Manhattan. It has a handful of skyscrapers all located around Bishopsgate, including the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, the Scalpel and the Cheesegrater. The latest, is known only by its address, TwentyTwo, and was completed in 2020.
By day, the City of London is home to a £20 trillion financial service industry. It has the third largest stock exchange and is the fourth largest banking centre in the world. It is the office of the nation and where the world gathers in their trendy, trophy headquarters. Commuters arrive off packed Tubes and buses each morning. They rush around, reading the news on their phones, watching TikTok and sending WhatsApp messages all while stepping into traffic and drinking Pret coffee.
Walk inside this ancient city at night and you’ll feel the history pulling you down its narrow alleyways. Head to the Monument, down Pudding Lane towards the Thames, passed St Magnus the Martyr and you’ll hear the splashing of the water on the bank. It’s spooky. You might bump into a famous ghost. Boo!
*Just to note: The Tower of London didn’t come along until a thousand years after the Romans. It was built outside the City wall in 1078, which was around the same time that London became the nation’s Capital.
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Two: River City
I think people forget there’s a river in London and don’t see it for months. Yet the city springs from the Thames and for centuries it was the beating heart of the Square Mile. The first settlements were built around the water at Walbrook, today that’s where Mansion House is, near Bank Tube Station.
Once packed with ships carrying cargo from around the globe, the Thames had more than 30,000 people working on the water at its height of the British Empire. The River Police was the first force set up in England in 1798 to deal with the gangs of thieves. That’s decades before the Met Police started in 1829.
If people from even 100 years ago could see the river in 2021, it would confuse them. The Port of London was once the busiest in the world and one of the largest employers in the City. Sadly today it’s quiet. London has turned its back on the Thames: the sailors are gone; the docks are locked up and the wharves have been turned into riverside flats. Billingsgate fish market was shut and moved in 1982.
There are a few tourist boats and the Thames Clippers service but there’s not much to draw you to the water other than the view. The giants of London’s landmarks are found on the embankment. Best seen from the water you can call them out: Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Cleopatra’s Needle, Westminster – and more recently on the south bank, there’s the Shard and the London Eye.
But in the summer the beaches are empty. There’s no swimming or paddle boarding, and no row boats to take you to the famous, historic, pubs like the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, which still has its noose that was used in the 1700s for pirates – once a very popular profession.
The river is perhaps though the last wild place in London with more than 100 species of fish in the water and birds and bats that nest and forage on its banks.
Three: Stone City
From the riverbank, Londinium was built up bit by bit: a fort here, a tower there, a bridge across the water and Roman roads laid long and straight.
During the Great Fire in 1666 the timber city burned well. Samuel Pepys was 33 when he wrote about it in his Diary. Walk down Cheapside to see the number of plaques that mark out where the market stalls, workshops, pubs and churches once stood. They’re like headstones in a cemetery. To make sure this didn’t happen again, the Square Mile turned to stone: Portland Stone, from Dorset. This became the main building block of London.
In the years that followed large white buildings went up including the Bank of England, Mansion House and the Royal Exchange. They must have looked stern on the landscape but the idea was to construct chunky, civic institutions with columns in the classical Greek style that were solid and most importantly wouldn’t burn down.
Sir Christopher Wren used this precious stone to build St Paul’s Cathedral. You’ll also find it on Regent’s Street, Piccadilly, The Cenotaph, Buckingham Palace, Chelsea Barracks, the list goes on. All this isn’t encased in a museum. It’s out there.
Four: Royal City
London is very kind to its monarchs with 11 official royal homes to choose from. There are so many that if you said to a taxi driver “take me to the palace” they’d have to ask “which one?”.
The most beautiful of all the royal residences is the Palace of Westminster, better known as The Houses of Parliament. If the Queen does ever come back to the capital (having been away since the coronavirus lockdown in March 2020) I think she should kick those politicians out. It’s too flamboyant for a place of politics.
Westminster is just beautiful to look at. The hours of workmanship that must have gone into it is painstaking. The whole building looks as if it were hand carved to within an inch of its life. It has the clock tower and the famous gong of Big Ben. It’s been at the centre of drama, democracy and drunken MPs for centuries. If only the walls could talk!
Buckingham Palace is no place for kings and queens. It doesn’t even have turrets and life there is clearly no fairytale. It might be surrounded by parkland but Westminster sits on the Thames and it’s Unesco listed – just one of four sites in London that is.
Five: Cathedral City
London has four cathedrals and an abbey. Why? When I asked about this at St Paul’s I was given an obvious answer. In earlier days London wasn’t the large metropolis it is today.
There was only the City of London which had St Paul’s Cathedral. Nearby was the City of Westminster – the seat of royals and politicians – with Westminster Abbey and the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral.
Then there was Southwark, which grew up on the other side of the Thames, and that gives us another two: Southwark Cathedral (Anglian) and St George’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic). So taken together that’s five! Is there another capital in the world with so many?
It’s not clear why St Paul’s Cathedral is dedicated to the missionary. He was Roman, spoke Greek, and was a big traveller but not in western Europe. He wrote the Epistles and preached Christianity in Ancient Greece and parts of Turkey, before the Gospels existed. He penned wisdom we still use today such as “the love of money is the root of all evil”, “let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” and “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” It’s not thought he ever visited our shores even though he was alive when Londinium was founded. He died in the year 67 and sleeps in Rome.
London is also a land of churches where bell ringing would once fill the streets. Before the Fire of London there were more than 100 in the Square Mile – 85 were destroyed. Sir Christoper Wren rebuilt 51. These days you’ll probably find more people outside sitting on the benches than inside praying. My favourite is St Clement Danes, down the Strand, only because it plays the nursery rhyme (“Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s…”) on the hour. This is the RAF church and was finished by Wren in 1682.
Six: Transport City
How much fun is it to go underground, down near vertical escalators, to travel at 20.5mph and arrive miles away but only 10 minutes later? It’s genius.
This happened in the 1840s: we picked up our spades and started digging, not for treasure, but for travel. We tunnelled down like rats to create the London Underground. Then on a cold and cloudy (probably) Saturday 10th January 1863, the Metropolitan Railway opened. It had seven stations between Paddington and Farringdon. Today this is part of the Circle Line and the world’s oldest underground line.
And what a lot can happen in 150 years: there are now 11 lines and still we are burrowing with the Elizabeth Line due to open in the summer of 2021. Nothing gives you a better feel for the size of London than the Tube map. Never before has a city so big been so easy to cross.
Above ground we have the iconic red buses and black cabs. There are more than 15 major railway stations with trains that will take you out into the countryside and across the border to France and beyond. There are planes that will take you to every point of the compass and a cruise terminal where you can board a ship and sail north to Amsterdam or south to Santander.
It’s astonishing. London is a mega transport hub. There’s adventure in every direction.