Great Britain – London Travel Guide – More
More than 300 museums and galleries can be found in this cultural city which contain everything from ancient ruins to art spanning over the last five centuries and postmodern collections. Art and culture is spread all over this fabulous metropolis and due to it’s unique history many small aspects of traditional European life still spring up everywhere.
London is situated in southeastern England along the Thames River. With a population of about 7 million, this vast metropolis is by far the largest city in Europe, a distinction it has maintained since the 17th century. In the 19th century it was the largest and most influential city in the world, the center of a large and prosperous overseas empire. Although it no longer ranks among the world’s most populous cities, London is still one of the world’s major financial and cultural capitals.
By European standards, London is physically spread out and dispersed, without a predominant focal point. It therefore defies easy general description, as the city’s character is found in its diverse and distinct sections. Many of these sections began as separate villages, and today they maintain some of their individual identities. London’s Images is partly defined by its past, as its major buildings and institutions represent 2000 years of community history. Its Images is also the product of a new multiethnic mix of people and the creative impulse of the new popular culture of “Cool Britannia,” a phrase Britain’s promoters conceived in the mid-1990s to portray Britain as modern and trendy.
London’s climate is generally mild and damp, although it can be erratic. This region is one of the driest parts of Britain, and the average annual rainfall is only 750 mm (30 in). However, the weather is generally cloudy, and some rain is liable to fall on half the days of the year. With a mean temperature in July of about 18° C (about 64° F), London has warmer summers than most of the island, although heat waves are infrequent and seldom last long. Temperatures rarely go above 26° C (78° F). Winters are relatively frosty, however, and the mean temperature in January is 4° C (40° F). Fog frequently develops in winter. In the past, foggy days were aggravated by smoke, resulting in London’s traditional “pea-soupers.” However, since the use of coal has significantly declined, these have largely disappeared.
London and Its Metropolitan Area
London’s metropolitan area extends for more than 30 miles at its widest point, covering some 1610 sq km (620 sq mi). This vast urban territory is divided into 33 political units—32 boroughs and the City of London. At the core of this immense urban area is Central London. Most of Central London is located north of the Thames, on a gentle slope that rises to the north. It contains about 12 of the 33 political units, including the City of London, the City of Westminster, and districts in the West End. The City of London is the traditional heart of the city and stands as its own political unit. The City of Westminster is the seat of the national government. Much of the outer portion of this huge conglomeration of people and activities is made up of low-rise residential development.
The City of London
The historical center of London is now a relatively small area still known as the City, which covers only about 2.6 sq km (about 1 sq mi). The City is capitalized, to distinguish it from the larger metropolis. This is where London began as a Roman colonial town around AD 50, at the point where the Romans built the first bridge in London. Today this area is one of the world’s leading financial centers. Most of the financial activities are crowded along Thread needle Street, near the intersection known as the Bank, which includes the huge Bank of England complex, the Royal Exchange, and the Stock Exchange. The permanent residential population of the City is now less than 6000, but about 350,000 commute here daily to work. The only large residential portion of the City is the Barbican Centre, a concrete complex of towers, parking garages, and pedestrian walkways located on the northern edge of the City. The Barbican was built to replace older buildings destroyed in World War II (1939-1945), when the Germans heavily bombed London.
Some of the City’s older elegance and significance remains despite the architectural havoc caused by the Blitz and postwar developers. The most prominent landmark is Saint Paul’s Cathedral, designed by English architect Christopher Wren to replace the original church, which was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666. At the City’s eastern boundary is the Tower of London, where the Crown imprisoned many important figures. It was begun in the 11th century by the Norman invader, William the Conqueror, to awe a city he had not completely conquered. Successive monarchs added to the original, central White Tower, and built walls to enclose the 7-hectare (18-acre) site. Its function now is primarily ceremonial, although it still guards the Crown Jewels.
Some of the City’s traditional functions have disappeared. The newspaper industry was concentrated in the Fleet Street area for centuries, but during the 1980s the Times and other papers moved to highly automated quarters at the Docklands in the East End. The old wholesale fish market, Billingsgate, located for centuries on the river between the Tower and London Bridge, also moved to the Docklands.
The City of Westminster
The City of Westminster, about two miles upstream from the City of London, emerged as England’s political and religious center of power after the 11th century. At the heart of Westminster is Westminster Abbey, begun by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 13th century. It has always been closely associated with the monarchy and is used for such state occasions as coronations and royal funerals. It is also a giant mausoleum, and more than 3000 notable people are buried there. Statues and monuments line the magnificent nave. Virtually across the street are the Houses of Parliament, officially called the New Palace of Westminster. Farther west is the monarch’s permanent residence in London, Buckingham Palace.
To the north, Trafalgar Square links the political and religious section of Westminster to the rest of west London. This square is a modest version of the great ceremonial squares of Europe, and was built in dedication to British naval commander Viscount Horatio Nelson, whose monument is at the square’s center. It has long been a popular site for large-scale political demonstrations. Some significant buildings, such as the National Gallery, are on the square. On the northeast corner is Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, the classical-style church designed by James Gibbs in the 1720s.
The West End
To the west and north of Trafalgar Square is the West End, which is usually regarded as the center of town because it is London’s shopping and entertainment hub. The busiest shopping area is Oxford Street, where such large department stores as Selfridges, John Lewis, and Marks and Spencer are located. Other well-known shopping areas include Knightsbridge, the location of Harrods department store; and Piccadilly, where Fortnum and Mason specializes in fine food. The main entertainment attractions are scattered throughout the Soho and Covent Garden sections, northeast of Piccadilly. Soho and Covent Garden were created as residential areas in the 17th century, but now are home to shops, theaters, and street entertainers. The Royal Opera House and most of London’s 40 or so major theaters are here, as are the large movie houses, and hundreds of restaurants, cafés, and bars.
Located just west of Soho and Covent Garden in the West End is a more residential area. Much of the urban design here is based on the residential square, an imitation of European precedents, with uniform houses built around an open space. The houses on these squares were often built for the aristocracy and the upper middle class. The relatively dense development of this area is broken up by a series of Royal Parks, areas once owned by the Crown, including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and Regent’s Park.
In the northern part of the West End is Bloomsbury, the city’s traditional intellectual center, with its concentration of bookshops and homes of writers and academics. In the early 20th century a number of famous writers, critics, and artists who lived here became known as the Bloomsbury Group. Here, too, is the British Museum, one of London’s chief tourist attractions. Nearby is the giant complex of the University of London, whose various colleges and departments have taken over much of Bloomsbury.
The East End and Docklands
The East End, beyond the City of London and the Tower, has long been the home of London’s docks and immigrants. It has frequently been characterized by slums, poverty, and crime. This is the area where the notorious criminal Jack the Ripper prowled. Some portions, such as Bethnal Green, were slums during the Victorian period. Many poorer immigrants and working-class Londoners still reside in the East End, but its weekend street markets are very popular, especially Petticoat Lane, which runs along the length of Middlesex Street. Although Middlesex Street is no longer the center of the clothing trade, its merchandise is still geared toward apparel. Much of the old dockyard area has been abandoned and is being redeveloped as the Docklands, an ambitious project designed to lure London’s financial activities away from the congested City. The heart of the Docklands is the Isle of Dogs, a peninsula where the Royal Kennels were once situated.
North London was made up of satellite villages until the 19th century when the underground railroad (known locally as the Tube) opened this area up to development. Camden Town, on Regent’s Canal, has a popular weekend market that sells inexpensive clothing and jewelry. Farther north are elegant 18th-century villages, such as Hampstead, a center for writers; and Highgate, renowned for London’s best-known cemetery, which includes the grave and a large bust of Karl Marx. A central fixture of north London is the 324-hectare (800-acre) Hampstead Heath, a large public park.
The area south of the Thames has long been regarded with disdain by the rest of the city. For centuries Southwark, originally the area around the southern end of London Bridge, was the disreputable entertainment center of London, with brothels, bars, and theaters outside of the City’s jurisdiction. The sacred and the profane lived in close proximity here. Not far from the infamous Bankside, where brutal sports like cockfighting and bearbaiting took place, was the beautiful Southwark Cathedral, which dates from the 13th century. Bankside was also the location of Elizabethan theaters, which were restricted in the City because they were considered places of vice. One of these, the Globe Theatre, where William Shakespeare put on his greatest plays, was recently reconstructed.
Farther along the river to the west is the South Bank Centre cultural complex, begun as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Festival of Britain was a vehicle for lifting the spirits of Londoners after the trials of World War II. The most important building in the center is the Royal Festival Hall, a concert hall that was built for the festival. The Royal National Theatre and the National Film Theatre are also part of the South Bank Centre. Return to London Page…..
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