It’s a trick not every city can pull off and yet London has been excelling at the same game for almost a thousand years. Immigrants, the city’s life blood, continue to pour in, providing London with a constantly self-renewing source of energy and dynamism, while the increasingly confident Mayor of London continues to give a much needed local focus to solving the city’s problems, something he’s been doing with not inconsiderable success. The British capital is now in its post Olympics period although if you speak with any local, everything is still to play for and the city has rarely felt so exciting and full of reasons to visit. Whether it’s the history, art, fashion, music, food or nightlife that attracts you here (or a heady mixture of all the above), it’s hard to imagine you’ll come away feeling cheated.
Of course, London is so huge as to be almost overwhelming to the first-time visitor. The dazzling core sights alone can take a week to see, but with distractions in the form of all the great shopping, pubbing and clubbing to be had, you ideally need far more time than that. The good news is that whatever you do and wherever you stay, you’ll not be bored for a second: London remains one of the world’s great cities and it’s high time you came to join the party.
Life in London
Even Londoners have been surprised by the changes the city has seen in recent years – from the rise of art from a minority interest to a mass national pastime (helped enormously by the superb Tate Modern, now London’s most-visited sight) to the resurgence of London’s music scene, with new talent from the capital bubbling over after a surprisingly long post-Britpop lull.
The city became infinitely more progressive during the Blair years, which saw Cool Britannia, massive redevelopments of forgotten inner-city areas, a slew of millennial projects and of coursethe city’s crowning glory, winning and hosting the Olympics.
Londoners love to gripe about their city, but if you join in with anything other than gentle fun-poking they’re likely to get quite annoyed with you. After all, as they’ll almost certainly remind you, this is the greatest city in the world…
Denied self-rule by the Conservatives for 14 years because of the loony-left tendencies of the leaders it invariably elected, London finally got its own mayor and Assembly in 2000 and has been addressing its myriad problems with admirable chutzpah ever since. Mayor Borris Johnston has massively increased the provision of bike lanes and buses and is still trying to sort out the oldest, most dilapidated underground system in the world. Many of his critics disagree with his methods, but few can doubt that he is slowly getting results and may even have turned the corner with the tube. In recent years London has replaced New York as the world’s centre of international finance and the city skyline reflects this confidence. Whether it be the already iconic London Eye and Gherkin or the newer Shard of Glass or Broadgate Tower, London is being transformed, with many more skyscrapers planned for the future.
Other bugbears have also been sorted: London has undergone a food revolution in the past decade and nowhere is this more obvious than at the organic farmers’ markets and cutting-edge restaurants of the capital. Add to this newly liberalised drinking laws, a roundly welcomed smoking ban and a fantastic music scene and London makes for one of the best places for a night out on the planet.
Take a deep breath, close your eyes and prepare to fall in love with the British capital.
London Holiday Shopping
Shopping is a major part of many Londoners’ lives. The city has around 30,000 shops, both chain and independent, and a massive variety – from the clever High-Street fashion of Topshop, to the luxurious delights of Harrods, and the cutting-edge clothes from young designers at Spitalfields Market to the antiques of Portobella. In fact, shopping has become such a preoccupation that there are frequent news stories of shoppers queuing at 4am for a certain product, camping outside department stores for Christmas sales (a long-standing London tradition), beating each other to get to a pair of cheap pants, or trampling shop-assistants on their way to the latest designer-endorsed clothes lines on the High Street. So, you may ask, what’s the fuss about?
London’s main attractions are sheer variety and shopping opportunities. The big-name emporiums, such as Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Hamleys, Fortnum & Mason and Liberty, are both sightseeing attractions in their own right and temples to shopping devotees; the side-street boutiques – the capital’s true delights – also sell just about anything, from clothes to old-style British homeware. Despite the fact that High-Street chains are progressively taking over more and more of the city, funky street-wear outlets in places such as Hoxton, Brick Lane and Spitalfields continue to thrive, and there are signs that after years of the rule of cheap High-Street fashion, Londoners are increasingly returning to the charm of individual design and décor. If you’re in the market for something a little more exclusive and expensive, New Bond St and around are laden with designer shops, and a whole host of hot young British designers, such as Stella McCartney and Matthew Williamson, maintain lavish outlets where admiring the setting is an integral part of the experience. You’ll probably be familiar with classic British brands such as Burberry, Mulberry and Pringle, which have radically reinvented themselves and become part of high fashion. But perhaps fashion is not your obsession? Worry not, the British capital has just about anything on sale, from handmade umbrellas to technology or exotic foodstuffs.
London’s history has been a long and turbulent two millennia in which many different settlements and long-established villages slowly grew together to form the immense city around the Roman core that still marks London’s heart today.
The Romans are the real fathers of London, despite there being a settlement of some form or another along the Thames for several thousand of years before their arrival. Amazingly, the Roman wall built around the settlement of Londinium still more or less demarcates the City from neighbouring municipal authorities today.
The Romans first visited in the 1st century BC, traded with the Celts and had a browse around. In AD 43 they returned with an army led by Emperor Claudius and decided to stay, establishing the port of Londinium. They built a wooden bridge across the Thames (near the site of today’s London Bridge) and used the settlement as a base from which to capture other tribal centres, which at the time provided much bigger prizes. The bridge became the focal point for a network of roads fanning out around the region, and for a few years the settlement prospered from trade.
This growth was nipped in the bud around AD 60 when an army led by Boudicca, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe based in East Anglia, took violent retribution on the Roman soldiers, who had abused her family and seized their land. The Iceni overran Camulodunum (Colchester) – which had become capital of Roman Britannia – and then turned on Londinium, massacring its inhabitants and razing the settlement. Boudicca was eventually defeated (and according to legend is buried under platform 10 of King’s Cross station), and the Romans rebuilt London around Cornhill.
A century later the Romans built the defensive wall around the city, fragments of which survive. The original gates – Aldgate, Ludgate, Newgate and Bishopsgate – are remembered as place names in contemporary London. Excavations in the City suggest that Londinium, a centre for business and trade although not a fully-fledged colonia (settlement), was an imposing metropolis whose massive buildings included a basilica, an amphitheatre, a forum and the governor’s palace.
By the middle of the 3rd century AD Londinium was home to some 30,000 people of various ethnic groups, and there were temples dedicated to a large number of cults. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, this became the official religion of the entire empire, although the remains of the Temple of Mithras survive in the City, a testament to London’s pagan past.
Overstretched and worn down by ever-increasing barbarian invasions, the Roman Empire fell into decline, as did Londinium. When the embattled Emperor Honorius withdrew the last soldiers in 410, the remaining Romans scarpered and the settlement was reduced to a sparsely populated backwater.
The most famous date in English history, 1066 marks the real birth of England as a unified nation state. After the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066 a dispute over who would takethe English throne spelled disaster for the Saxon kings. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was anointed successor by Edward on his deathbed, but this enraged William, the duke of Normandy, who believed Edward had promised him the throne. William mounted a massive invasion of England from France and on 14 October defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, before marching on London to claim his prize. William the Conqueror was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on December 25 1066, ensuring the Norman conquest was complete. He subsequently found himself in control of what was by then the richest and largest city in the kingdom.
William distrusted ‘the fierce populace’ of London and built several strongholds, including the White Tower, the core of the Tower of London. Cleverly, he kept the prosperous merchants on side by confirming the City’s independence in exchange for taxes. Sometime following the Norman conquest, London became the principal town of England, overtaking Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex.
Arts, Activities and Sports
There are no two ways about it: London’s cultural life is fantastic. Its theatre is the most diverse and rich in the world, from Shakespeare’s classics performed in the traditional manner, to innovative productions that involve Indian street dancers and acrobatics. There’s a wealth of new writing and acting talent and, after many decades, politically provocative plays are making headlines again. Theatre in London is taken so seriously that many deem performing in the West End to be the only way to earn respect among their peers, so much so that even Hollywood stars abandon their glitzy lives for a season treading London’s boards.
But it’s not all drama and seriousness. In fact, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the capital is the musical. The 1980s revival put Dirty Dancing into musical form, making it one of the most successful shows around, and sending hundreds of ladies into excitement-overdrive every night (ah, the power of Patrick Swayze); Monty Python’s surreal sketches and silly songs were transferred into Spamalot; and even The Lord of the Rings hasn’t escaped the clutches of the musical. And that’s without mentioning the many classics that still have actors exercising their vocal cords. Dance is another loved form, with performances ranging from classical ballet to modern dance, many of which are held in wonderful venues such as the Royal Opera House, Laban and Sadler’s Wells.
The Royal Opera House stages classical opera and ballet in the grandiose new building in the heart of Covent Garden, while the English National Opera (p316) delves into adventurous experiments that don’t always pay off. Lovers of classical music won’t know where to start, from high-profile BBC Proms to fantastic lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore Hall (opposite).
London’s a fantastic place for catching up on independent film and cinema seasons that celebrate the independents and the classics, though if you like a blockbuster, fret not, as there are many (overpriced) cinemas offering Hollywood flicks. Huge multiplexes give you endless screens and mega–sound systems, and smaller, independent cinemas offer the delight of a sofa for two, with a glass of wine at your side. The refurbished and expanded British Film Institute is a temple to the love of film.