London is often the only part of Britain that overseas visitors see. Which is a pity, because in so many ways it is unlike any other part of Britain. For a start, it is huge; it is confident; and, inevitably, it is busy. Shelley wrote “Hell is a city much like London”, but then Samuel Johnson famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life.” Well, of course, Sam didn’t have to put up with the traffic… on the other hand, there’s so much to see, do and experience in London that ‘hell’ seems a tad strong. In any event, you’d have to try very hard indeed to be bored there; London isn’t one of the most visited cities in the world without good reason.
If you’re coming from New York, Sydney, Ambridge, or some other bustling metropolis, the size and frenetic activity of London will not faze you. On the other hand, even if you’re used to one of Britain’s other great cities, London is just enormous. Its population (about 8 million) is 7 times greater than that of Britain’s 2nd largest city, Birmingham, and it covers an area of about 620 square miles administered by 33 London Boroughs. The City of London is the UK’s main financial district, augmented by Canary Wharf in the redeveloped Docklands to the east. The City rubs shoulders with the City of Westminster, whilst across the Thames on the south bank is London’s ‘forgotten city’ of Southwark. Beyond the centre are the remains of rural villages, such as Blackheath, Chelsea and Wimbledon, now all part of the London conurbation that has swallowed large chunks of the old surrounding counties of Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey. And the whole lot is neatly surrounded by the M25 – sometimes laughingly referred to as Britain’s largest car park.
No one’s sure where the name ‘London’ came from – notwithstanding various theories, its roots lie buried in the mists of time. And, despite a legendary story that it was founded by Brutus of Troy, it’s pretty certain that the first significant settlement in London was Roman, in the first century AD. Even so, a couple of thousand years is a reasonable length of time and each successive era has left its stamp. The past co-exists with the present. It’s always been a major port, and culturally diverse: these days, it is claimed that its inhabitants speak about 300 different languages (though of course the native tongue is Cockney).
London is an expensive place, but there’s an awful lot to do that won’t cost you a penny. For one thing, most of the truly amazing museums don’t charge entry fees. If you explore by foot, you will stumble across some of London’s hidden treasures as well as taking in the sights. And London is blessed with some wonderful open areas – not just those in the centre, like St James’s Park, but further afield too – like Greenwich, Hampstead Heath and Richmond. Every now and again, you come across some delightful square, often a little park in its own right. Most of the major attractions in Westminster – the Abbey, Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace – are within easy walking distance of one another. A short tube ride will take you to St Paul’s, or the Tower of London. There’s an almost bewildering amount of things to look at; here are a few favourites:
The Tower of London
St James’s Park
The City of London on a Sunday
The British Museum
The Kensington Museums – Natural History, Science and the V&A
The Inns of Court
London’s pretty easy to find, but unless you’re brave or know your way around I wouldn’t suggest driving in it. London’s drivers are pretty good in my opinion – but it is a hectic place and very easy to get lost. Amazingly for such an important city, there is no motorway into the centre – the M4 tries, but gives up somewhere near Hammersmith. You also need to be aware of the congestion charge (look it up on Transport for London’s website ).
The tube (underground) service is excellent, relatively inexpensive (buy a travel card) and, in most cases is the best way of finding your way around – certainly in Central London. London’s taxi divers – the Hackney carriages that all used to be black but can now be any colour under the sun – can be pricey, but are absolutely brilliant. In more than 30 years I have only had two bad experiences of London cabbies – one a complete lunatic who narrowly missed knocking people over and another who took a circuitous route and tried to charge me for it. It’s a very bad idea to use unlicensed cabs – they can be cheap, but they’re unregulated, often don’t know where they’re going, may not have insurance – and you just don’t know what you’re getting into.
Probably the best drive in London, particularly at night, is from Trafalgar Square through Admiralty Arch down the Mall to Buckingham Palace; do it.
London is at the hub of the national rail network. Allow good time if you’re travelling across town (and try to avoid doing it in rush hour, particularly if you have luggage). Mainly for the benefit of overseas visitors, Heathrow and Gatwick airports are not in London – but about 20-30 minutes train ride away. Stanstead Airport is in Essex and Luton is in Bedfordshire – but there are good rail links. City of London Airport is in the East End…