Introduction to London
=1) Best in Summer: The guided tours of the Houses of Parliament are superb, in any language you want, and get you to places that even normal Brits can't. However when Parliament is sitting they are not running, but you can still get in. See HERE
=1)The Tate Modern [45 mins wander], Tate Britain [at a pinch 40 mins] and National Galleries [preferably 2 x 45 minute visits] . All free so don't bolt your art, digest it slowly with frequent visits. London's public collections are the best in the world. What's amazing is the consistent high quality of all the works displayed - there are no duds! Details on our Art page
2) Hampton Court. We rate this as one of the best attractions in Europe. A whole succession of monarchs have added to Henry VIII's original palace. A fantastic park (by Capability Brown) and gardens (including the famous maze), Tudor kitchens and one of the last remaining Real Tennis courts. Lots of free (once you've paid the admission) guided tours, some in costume, by people who know and love the place. It's also surrounded by a series of parks and makes a great destination for a bike trip - train out (30 mins from Waterloo), bike back (12 miles) along the river. We prefer it to the Tower of London - you'll probably want to visit both, it knocks the spots off Buckingham Palace. Details on our Historic London page.
3) The River. Walk along the South Bank from Tower Bridge to Lambeth (see itinerary section). The best of London is spread out for you: The Tower of London & Tower Bridge, The Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Palace (residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury), Shakespeare's Globe theatre, Both Tate Galleries, St Paul's Cathedral, The South Bank Centre, The Temple, The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Somerset House. [A 2 hour walk if you don't stop for long]. Or you can take a boat out to Greenwich, the Thames Barrier or the Dome.
4) Westminster Abbey Where they crown Kings, and bury bards. A steep admission charge (should really be free or voluntary donation), but a masterpiece nonetheless. If you get bored of waiting in the queue, or crushed by the crowds, hie yourself off to the City where there's more square footage of historic church, and empty.
5) PMQ Prime Ministers Question Time - the political equivalent of feeding time at the zoo. If you're lucky enough to get in the strangers gallery for Question Time, see the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition snipe at each other across the floor of the house, while MPs jeer or enthuse obsequiously. At other times the debates can be soporific - queue up outside the Parliament building when the MPs are sitting, left for commons, right for Lords. It's worth asking what's being debated.e is a debate on go in for a quick 30 minute visit at about 19:00. Often later in the evening the debates liven up again.
6)The Inns of Court - again a free attraction - medieval 'Inns' five in number (Grays, Lincoln's, Inner, Middle, Outer) house lawyers who still use laws going back 1000 years, they reside in glorious buildings and retain arcane manners and modes of dress. They run North to South perpendicular to the river. To qualify as a lawyer in Britain you have to eat 12 meals in an accredited Inn. That's (really) all. Also there's the rooms where Prince Henry lived. Take in the amazing John Soane museum on the way. This is Walk Three on our itinerary page. [You can do a quick wander in 40 mins through all the best bits if you're in a hurry]
7) The Parks - the lungs of London, you can walk from Westminster to Holland Park (look on the tube map) solely in the parks. The view from the bridge in St James Park towards Whitehall is stunning. Regent's has excellent cultivated gardens and the famous zoo, Hyde Park has Speakers' Corner where fanatics rail and preach, St James has the lake and pelicans, Green is Stately and Royal and Kensington Gardens houses the Royal Costume collection. Holland park has the Orangery and an Opera House, as well as the most beautiful youth hostel in the country. This is Walk Two on our itinerary page. You can bathe naked on Hampstead Heath, go fly a kite on Blackheath or visit the deer in Greenwich park. One of the tourists we surveyed placed the Japanese Garden in Holland Park at the top of his list - he found it an oasis of peace in the overwhelming bustle of London.
8) The City home to the Bank of England, Bow Bells, and the few remaining architectural treasures of Samuel Pepys' London. Many nooks and crannies preserve the taste of Victorian London - chop houses unchanged in their menus and habits since the Relief of Mafeking. Home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London until mid-2002, this is really a place to potter round see our itinerary page for details of two routes we've worked out to take in the best of the City. There are many good official guided tours - the tour of City Churches is an award winner. [absolute minimum - St Paul's and nearby St Bartholomew].
London is in fact two cities - 'The City of London' usually just called 'The City', and 'Westminster', which lies to its west. For all intents and purposes the West End (everything to the immediate West of the City) is now the centre of London - the East End (home of Cockney culture) is traditionally a poor working class and industrial area, currently undergoing something of a renaissance. There are slums within half a mile of the biggest concentration of financial power in the world - largely due to an invisible barrier between the City and the East End.
Londinium was founded by the Romans at a convenient crossing of the Thames, though it had been convenient for the local inhabitants too. Tacitus describes a flourishing trading city existing in AD 67. The area was marshy but there was a low hill, roughly where the Bank of England now stands and it was here that the Romans chose to build a typical Roman city, primarily for military reasons. Their forum was where Leadenhall market now stands.
They believed that Britain was a kind of El Dorado, and that they'd make their fortune here, as previous legions had grown rich off the Amber that Germans didn't seem to value. The river was navigable a long way inland, and tidal, which made it easy to get boats in and out.
There's a great amount of Roman archeology about - the Museum of London leads digs whenever any building is erected, and as that's often, we know a great deal about the Roman period.
England at that time was inhabited by a hodge-podge of tribes and small kingdoms, and the Romans had little difficulty subduing them - despite some noble efforts at defence. The locals assimilated Roman culture, and after a couple of hundred years were more Roman than the Romans. When the Romans pulled out, pressured by frontier wars, the Saxons took over. They hated living in the old walled Roman city and established their own city of long huts, roughly where Covent Garden is today. This duality still persists - the 'City' is essentially Roman Londinium, and 'Westminster' is the Saxon add-on. When new invaders swept the country the Saxons and their kin moved back into the safety of the old Roman City, now quite deserted, and it was here that London originated.
By the time the Normans took over from the Saxons, the basis of the mercantile capital was already laid: a charter of citizens rights and a confederation of tradesmen, providing a counterweight to the aristocracy. London was a leading trading port of western Europe - merchants from Italy, the Netherlands, France and Germany lived around the river - which had only one crossing - the Old London Bridge, until 1769. Food and wine came in, wool and leather went out. Due to the wool trade's centre in East Anglia - near the old Boston - London was for a time England's second city. However the establishment of merchant's guilds with the mayor at their head re-established London's place as capital. They grew up as 'misteries' or trades during the medieval period, (the 'Mystery Plays, still performed, are religious plays which were enacted by guildsmen).
These medieaval guilds and livery companies exist today, and preserve fine buildings across the City - the Weavers' company dates back to 1130, the saddlers' company goes back to 1272, Wax Chandlers' Company to 1358, though the Launderers' guild was formed as late as 1960. Napoleon's jibe (he was actually quoting Adam Smith) that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers is true : with a living to protect from invaders, and trading routes and privileges to protect overseas, it was unsurprising that they made doughty fighters, as the French leaned to their cost at Crecy and Agincourt.
In Tudor times - after years wasted in wars of succession (which explains Henry VIII's desperate and bloody attempts to secure a male heir) the dissolution of the monasteries, and terrible religious persecution (the country went from catholic to protestant, back to catholic and Henry VIII's need for a divorce saw the final breach with Rome) led to poverty and mass unemployment. The black death and other plagues decimated the population.
However by the late 16th century, the seeds of England's future as a world trading power were sown with the formation of the Trading Companies - The East India Company, The Muscovy Company the Levant Company, and the Turkey Company, which along with Britain's naval prowess, saw management techniques still venerated by world corporations, conquer the world. England was also at the forefront of the arts with a lively theatre and music scene (the latter eclipsed by one European nation after another, its pre-eminence was not regained until after the first world war).
The Plague in 1665 and the fire in 1666 shook London out of its complacency (there are spectacular accounts of both these in Defoe and Pepys' journals) but also lead to a wave of property development (which is still going on), that saw the forerunners of Sir Richard Rogers (Wren, Hawksmoor and a whole crew of architectural geniuses) dominating the city skylines.
This redevelopment went on into the 18th Century, seeing buildings like The Bank of England and most of the Bridges across the Thames springing up. Tower Bridge (often mistaken for London Bridge, most notably by an American Millionnaire, who transplanted the old London Bridge to Arizona, only finding out on delivery he hadn't bought Tower Bridge) was opened in 1894. The Victorians supervised the transformation of London into a modern city, sewers and underground railways (1863) tunneled beneath the clay of the world's capital, while overground railways (1836) and omnibuses (1855) opened up across the city, and the port of London enjoyed a final flowering.
Despite the presence of the Royal Palaces, Westminster Abbey (a place of pilgrimage) and the country's first printing presses, Westminster really only came into its own in the 19th century, and was granted the title of a City, with its own mayor in 1900. Until the 1850s it was the haunt of criminals who used the sanctuary laws to hide in the precincts of Westminster Abbey - there are still roads such as 'Little Sanctuary' and 'Thieving Lane' which testify to its past. The redesigning of the area under Barry put paid to this unsavoury aspect and saw an expansion which co-incided with the arrival of the railways, Victoria Station occupying the site of several private railway stations which were amalgamated in 1899.
The West End was to Shaw's London what Southwark was to Shakespeare's - the pleasure district, with hotels, theatres, restaurants and shops, while the City remained the financial heart of Europe, and the banking and share trading capital of the world. Prostitution and Crime were the twin blights of this area right up until the end of the war.
The two World Wars saw huge destruction, to both the populace and the city and some terrible rebuilding followed, with little real conservation work - many of the city's worst buildings date from this time, when the Greater London Council changed the face of the old city forever. It's said that the GLC did more damage to London than the Luftwaffe.
London's architectural revival started with the completion of the Lloyd's building by Sir Richard Rogers in 1979 - and despite some terrible blunders (the most of them under Margaret Thatcher - the destruction of Battersea Power Station being the most obvious) and some corporate vandalism mostly committed in the City, by developers too close to the Corporation (Sir Peter Palumbo's destruction of the old Mappin and Webb building to erect one of London's most hideous monstrosities above Bank station, the destruction of Spitalfields market) London is beginning to rival Paris in its Grand Projects. However, whether much of the old London will remain as developers pry on the greed of local and city councils remains in question. (see The London Destruction Website for more details of London's destroyed Heritage)
Many people expect London to be crawling with
cheerful cockney characters straight out of Dickens,
and assume there is a pure-bred English type that
rules over them. Nothing could be farther from the
truth. Or closer to it. Many have striven to define 'Englishness' and
failed - in fact English culture is really a bastard
culture, having assimilated the best from many other
cultures. However, if you're looking for Dickens, it's still here, these days the Artful Dodgers are more likely Romanian, the beggers, Kurds, roaring boys, Indian, ladies of the night, Latvian, but in the East End Pearly Kings and Queens still jostle with Fakhirs, Tongs, Moors and other literary stereotypes. The Chinese gangs may stick to themselves but the days of Fu Manchu are still with us, and a Brixton knife-fight hasn't changed much since the 60s. You aren't likely to see the underworld, or even come in contact with the underclass, but they're still as much alive as they were in the days of Sherlock Holmes, Hogarth's Rake or Uriah Heap.
Pounds Sterling - issued by the bank of Scotland or
England only (Irish Pounds not valid) they are
different sizes and colors to help the partially
A book, friend, single lady, or a glass,
Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,
Are things which make an English evening pass;
Weather: England's weather remains the most frequent topic of conversation - it's not as bad as it's painted (in fact it rains less in London than it does in Paris), it's just so unpredictable. We don't have clearly defined seasons - like in central Europe - at any moment trouble can brew up in the Atlantic and lead to cold or wet weather. Never buy tickets for an outdoor event in advance. Generally September and October are the best months... summer is now 'the rainy season'. However don't take our word for it, here's what the Meterological office have to say about The British Climate. For a five day forcast click go to the BBC weather site - bear in mind no weather prediction is 100% accurate.
Manners: The ideal of the English gentleman is long dead, though common courtesy is well...common, but Londoners are definitely not as friendly as New Yorkers (though much more so than Parisians). It is assumed that unless you ask or make the first gesture, that you are OK and do not need any help - the English guard their privacy closely, and only really engage when it is quite clear on both sides that this is acceptable. This goes for generosity - it is assumed that one is too proud to accept it, so it won't be proffered so as to spare your feelings. They also have a marked aversion to complaining.
The English sense of humour is very black and surrealistic and the nation's strong point, and consists of hyperbole delivered deadpan. As one analyst said, the fat man doesn't just slip on the banana skin, he explodes. The English are really stoics who can laugh at anything, and there are no taboo topics for general conversation - class rules are suspended for foreigners. Good natured banter, as long as it isn't wounding, is the most common form of social exchange, apart from talking about the weather, a perennial conversation-opener. The worst thing about the English in general is their total inability to hold their liquor, and their frequent occasion to prove it.
Communications: The post and telephone services in the UK are good, and a call from a coinbox (if you can find one that hasn't doubled as a urinal) is cheap and easy - not all are the famous red phone boxes, though they are making a comeback, if only for tourists. You can also use a credit card or a phonecard (available in most newsagents or grocers) in most phone boxes, as well as spare Euros. Hotels make the usual surcharges. There are many shops offering cheap international calls (eg in Queensway) and it's worth exploring these as they offer good rates.
Postal services are also generally quick and reliable - a first class letter posted by 18:00, should arrive the next morning within the UK - check the 'last posting times' on the red postboxes. Some of the postboxes are over 100 years old and may look quite tatty - they're protected as monuments and are as good as shiny new ones. Stamps can be bought individually at post offices or in books of four or ten at newsagents, off-licences and groceries.
If you want a good kids game to play as you walk around London, tell your kids to pick either 'Victoria, George, & Elizabeth' then look on postboxes as you pass... each is inscribed with the monarch in whose reign it was erected. One point for each spotting of a VR GR (V or VI) or E II R...
There are more public access internet terminals in London than anywhere we've been due to the constant flux of temporary visitors. If you want free accommodation, albeit in the top-security Paddington Green police station, just enter the word 'jihad' ....
Feeding times: Breakfast is usually at about 08:00 and is either continental (bread, cereal, coffee, juice) or Full British, which in addition to the continental selection brings a coronary-inducing mixture of bacon, fried or scrambled eggs, fried bread, sausages (which are mostly bread, and under EU law can't be called sausages, so the euphemism 'banger' is often used), toast, marmalade (sour orange jam/jelly), with strong, white tea. Sometimes black pudding (effectively blood sausage) or porridge (oatmeal, traditionally with salt and water, though more likely with milk, cream and sugar) or kippers (smoked herrings, Scottish style - delicious) are added.
If you still have room, coffee is served at about 11:00, possibly with a snack, and lunch is 13:00 - most workers eat sandwiches, unless someone else is paying, when a long boozy lunch may stretch on til 15:00.
Tea (southern England) is at 16:00-17:00 and consists of fine sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and cakes, with a pot of weak tea. In the North of England tea is usually the main evening meal, served at 17:00-18:00.
Dinner is usually at about 20:00 - though it may be much later, in which case it's called supper, except on Sundays when dinner is the main lunchtime meal. Lively Londoners can eat quite late, though it's often difficult ( Brick Lane and Chinatown excepted) to find a restaurant that serves past 22:00 - 23:00.
If they've been out drinking most Londoners will go for a curry after the pubs shut at 23:00 - Indian restaurants stay open til late, but check for drunks before you settle down.
Hours Most shops open at about 09:30
and stay open throughout the day until 19:00, though
more traditional shops will still close at 17:30.
Thursday night is usually later opening, and shops
will stay open til 21:00 or later. On Saturdays
shops often close a little earlier, and many open
again on Sunday from about 11:00-17:00 in the major
seems to offer you a wide ranging, money saving
admission ticket to key London Attractions, until
you examine it more closely. I really don't believe
that, except in one instance (as detailed on our
attractions page), it can save you money. The old
GOSEE pass used to include the Tussauds group
attractions which meant that there were more ways to
get value from the card, but now it won;t save you
money unless you have the attention span of a gnat
and the airspeed of a cruise missile. The
attractions - apart from the Royal palaces, aren't
that great, they're spaced across London so you
can't see enough of them in the time allocated, and
you'll be encouraged to buy without reading the
small print or without sufficient knowledge. And
unless you're Japanese (in which case it's all been
sorted vy venerable guide) you won't want to run
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