The various “villages” of London reflect in their diversity the full spectrum of the city’s residents. From exclusively elite establishments to downright dingy dives, from tourist-drenched terrain to home-grown habitation, London’s neighbourhoods may be easy to generalise but are hard to truly characterise. The beauty of discovering this multi-faceted city is best put by Dr Johnson, who, back in the 18th century, already noted: “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life”.
Brixton – Ragga beats and spicy treats in London’s largest Afro-Caribbean community. Once a shabby, no-go area, it is now frequented by trendy, more affluent types hanging out in the myriad of cool bars and happening clubs. The wonderful cultural diversity is visible in the bustling, popular market, and the famous Fridge nightclub plays host to a thriving Saturday night gay scene.
Camden – Crowded streets spill over with shoppers and people watchers. The crowds come to chill out rather than haggle at Camden Market. People come from far and wide to pace this North London patch. Good cafés, clubs and a top comedy venue make the Lock a must!
Chelsea & Fulham – Darling! Chic boutiques, expensive restaurants, snooty aristocrats and whippet-thin IT girls in slick sports cars haunt Brompton Cross, Kings Road and its environs. Cruise across the delightful Albert Bridge at night when it’s all lit up.
Covent Garden – Street performers have been clamped down, but the open-air party atmosphere still pervades in the Piazza. The former fruit and vegetable market has gracefully evolved in its 18th century iron and glass structure, now mostly housing fashion boutiques. The Royal Opera House and London’s Theatreland are on its doorstep. Don’t forget to stroll down Long Acre, Floral Street and cobbled Neal Street.
Docklands & Wapping – Heavily bombed during WWII, it became the incarnation of 80s prosperity. The City’s Printing Houses were relocated here in 1986, which resulted in serious strikes. Now Canary Wharf Tower dominates the skyline and the Canary Wharf area, now with restricted access, is the capital’s second economic powerhouse. The Tower of London was a sixteenth century prison, where some of Henry VIII’s unlucky wives were beheaded. Today the Beefeaters are more friendly and you can view the fabulous Crown Jewels. Stroll outside and take in the stunning Tower Bridge.
Ealing – Home to a beautiful active Benedictine Abbey, a large Polish community and the famous Ealing Studios where the Goons and Hitchcock produced their magic. Come and frolic on the Common, where sheep once roamed.
Greenwich – Or should I say, zero degrees longitude. Travel down the Thames by boat for a more romantic day out. Home to the National Maritime Museum, the imposing Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark, the Millennium Dome and the Thames Flood Barrier.
Hampstead & Highgate – Wander through leafy suburbia and experience the charming village ambience. It is steeped in literary history: home of poets, playwrights and actors of past and present marked by endless blue plaques. An afternoon in Kenwood House or strolling on Hampstead Heath strongly evokes the idyll of Arcadia, worlds away from noisy, polluted and crowded London.
Hoxton & Shoreditch – London’s hippest scene for arty folk and media poseurs – but will it last? Much revolves around Hoxton Square. East London is generally experiencing a property boom, due to the proximity to the City. Cool new bars are continually opening.
Islington – Blair’s homeground and now a yuppie playground; Upper Street is one long stretch of restaurants and bars. Seek out antiques in Camden Passage. Stroll along Regent’s Canal and see why this corner of North London is an Angel.
Kensington & Knightsbridge – The two reasons to shop in this area have to be Harvey Nichols and Harrods. Having a chauffeur is advantageous. Down the road is the stunning Baroque Brompton Oratory – its weddings inevitably grace Hello Magazine. Don’t miss Kensington Church Street or Sloane Street.
Leicester Square & Piccadilly – Tourist frenzy! The revamped Leicester Square, home to London’s bright and shiny multiplexes, is where star-studded film premieres regularly take place. By day see Eros and the wax effigies (plus plenty of sound) at the Rock Circus. Stroll down Piccadilly – pop into Fortnum & Mason and take tea at the Ritz. Shop in the sartorially elegant Jermyn Street and Regent Street. A plethora of bars, pubs and clubs keep the punters happy.
Marylebone – Walk down Harley Street, renowned worldwide for its medical consultants and cosmetic surgeons. A stone’s throw from Baker Street is Madame Tussaud’s and Regent’s Park, where Princess Diana saved a drowning man. Marylebone Registry Office is where Liam & Patsy got hitched. Wigmore Street sees virtuosos play at the legendary Wigmore Hall. Visit the private Wallace Art Collection in Manchester Square. Elegant Marylebone High Street has Conran’s latest gastronomic venue, high fashion boutiques, and an Aveda Lifestyle Store (and café!). The beautiful interior of St. James’ Church, around the corner in Spanish Place, was restored thanks to John Paul Getty III.
Mayfair – The impressive eighteenth century edifices are resided in by people of fabulous wealth – more Arabs, Americans and East Asians than aristocrats today however. First-class shopping can be found down Bond Street and you can pick up a gem or two at Sotheby’s. The Jesuit Church on Farm Street is where high society tie the knot. The area is full of refined hotels where affluent foreigners stay, or the ridiculously wealthy have apartments.
Notting Hill – Supremely hip district with designer boutiques on Westbourne Grove, retro shops, heavenly delicatessens, and antiques and bric-a-brac stalls of Portobello Road Market. The world famous Notting Hill Carnival at the end of August brings a Caribbean flavour to the streets, hip-swaying dance troupes and general revelry. Fantastic café life, decadent bars and superb restaurants to satisfy the gourmands. The gospel choir at Kensington Temple is well-known for its soulful, arm-waving and happy-clappy harmonies.
Putney – Riverside pubs, rowing clubs and wealthy stockbrokers. Nearby Barnes is a similarly bucolic, quiet and upscale residential neighbourhood. Hardly feels like London…
Richmond – Enter one of the lungs of London, Richmond Park, one of Europe’s largest parks and home to deer. 17th century Ham House, Kew Gardens’ botanic splendour and Palladian Marble Hill House are all excellent reasons to venture beyond the centre of Town. Or take a boat to Hampton Court Palace from the Pier.
Soho & Chinatown – A vibrant fusion of trendy and tacky. This area leads a promiscuous double life: whilst still a Red Light district and an open gay playground, it is also a respectable drinking and dining area (from Chinese and Vegetarian, to French and Thai) where Londoners from all over congregate. Chinese New Year is always a very colourful spectacle.
Southwark & Lambeth – Watch Shakespearean actors pace the boards at the marvellous reconstructed Globe Theatre. The Tate Gallery is opening a new modern art gallery ‘Bankside’, which further boosts the Southbank’s shining cultural programme. Amble happily down the riverside walk to Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cricketing fans will want to pay homage at the Oval, whilst foodies may wish to enter Butler’s Wharf – a gastronomic temple. Don’t miss the London Eye (also known as the Millennium Wheel) near Westminster Bridge. The gigantic Ferris wheel offers unrivalled views of London.
The City – England’s coffers are literally in the Square Mile; one of the few places where the streets might as well be paved with gold. Modern blocks, such as the Lloyd’s Building and the Daily Express Building, outnumber the more ancient edifices such as Lincoln’s Inn, the Bank of England and the Old Bailey. The City encompasses the sacred in St. Paul’s and the quotidian in Spitalfields Market and Leadenhall Market. Blackfriars Bridge was the scene of a masonic murder back in the 1970s.
Westminster – Feel the Power! The British Empire was ruled from Whitehall, now it serves little more than the UK. Not surprisingly, civil servants and politicians abound in the vicinity – is that a put-off? A Big and Bountiful Ben strikes out the hour, loud enough to wake the old Kings and Queens from their tombs in Westminster Abbey. The Pugin-designed Houses of Parliament back onto the beautifully illuminated river.
Wimbledon – There’s more to the Village than the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, although it does tend to dominate the summer months. There’s a huge Common where you can ride horses or spot Wombles; visit the Georgian Canizaro House and windmill. This is where Baden-Powell invented scouting and Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
History of London
It was the Romans who established the City of London. They arrived around AD 50 and stayed for about 350 years. The Romans built a wall around their settlement and a bridge over the river Thames – setting the city up as an important trade centre. But let’s not forget that Boudicca (or Boadicea), tribal queen of the Iceni Celts and fearsome chariot-driver, struck a blow for the Britons in AD 60, burning much of the city to the ground.
The Romans’ departure wasn’t altogether good news for London – it was deserted, sacked, burnt (again), occupied, captured and generally slapped-about by the Scandinavian Vikings and the Germanic Saxons for the next 550 years.
The first incarnation of St Paul’s Cathedral was built in the 7th century. Then, two centuries after the Saxon King Alfred the Great occupied London, the Normans arrived. It was 1066 and William the Conqueror was in charge. Finding London to be the most impressive city of his newly acquired kingdom, he stayed there and was crowned at Westminster Abbey. He also began to build the White Tower – the first part of what is now the Tower of London.
The Middle Ages saw London grow, despite fires sweeping through the place and a massive bout of Black Death in 1348 which wiped out nearly half of the city’s 60,000 inhabitants.
The Tudors took over in 1485, the infamous Henry VIII a major player in the radical transformation of the country. He wanted a son, which meant getting a younger wife, which meant a divorce – which the Pope wouldn’t allow. So he killed off Thomas More, his Chancellor, established the Church of England and outlawed Catholicism. In London this meant that all the land previously owned by the church was now his. He set about carving it up and giving large chunks to his friends (and more importantly to his potential enemies). Convent Garden became Covent Garden, and the land previously owned by Westminster Abbey, covering much of what is now the West End, was released for private development. In short, a new-look London was born.
The Globe Theatre was built in 1598, entertaining bawdy crowds with the classic plays that Shakespeare was knocking out. Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 and by this time there were about 220,000 people in London – it was expanding rapidly.
The Great Plague in 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666 were something of a blow, but it meant that there was an opportunity to start afresh architecturally. Christopher Wren took full advantage of this – designing and building 51 London churches including St Paul’s Cathedral.
The City’s population expansion continued to snowball – to 750,000 people in 1720 – but the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century saw it explode to 2.5 million. Charles Dickens (born in 1812) graphically depicts the London of this time – portraying a grimy, smoggy, poor and crime-ridden city.
During World War II much of London was destroyed. Rebuilding began in 1945 and one result was the South Bank Centre. Designed as a centrepiece for the arts, its functional rather than beautiful buildings provided a backdrop for this decade’s blockbuster hit ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. The latest architectural addition to London is the Millennium Dome in Greenwich.
Meanwhile, back in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ London gained a reputation for being at fashion’s forefront. It was an era epitomised by Twiggy, the very first supermodel, and Carnaby Street, with its Mary Quant boutique and Quadrophenia vibe. London has gone from strength to strength since then and is now recognised as one of the top international centres for fashion. Also, since the cow-splitting endeavours of Damien Hirst and the 1997 ‘Sensation’ art exhibition, London has become world-renowned for its cutting-edge art.
London’s double-decker buses have long remained a symbol of the city – used by Cliff Richard in the Sixties and the Spice Girls in the Nineties. Jump on board and find out why London will be driving, thriving and positively bursting into countless millennia to come.