Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London.
London is made up of numerous village communities that counterbalance its overall size, bustle and complexity. It is also exceptional in its large number of parks, gardens and leafy squares.
The East End:
Centering on the borough of Tower Hamlets and within the sound of Bow Bells (traditionally, a true Cockney is born and raised within the sound of Bow bells), London’s East End has long provided a home for successive immigrant groups and acquired a reputation for harbouring some of the leading criminal families, including the notorious Kray twins.
During the Thatcher years, the naturalness of the East-End cockney, sing-along pubs and barrow boy beguile was shoved aside by the image-conscious, pound-pursuing, Porsche-driving yuppie; commanding huge salaries in the financial square mile of the City and buying up secluded Thameside properties on the refurbished Isle of Dogs.
The West End:
Mostly constructed in the 19th Century, the area around Oxford Street is the shopping and entertainment nucleus of the city.
The Strand, Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square comprise a wealth of theatres and cinemas.
Covent Garden is a trendy, cultural centre of small shops, cafes with street atmosphere, performing artists and buskers. The Punch and Judy, overlooking the Covent Garden Piazza, is one of the most popular pubs.
Soho, the sex centre, has lost its seedier image to the area around Kings Cross, though sex shops and peep shows still survive amid the bustling Chinese community.
In the way of shopping facilities further west, you have Savile Row (traditional tailors); South Molten Street (new money clothing); and of course Bond Street, with its private art galleries, so very establishment.
Along Piccadilly, on the edge of Green Park, street artists display their work and portray you on canvas. Green Park houses Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the British Monarch.
On the other side of the Victoria Memorial, slightly further down The Mall, is Clarence House; formerly the London home of the Queen Mother.
At the end of The Mall, through Admiralty Arch, stands Nelson’s Column; a mecca for pigeons.
Dominating Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column is a tribute to Admiral Horacio Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It ended the threat of a French invasion of Britain and established British naval supremacy. Nelson’s body is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The classic dome of St. Paul’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, after the Great Fire of 1666. He too is buried here – where his epitaph translates to read: “If you seek a monument, look around you.”
The National Gallery, on Trafalgar Square, contains the largest collection of paintings in the UK. It has aimed to collect paintings of every school and every period (except the modern) in Europe.
From Trafalgar Square to Westminster, the street of Whitehall is associated with the civil service and government operations.
The Prime Minister’s office is at 10 Downing Street, opposite the Cenotaph. This famous war memorial was designed by Lutyens (1919-20), to commemorate the dead of World War I.
On the second Sunday in November, an annual Remembrance service is attended by the Royal Family and high-ranking officials, as the country remembers the dead of both World Wars.
Wreaths of poppies are laid and a two minute silence is observed at 11am, both here, and at other memorials around the country.
During the early years of the London Marathon, Westminster Bridge was where the finishing runners aimed for. It’s also a great place to photograph Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye.
On November 5th, 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered with gunpowder in a cellar of the Palace of Westimster. The attempt to blow up James I and Parliament was foiled and November 5th is now a date for annual firework festivities and the burning on a bonfire of effigies of Fawkes, called a Guy.
When we were children, we used to stuff old clothes with newspapers to fill them out into the shape of a body and ask passers-by: “Penny for the Guy?” If the Guy was good, you could make enough money to keep you in sweets for a month.
Along the Victoria Embankment is Cleopatra’s Needle; one of a pair of Egyptian obelisks from Heliopolis. The other is in Central Park, New York.
Cross the River Thames for the South Bank, Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery.
Another nice walk is down Chelsea’s King’s Road, from Sloane Square. Plenty of boutiques and trendy restaurants in the area.
South of Hyde Park, Knightsbridge is synonymous with opulence. Harrods is British shopping at its class-conscious best, aimed at the stylish and affluent.
Just walking down the street with their green and gold carrier-bags turns heads.
Surrounding Belgravia contains residential squares, planned by Thomas Cubitt and built on reclaimed marshland (1825-30).
Further down Brompton Road, in South Kensington, are the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Geological Museum (Red Zone).
The British Museum, founded in 1753 and containing probably the finest collection of Antiquities in the world, now occupies Sir Robert Smirkes neo classical building (1847) in Bloomsbury.
The zoological society of London founded its zoo in Regent’s Park in 1828 and now houses some over 720 different species of animal.
Further north, Hampstead Heath is another popular release to nature for the capital’s concrete occupants. Hampstead itself is a rather exclusive residential village, perhaps even a little self-conscious.
To Get Around:
London Underground is reasonably efficient and well routed, relatively safe from incident, and many stations are being or have been refurbished.
Red double-decker buses have their own lanes on busy routes and also run night services – check the N timetables.
Always ready to whip you through the traffic with a complimentary tale or two are the drivers of London’s black cabs. Hail a cabbie when you’re in a hurry, but if you have the energy, the best way to feel a city is by walking its streets.
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