Insight Guides: Pocket London - APA (2016)

INTRODUCTION

William Shakespeare could have been referring to London, his adopted hometown, when he wrote, ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ London is steeped in history, architectural wealth, cultural capital and international political, economic and religious influence. It is a cosmopolitan place with an open attitude to diversity. You can pick through a cornucopia of international cuisine, while the city’s famous pubs, bars and entertainment suit all tastes.

For a tourist, central London is compact and fun to explore by bus, or Boris bike. Yet London is not without its problems. The basic cost of living – from food prices to travel and rent – is high compared with that in many other capitals and, certainly, other cities in the UK. Despite the expensive public transport system, the Tube remains overcrowded and there are few days when every line works without delays. House prices and rents increase annually in the centre, meaning ever-longer commutes for London’s workforce.

The ‘Big Smoke’ has its major pollution concerns too, owing to traffic congestion, although this is certainly nothing new – in 1819 the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘Hell is a city much like London, A populous and smoky city.’ The ‘congestion charge’ scheme, which taxes anyone driving through a central zone (Mon–Fri 7am–6pm), has reduced casual traffic on the city’s streets during peak hours and raised funds for the public-transport system; yet local businesses bemoan the reduction in footfall, matched with ever-increasing rents.

But the city still manages to maintain its allure; a combination of history and opportunity, culture and excess. London is often said to be France’s sixth biggest city, due to the size of its French expat community. It is both melting pot and mould for its globalised community.

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Crowds and a London bus around the impressive dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

POPULATION

After decades of decline, London’s population has increased since the mid-1980s to its present 8 million (almost 10 million in Greater London, according to the 2011 census), and forecasts show that it will continue to grow. More than one in three residents is from a minority ethnic group, and around 300 languages are spoken (from Abem, a language of the Ivory Coast, to Zulu, from South Africa). Service industries such as catering and hospitals rely heavily on immigrant labour. Prosperity ranges from the billionaires of Belgravia to the down-and-outs sleeping rough in shop doorways.

THE CLIMATE

The climate in London is mild, with the warming effects of the city itself keeping off the worst of the cold in winter. Snow and temperatures below freezing do not tend to be prolonged, with January temperatures averaging 5°C (41°F). Maximum temperatures in the summer months average 23°C (73°F), but they can soar to well over 30°C (86°F), causing the city to become stiflingly hot (air-conditioning is by no means universal).

However, temperatures can fluctuate considerably from day to day, and surprise showers catch people unawares all year round. This unpredictability has its plus side – Brits love to complain and converse about the weather. Unsuspecting visitors should come prepared with wet-weather clothes and a fold-up brolly, whatever the season; layers are sensible.

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Cyclists at Hyde Park Corner

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

AN ORGANIC CITY

Take your time in London because you have no chance of seeing it all. Apart from the city’s vast size, its long and venerable past is sometimes hidden from view. Over the centuries the ripples of history have repeatedly destroyed parts of the city, and the subsequent rebuilding has resulted in a cocktail of styles laid out over a maze of streets, squares, parks and enclaves. To make the most of it, you must pick your battles and master just a few key areas or sights.

Modern London is the product of continual upheaval. When Queen Boudicca razed the original Roman city (built AD61), it was just the first of its many setbacks. The plague of 1665 claimed the lives of over 110,000 Londoners, and in 1666 the Great Fire that began in Pudding Lane destroyed much of the city (incredibly only six people died). In the bombing blitz of World War II, 29,000 Londoners were killed, 80 percent of buildings in the City (the financial district) were damaged and a third were destroyed.

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A quiet moment in Hyde Park

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

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The Thames affords some spectacular vistas, both day and night

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Yet each destruction bore its own seeds of change. So dark and narrow were the streets in the old City of London, for example, that shopkeepers had to erect mirrors outside their windows to reflect light inside. The bombing of World War II eventually provided the opportunity for widening and lightening; slums disappeared, and street crime declined.

A CITY IN VOGUE

Every now and then the city becomes brazenly fashionable – the Swinging London of the 1960s, for instance, or ‘the coolest place on the planet’, as Newsweek dubbed it in the 1990s. And now, after around half a decade in the doldrums of the 2008 recession, the city’s mood is finally lifting. 2012 was a bumper year, with the Queen’s Jubilee and the London Olympics both putting the city firmly back on the international map, and for positive reasons. The city’s economy continues to produce more, invest more and develop more than anywhere else in the UK. Population growth here is almost double that of the national average. Indeed, London’s success places it in stark contrast with other UK cities, where the sleep of recession still holds sway. For this and many other reasons, the capital can sometimes seem almost a state within a state.

London cabbies

Perhaps the closest most visitors get to meeting a true Londoner is when they catch a cab. Taxi drivers, or cabbies, are experts on the city, and are essential to its life, coursing through its veins in their black cells (not that all the cabs are black any more: advertising has turned some of them into travelling billboards).

About 23,000 drivers work in London, many of them owner-drivers. The others either hire vehicles from big fleets, or work night shifts in someone else’s cab. The classic cab, the Austin FX4, was launched in 1958. The most recent model, the TX4, launched in 2006, is more spacious.

Would-be black cab drivers spend up to four years learning London in minute detail (called ‘doing the Knowledge’). In the interim they travel the streets by moped, whatever the weather, mapping out the channels of the city in the synapses of their brains. Even though the allegedly garrulous cabbies may not always know what they’re talking about, they always know where they’re going.

A CITY OF SURPRISES

London is a patchy, unplanned city, where you never know what you are going to find around the next corner. You may discover the pomp of State occasions, the grind of a weekend carnival, the press of a narrow medieval alley, or the surprise of the blue plaques, which pick out the former homes of everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Jimi Hendrix. Certainly, there is enough to keep even the most demanding of visitors and locals busy. As Dr Samuel Johnson famously declared, ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’