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My Favorite International Cities #3 - London

My US cities series was so well received that I have been encouraged to write some more, this time about foreign cities. Starting in 2000 I began taking my two boys on trips to important European cities, usually capitals, for a series of three to five day trips over about ten years; I was the tour guide – the objective was to expand their experience beyond America.

London was the first European destination for we three lads; I have been there 10-15 times.

The area of London has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years, astonishing history for we Americans, with ancient, substantial timbers found dating back that far, for bridges and buildings. It began its modern form under the Romans with first the raids of Britannia by Julius Caesar, then the invasion by Claudius and finally the organization by Agricola and Hadrian. For several hundred years London was an important Roman capital growing in wealth and size to about 60,000 people. Eventually, the local Anglo-Saxons prevailed as the Roman influence waned and then retreated altogether in 410 AD; the population fell back to less than 20,000 not to recover for over 1000 years.

The Anglo Saxon regional kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex shared control of London, wrestling back and forth, plus warding off occasional Viking invasions from Denmark and Sweden, the Vikings often coming ashore in North Umbria and Mercia. The Vikings even controlled London for a time.

Major change came with the decline of the Anglo-Saxons typified by Edward the Confessor, providing opportunity for French-German control as the Normans invaded lead by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, defeating the locals at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. London’s modern era began.

Although Edward had built the still famous Westminster Abbey, the Normans built the Tower of London, the London Bridge, several river forts-palaces and Westminster Palace. The Black Plaque of 1348 killed an incredible 50% of the population, but the population rebounded in about 120 years. The era up to King John was dominated by what we call the Plantagenets, who held lands and authority in both France and England (King Richard the Lion Hearted was one).

Under the Tutors (from Wales, King Henry VII) and then the Stewarts (from Scotland, King James I) the city demonstrated rapid growth in population, wealth and power. Trade became worldwide, the arts arose (William Shakespeare), and building flourished; London became a major trading center symbolized by the British East India Company. But poverty also increased.

By 1600 the population was over 200,000. The City spread westward. The great fire of 1666 destroyed almost 60% of the city; but offered a chance for an important rebuild, anchored by the genius of Sir Christopher Wren although not as grand as he hoped. He is remembered for the new St Paul’s Cathedral.

The 1700’s brought the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the British Empire with increasing power around the world maintained by the Royal Navy, railroads, the Suez canal and colonies everywhere. The Victorian period not only brought great wealth, but also social upheaval captured by Charles Dickens’ novels, the wealth symbolized by Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge and the capstone, the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its Crystal Palace.

The rise of America in the West and political turmoil in Europe along with the two world wars and the lost of other colonies, lead to London’s and Britain’s loss of Empire and loss of eminence. But London remains a great city; now with a population of about 9 million people. Banking and Commerce remain central; the London Eye and the Shard are the new symbols of success and power. The impact of the recent Brexit from the European Union is not yet known.

Like New York, you must explore London in sections, but walking is tough. It boasts 33 cities/boroughs. Cabs (called Black Cabs because of their color and style) or Ubers/Lyfts are now the way “to go.”

London has an amazing amount of green space, called parks, malls or gardens. Many were once royal hunting grounds, now mostly available for walking and exploring. Visit to the West side of town, the Royal Richmond Park, the former private reserve of King Henry the VIII, with its famous paraquets and deer herd. And you must visit Hyde Park and the St James Gardens and Mall.

The Kensington Gardens, perched on the North side of Hyde Park, contain the Kensington Palace and Gardens, built by Sir Coppin in 1609 and purchase by William III, the Dutch Prince of Orange, soon after his arrival in England in 1689 ( the Protestant Parliament encouraged William and his wife Mary to invade, to replace James II, the last English Catholic King, going into exile in France; this is the Second “invasion” of England) and expanded by King George II who made it into a major royal facility. Currently, Prince William and Princess Kate live in the Palace; Princes Diana lived here for 15 years after her divorce. Not far away is Clarence House the home of Prince Charles and Camilla. And within striking distance is St James Park with the old royal residence of St. James Palace and now, next door, Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London home. Buckingham was acquired by the Royals in 1761, enlarged by John Nash, again in 1913, and made the center of the Monarchy by Queen Victoria in 1837; her statue dominates the circle out front. Important art and antique collections reside within its walls; ownership is Royal, but not personal by the royalty, rather part of the “In the Crown Estate.” Along these parks stand several foreign embassies and residences. A must see on the south west side of Hyde Park is the Prince Albert Memorial (husband of Queen Victoria – the major memorial built by the adoring Queen dedicated in 1872). Be sure to mount a soapbox and speak at Hyde Park’s famous Speaker’s Corner.

Near St James Park and Mall, on the edge of Whitehall (the government buildings of the City of Westminster are often on this street) stand Trafalgar Square and the Piccadilly Circus (traffic circle). The square is famous for its pigeons, its Lord Nelson memorial, its location at the London Tube exit of Charing Cross, and at least to Shirley, for the Canadian Embassy; the Americans have moved south of the Thames, leaving Grosvenor Square. The Circus is the entry to the Theatre District and the bars and clubs of Soho. Like New York’s Times Square, the Circus is famous for its lighted advertising signs, Coca-Cola the first in 1954. Strike out for visits to Sherlock Holmes on Baker St, Madame Trousseaus’, the Old Curiosity Shop, the National Gallery and the Temple Church.

Back south to the river is the main government area of Great Britain, the City of Westminster with Parliament and Whitehall. The buildings are almost ancient, but still in everyday use. The history of Great Britain played out here. Westminster Abbey is the place of Coronations, royal weddings and important funerals. Edward the Confessor’s remains are here; most English monarchs are buried here, but for those buried at Windsor Castle or several in the modern era buried elsewhere. Princess Diana is buried here. The Big Ben, the bell tower for Parliament, is here and right across the street is St Stephens Tavern, Lord Churchill’s favorite restaurant; and still very good. Walk around the corner to #10 Downing St, the home of the Prime Minister, but now fenced away from public access. You can no longer stroll through Parliament or the Whitehall government buildings, as in the previous generation; but tours are available. The tour of the World War II bunkers under Whitehall, called ‘the Churchill bunkers” are worth the time and effort.

If ambitious, walk up the river Thames to the Tower of London, or take a cab. See this famous palace/fortress and its cells for famous political prisoners (the most famous: William Wallace, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Penn and Rudolf Hess), along the river bank; and its Beefeater Guards (Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary) and their eternal crows. The priceless 22,000 Crown Jewels are kept here with high security, and rotated with replicas, so you never know what is being shown the day you go; typically, they are only removed for the opening session of Parliament, coronations or sometimes for a royal wedding or funeral. They number 142 items and are owned by the Crown Estate and not the government.

Walk along the Thames for special views of the City, but also to points of interest along the River. Explore the new Globe Theatre to start a morning walk along the South Bank of the Thames, using the Jubilee Walkway. The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by William Shakespeare, but closed in 1642 by order of the Government over politics, a business competitor/debts and public disdain. The new one was built in 1997 within spitting distance of the original with the same uncomfortable wooden seats and small central stage; it has modern London’s only thatched roof, as in days of yore, the “Yard” remains uncovered. Walk along the River to explore Cleopatras Needle, the Tate Modern (art museum) and the Hayward Gallery; as you walk along, look across the river to view the barge traffic, the many bridges and the elegant British Library – London University complex. And of course, visit or ascend the London Eye and the modern architectural marvels called the Shard, The Gherkin alongside the Leadenhall Building, Lloyds and London City Hall.

The British Museum is a must see, opening in 1753 based on the works and artifacts of Irishman Dr Hans Sloane growing with British prosperity and conquest in the Victorian Age to now include over 8 million articles and artifacts. You could literally spend a week. But be sure to see the main items including The Rosetta Stone, Rameses II (probably not the Pharaoh of the Hebrew Exodus despite the movies) of Egypt including mummies, cat mummies, statues of himself and Amenhotep, The Assyrian Gates and winged guards, Greek and Roman vases (remember “Ode on a Grecian Urn”?), the Sutton Hoo Saxon Ship (from 600 AD) artifacts, Lewis chess pieces, the Aztec snake, Easter Island statues, Hadrian’s wall tablets, and the Elgin Marbles from Athens.

Harrods of London is also amazing. It has been owned since 2010 by the Qatar Investment Authority and continues to expand and succeed. It was started in 1824 by Charles Henry Harrod, and expanded slowly and successfully over the years to be sold to stockholders in 1889, surviving a major move and a devasting fire. The store covers about 5 acres of land within 1.1 Million square feet of merchandising space five stories high, including some space in a basement and across the street from the main store and in several airports; you could spend all day and a small fortune here. It sells almost everything, including geese at Christmas, but at soaring prices, although it does extend credit and was the first London merchant to do so; the merchandise seems to have grown more sophisticated and expensive over the years. The store and its airport outlets bring in revenue of about One Billion Dollars per year with a 25% profit margin.

Americans can no longer complain about London restaurants; they are many (now over 16,000) and often the world’s best. I have always enjoyed the local pubs, some of the best in the neighborhoods of the train stations, where you can buy real Guinness and real shepherds pie (with lamb), but order fish and chips, too, often served on old newspapers; stay for a while to play darts or watch rugby or football on the telly. I have also always appreciated their many Italian, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, and the Indian restaurants: try the Spaghetti House, the Aubaine Restaurant, Caffe Concerto, the Churchill Arms, the Champion Pub, the Brassiere Blanc, St Stephens Tavern, the Maharaja and the Twist. You must have English High Tea at The Woolsey, 4 o’clock, at least once. You take your tea in a Grand Ballroom with Bruit Champaign, choosing between several English teas, all served on fine china and sterling silver service together with scones, sandwiches and pastries.

Tallyho. Jolly Good…… good sport!

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