Home > Culture, History, Travel > A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on London

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on London

Like every great metropolis (and there fewer than you might think), London, England has a terrible inevitability about it. It’s enormous, sprawling, thronging with millions of residents and a few million more visitors at any given time. It overwhelms with its culture, cuisine, official institutions, and historic sites. Samuel Johnson said, “There is in London all that life can afford,” and it may be a truer aphorism now than it was in the 18th Century. London, as a city, is entirely too much, but that feels like just enough.

A scant few days is hardly enough to get London’s full measure, of course, but it will do for a rough sketch of an impression of this very old and richly-detailed civic experiment. Like many great old cities, London has both preserved and obliterated the physical traces of its centuries of historical change and upheaval. Much of the lost architectural heritage was not due to intentional planning, granted; the twin cataclysms of the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz during WWII wreaked havoc on the established edifices of the old City of London (the capitalization denotes the designation for the old walled medieval city alone, rather than the larger metropolitan area) three centuries apart.

But then again, much of the erasure was purposeful, from the dissolution of the monasteries and whitewashing iconoclasm of church interiors during the Reformation to the furious post-war building boom of the 20th and early 21st centuries that has filled the City and its suburbs (the Docklands in particular) with glass-fronted towers as monuments to the ravenous British mercantile spirit. Plenty has survived, from architect Christopher Wren’s great post-fire projects (St. Paul’s Cathedral chief among them) to medieval-derived national landmarks like Westminster Abbey (with its flying buttresses, royal tombs, and clustered monuments) and the Tower of London (once a prison for high-profile treason cases, now inhabited by gigantic, hoary ravens and the famous Beefeaters, who are now glorified tour guides). But London has always been a town of inexorable progress, and that means that buildings don’t always stay up for long, no matter their historical value.

This is not to suggest that only that which is old is good and that which is new is not. Relatively new institutions like the Underground, its lines spider-webbing ever further into the suburbs (though not as much south of the Thames, for whatever reason), or the massive British Museum have become staples alongside the older national monuments, as have 21st Century additions like the popular London Eye ferris wheel or the sleek “Gherkin” skyscraper at 30 St. Mary Axe. And although the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ascendancy holds stubborn sway in the City and Westminster, the muticultural stew of the metropolis asserts itself more and more with each passing year.

The new visitor is understandably consumed by the keenly-felt obligation to tick the major, must-see sights off the list, to make secular pilgrimages to the travellers’ beacons. One must photograph Big Ben, peek through the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace, ride the red double-decker buses, pose at the iconic (but still active and thus dangerous) Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles; surely enough (with the exception of the last activity), I dutifully fulfilled all of these obligations.

Hyde ParkBut travel, one must hope, ought to be more than doing what millions have done before, in the same spot, in the same way. London affords ample opportunity for such off-the-beaten path experiences, though you might need to veer from the comfort of the tourist circuit to find them. A stroll or even guided tour of one of the Magnificent Seven Victorian-era cemeteries might do the trick; we opted for Highgate, the most famed and oft-atmospheric of these sylvan necropolises. Rather than indulging in luxury accessories at Harrod’s department store, why not grab takeaway from its sparkling (and surprisingly non-dear) food hall and take a seat by the Serpentine pond in Hyde Park for a picnic (just keep an eye on those swans)? Skip the massive block of inferior art that is the Tate Modern and try out the Tate Britain instead, with its encyclopedic collection of paintings by the country’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner. Wander the Temple and the Inns of Court, once the stronghold of the Knights Templar and long the domain of the equally-sinister practitioners of the legal profession. Give the South Bank of the Thames a chance, too; it’s got some wonderful hidden gems.

I’d hate to entirely privilege the mainstream vs. alternative dichotomy that characterizes travel just as surely as it does other sectors of our culture, mind you. The top sights more than earn their tour-book stripes, despite the lengthy queues and clustering tour groups. But the plethora of options and ease of public transporation in London means that you can freely choose which top sights are of greatest interest, and maybe, if you’re lucky, discover a few of your own.

London is, above all, the world’s great hybridized city. It has nearly the history of Rome, most of the culture of Paris, the modern economic thrust of New York or Chicago, a entertainment-world glamour that approximates that of a toned-down, humbler Los Angeles, and the idiosyncratic sensibility of the dozens of English villages that its ravenous expansion has swallowed and from which it has attracted countless ambitious new residents. The phrase has tended to take on fundamentally ironic usage of late, but one can say with sincere honesty that London contains multitudes. Though it may be a bit early to map out another pass, it’s quite clear that the city would richly reward return visits.

Categories: Culture, History, Travel
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  1. August 4, 2013 at 8:38 am

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