I first became enamored with London in the months preceding our family's trip to England last summer. I don't know exactly how it happened but I think it was literature. Reading Jane Austen, I wished to find in reality the places she spoke of in her books. I wanted to find Regency London, where so many of her characters went for "the season" and discover Cheapside which drew such amusement from the Bingley sisters when mentioned by Jane Bennett as the place her uncle lived. I also wanted to find the Globe Theater and to picture the bear-baiting and the dusty streets and the heads on spikes on the London Bridge during Shakespeare's time. I wanted to see old London buried somewhere in the midst of modern London.
What I found was that you can't. Modern London so thoroughly obscures historic London, it would take a great deal of imagination to picture yourself in the past. Even at the Tower of London -- which would have been there standing in Shakespeare's time, which withstood the great fire, and which is full of artifacts and stories of a very relevant past -- you can't help but feel completely immersed in the gritty present of one of the most exciting, vibrant, modern, world-cities anywhere.
But I was not disheartened. I found that modern London had so very much to love as well. Its iconic skyline with amusing architectural shapes was immediately endearing. London taught me that the British are a little more fearless than Americans. If a building is needed, they'll squeeze in some mirrored bubble. The Gherkin is as much a symbol of London as Big Ben in its intricate ornate Victorian complexity.
London's past is evoked through place names: Spittlefields, Cripplegate, Portcullis House, you can hear Roman and Medieval History right in the names. If you were to forget that the ancient city was surrounded by a Roman fort, the place names are going to remind you.
The semi-continuous history of this place is simply heady to me. I am used to archeological sites underlying other infrastructure, being from the Southwest United States. But, in London, you find a city where people going back to prehistoric times have lived in steady succession for millennia and which continues to be important today.
Yet, as amazing as the historical underpinnings of that city are, they are irrelevant to the millions of busy people going about the business of running this massive seat of European governmental and economic power. London has been a major world city for many, many centuries. New York cannot boast that. No city in America can. Nor can New York boast Roman ruins underneath it. Could it do so, would that town be impressed enough to stop work for the week while they checked it all out? Probably. In London, nah. History is so rich, multi-layered, and present everywhere, that people cannot be bothered to pay attention to it all the time.
My family found ourselves by accident in the heart of the financial district at around 5 pm one evening. The exodus of people was one of the most powerful moments on our trip. People were pouring out of that part of the city. Just flooding out of doors and out of town - on foot, by bike, bus, taxi, car, scooter, and motorcycle as fast as they could. It was humanity dressed in suits at an almost unimaginable scale. It made us want to huddle together and just watch. Nothing could have impressed upon me more how rich that city's human resources were.
London struck me as an amazing place of past and present and a place I wanted more of. I don't know when or if I'll get back, but I carry my obsession with me as I continue to collect maps and descriptions of the city's history. There are few other places that captivate me as London does. The world city. The enduring city. A place I love.
This is an excellent site that I could get lost in for days: www.oldlondonmaps.com
My Love Affair with London. LostinBritishTV