Location/Culture Reports

Location Report – London, England

“Look kids! Big Ben, Parliament!”
– Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation
London: complete with ever-present scaffolding. (Photo by miri.)
London: complete with ever-present scaffolding. (Photo by miri.)
Setting: Double-decker red buses, the Thames River, the British Museum, Harrods, the tube, the royals, fish and chips, Westminster Abbey, street markets, the Tower, pubs, crazy pigeons, Speaker’s Corner…London has something for everyone.

Slightly smaller than the state of Oregon (yes, Oregon!!) the United Kingdom once ran the world. Its thriving capital, London, is an awe-inspiring mix of sights and sounds that can thrill and overwhelm you. The London Underground (“the tube”) is an attraction in its own right, and the oldest subway system in the world. It’s often the fastest and cheapest way to get around, and with 275 stations on 12 uniquely color-coded lines, you never run out of tube experiences.

If you’re a fan of London, the tube, or just enjoy a good fantasy romp–run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Like a darker, scarier version of Hitchhiker’s Guide, set in the invisible world of London Below, you will never hear the phrase “Mind the Gap” the same way again.
A bit of the wall that surrounded the Roman settlement of Londinium. (Photo by miri.)
A bit of the wall that surrounded the Roman settlement of Londinium. (Photo by miri.)
History: Prehistoric peoples settled on the Thames River, but the Romans first named the permanent settlement there Londinium. The Romans eventually left, but the city lived on. By the time William the Conqueror arrived on the scene in 1066, there was already a palace and an abbey at Westminster. William added a white tower that later became part of the Tower of London complex.

The answer to every history trivia question about London boils down to “The Great Fire of 1666” and “Christopher Wren.” Oh yeah, or Lord Nelson.
The White Tower: built from 1078-1097. (Photo by miri.)
The White Tower: built from 1078-1097. (Photo by miri.)
During the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain became the world’s dominant industrial and maritime power. At its height, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth's surface, leading to the saying, “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This domination resulted in a leading role in the development of parliamentary democracy and the advancement of literature and science the world over. The Brits also pillaged archeological sites all over the world, and brought their finds home, which is why the British Museum is full of artifacts from places other than England. A few countries have actually started asking for their artifacts to be returned.

The first half of the 20th century saw the Empire's strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The vestiges of Georgian and Victorian London were devastated by the Luftwaffe in WWII–large swaths of London were completely flattened. When independence swept through Africa in the 1950s, the Empire collapsed and since then the UK has been rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation.

Climate & Nature: At 51 degrees north latitude, London is at the same latitude as Calgary, and 5 degrees north of Duluth, MN. Thank goodness for the moderating North Atlantic Current. It will come as no surprise that more than half of the days are overcast. It’s cold, it’s wet. Get over it.
The Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894 at a cost of over a million pounds. (Photo by miri.)
The Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894 at a cost of over a million pounds. (Photo by miri.)
The relative amount of open, “natural” space varies depending if we are talking about London, England or the UK. If you’re into unspoiled wilderness, then the UK is not the place for you. The country has incredible natural places, but they’ve all been heavily impacted by anthropogenic disturbance. There are many beautiful places, but to start, I suggest: The Isle of Skye, the Lake District, or the Giant’s Causeway.

The People: Though world renowned for their polite, reserved, and even dour demeanors, the modern face of Londoners is changing. Like much of Europe, London has seen a huge influx of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The increasingly multicultural nature of the booming city means that Londoners these days are likely as not to be of other than Anglo-Saxon heritage. London has the largest non-white population of any European city and over 250 languages are spoken there. Like much of northern Europe, the UK enjoys access to universal health care and a high literacy rate of 99%.

To some people “British humor” is an oxymoron. But be sure to check out Monty Python, Douglas Adams, and of course, the comedies of William Shakespeare.

Interesting fact: You’re riding along on the tube on the Central Line, and fly by a station at the British Museum without stopping. Wait a minute! There’s no station at the British Museum. Turns out there are several “Ghost Stations” that have been shut down and abandoned over the years.

For further reading:
The Official London Website
The Official Page of the London Underground
Fun facts about the Tube
Tube Gossip
Slightly off-color London slang
London Culture
The London Eye