London: A City of Wonders

There’s a reason why London is considered one of the greatest cities in the world. From the far east to central Europe, everyone has heard tales of its black cabs, stunning architecture and unique culture. It’s said to be a place of wonders, of joy and sorrow, order and chaos, love and excitement in equal measure: a potent cocktail of vivacious energy. Sound interesting? Then read on to learn everything that you could ever want to know about the city of London.

The History

The first signs of habitation were very early indeed: starting in the Bronze age. With verdant forests, a mixture of flat and sheltered land, and a large river running through its heart, it’s easy to see why early civilisations thought it would be an ideal place to settle. As time went on, the collection of towns in the area was bound together by more formal governance, as local tribes fell under the unified control of the Roman empire, who named it Londinium. Over the next few hundred years, it became a source of much conflict, as the Romans, then the Celts, the the Saxons and then the Vikings all took control of it in turn. Much of the city was repeatedly destroyed and reestablished but over time its size slowly began to grow.

By 1066, when the Norman invader-king William first took the throne it had become a busy, bustling city that was by far the biggest in the south. The centre of governance as well as the centre of administrative power, it was a gathering point for all those who wanted to reach the very limits of what they could achieve and attempt to push themselves beyond it. Many great buildings were constructed, and the city retook its rightful place as the heart of the nation.

Trade is what really took it over the edge though. Trade brought 3 things to London: power, resources and diversity. The power of being the nation’s centre of trade was enormous and allowed it to dominate almost the entirety of the south purely by means of its standing to foreign traders. The amount of resources that it controlled, especially in the luxury market, made it both the most attractive home for nobles and also a vital part of the everyday lives of many in the surrounding area. Finally, the diversity brought in from foreign lands is still going until this very day and is seen as one of the principle reasons that city is so desirable.

Not that it was all smooth sailing of course, the black death and the great fire of London both ravaged the city, albeit in different ways. The plague wiped out many and created a culture of fear and mistrust that was slow to heal. It was a definite factor in many of the nobility choosing to move into country estates or into areas that were gentrified, leaving ghettos of poorly fed and paid people in its wake. The fire destroyed many a landmark, damaging London’s iconic architecture and wiping much of its physical history from the face of the earth.

Even by the end of the Tudor period, the impact was still being felt. The city was very compact and well defined, although an increasing number of smaller settlements had sprung up around it. The tightly packed streets lead to crime and disease, damaging the city’s reputation and causing those with money and freedom to head towards the outskirts. Cultural and literary power still resided in the coffee houses at the centre of town though, and the wealthy still travelled in. In a way, their fleeing to the outskirts actually expanded the city rather than shrink it. The towns on the outside began to become increasingly involved and influential in what resided at the centre.

It wasn’t until the invention of the steam engine however, and the industrial revolution, that the city really became even close to what we would call London today. The sudden rush of jobs brought in people from all around the country and, as with the birth of many other industrial cities, it also made nearby farmers choose a life in the capital for themselves and their family. The sudden population swell had a huge effect: the city of London became a sprawling one and it needed somewhere to house all of these new people. The advent of the steam engine rather solved this problem: suddenly, a man on the edge of the city could be in its centre in under an hour.

The sudden accessibility offered by this mode of transport was key to binding the disparate parts of London and its surroundings into one city. Suddenly, West and East London were a dozen miles apart, and the city became a unified organism of different towns under one banner. It was a huge change, and one that has defined the city since. Greater London, as it’s now known, is a huge area inhabited by millions of people. As capitals go, it’s a far cry from the neatly ordered grid of New York, a vast collection of individual identities sharing a name. Even now, Kensington and Bayswater feel like more their own towns then part of the same city, as do Shoreditch and Leyton, Wimbledon and Ealing. The history of London is one of individualism and a shared sense of purpose, rather than a geographical binding.

A Multicultural Heart

Nowhere is this more apparent than in its multiculturalism. Head into a London high street and look for the sheer diversity on offer. Corner shops will sell plantains, restaurants will be serving food from every corner of the globe. Bombay cafes sell hot chai to early morning risers, complete with spiced buns and chili jam. Moroccan eateries serve up bowls of delicately spiced tagine whilst a few hundred metres away a bagel will be constructed with salt beef, pickles and cured cabbage. There are fragments of literature from France, Italy, China and New Zealand. People speak dialects native to their own lands, weaving in and out of English as they serve customers and address family members. London embraces the different and the new, welcoming everyone into what is commonly seen as one of the world’s most incredibly diverse cities.

Iconic Tourist Haven

Of course, many of those speaking foreign languages in its streets won’t be foreign emigres, but tourists. With its red buses, uniformed policemen and host of of attractions, London has some of the most striking tourist icons in all of the world. Thousands of people flood its streets each and every day, admiring what was once the centre of an empire that ruled much of the world. The buildings, so grand and pompous, reflect a society of grandeur and arrogance, but also one of utter confidence. Looking at the architecture of London, and the triumphant nature of buildings such as the Crystal Palace, it’s easy to see why the English have been so long admired. Strong, clever and particularly resourceful, London’s tourist attractions stand as a testament to an island that overcame its modest nature to become one of the world’s most dominant forces. As one of the few with an actual monarchy still in place and generally involved in actual government affairs, it’s a relic of the past that many cannot fathom. Whether time will dull this powerful edge and the city will become another Rome or Paris is unclear. Both of the latter are now known for their culture and elegance more than their previous imperial stature, but London still retains a strange aura about it. Walking through its streets, seeing the towers of glass and steel framed by the old monoliths of stone, there’s an almost palpable sense of power that still radiates from its old heart. The dominance of the British empire may have faded, but London is still an emperor amongst cities.