London began on two small patches of dry land in the middle of a marsh on the north bank of the Thames. That was long before the Romans came. In Roman times it was named Londinium, and was already a thriving centre of trade. Since then London has grown and grown in political and military importance, in trade and wealth.
After the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666, much of London was rebuilt under the direction of Christopher Wren. The Industrial Revolution (18th century) and the advent of the railroads (mid. 19th ) accelerated its growth. Much was destroyed by air raids in the Second World War, and rebuilding has given parts of London a new vertical, geometrical aspect. It is a multiracial city with large population groups from former British Empire.
Today London covers a greater area than any other city in the world. London has about eight million inhabitants, and it is the capital of England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the former British Empire.
London is one of the biggest ports in the world, though it is situated far from the sea. It stands on the river Thames, about fourty miles from its mouth.
London is traditionally divided into several parts: the City, the West End, Westminster and the East End.
The City of London
The City of London is the commercial and financial heart of the UK. The City is roughly the London of the Middle Ages. It is about one square mile in area and only a few thousand people live here. But about half a million people come here to work during the day. The Stock Exchange, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England are all situated in the City.
The Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral are the main sights located in this district.
The Tower of London was founded by William the 1st in 1078. Originally it was a fortress, then a prison, a palace, and now it is a museum housing the national Collection of Armour, the Crown Jewels and the Royal Regalia. The Imperial State crown is exhibited in the Tower. It contains about three thousand precious stones; its weight is about sixteen kilos. The orbs and the scepters represent the power of the monarchy that you can feel everywhere here. The Royal Scepter has the largest cut diamond in the world – the 530 carats Star of Africa.
The Tower was the eyewitness of the most tragic and bloody events in British History. Edward the Fifth and his brothers, Charles Stuart, Queen Elizabeth the Fitst, Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and many other prominent Englishmen and women were among the Tower’s prisoners.
The Tower is still guarded by the Yeoman Warders, the famous beefeaters, who wear a traditional 16th century Tudor uniform. Modern Yeoman Warders (of whom there are about fourty) are still members of the Queen’s bodyguard and are all former warrant officers from Her Majesty’s Forces. Today the beefeaters combine their traditional role with the role of the guides.
Alongside with the beefeaters, for many centuries the Tower has been guarded by the ravens, and these birds are a symbol of the Tower. There is a legend that as long as the ravens are in the Tower, Britain will exist. Fortunately, these respected residents, since the reign of King Charles the Second, have been protected by the royal decree. The ravens are cared for by one of the Yeoman Warders called the Ravenmaster. The wings of the bird are now clipped to prevent them from flying away.
The ancient ceremony of the Keys takes place every night at 10 p.m. and attracts many tourists. At this ceremony, a version of which has been performed nightly for hundreds of years, the outer gates of the Tower are locked and the keys are delivered to the Resident Governor of the Tower.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is also in the City of London. It is a masterpiece of the well-known English architect Sir Christopher Wren. The old building of the Cathedral, founded in 604 and rebuilt several times, was sadly in need of repairs and Christopher Wren was called on to carry out the repairs and alternations. But he was prevented from doing this by the plague and the Great Fire of London of 1666 that destroyed the cathedral.
Only eight years later, after the ruins were cleared away, the new work was begun. It took Wren 35 years to build the Cathedral. When he died he was buried in St. Paul’s.
The Cathedral represents inspiration, beauty and craftsmanship on a grand scale. The architectural style of St. Paul’s is called Baroque, which combines classic lines with a strong sense of dynamic movement. The dome of the Cathedral is 365 feet high; it is the second largest in the world, next to St. Peter’s in Rome.
Beneath the dome there is the celebrated Whispering Gallery, called so because a whisper against the wall can be heard on the opposite side – about 42 metres away. Among the many memorials to famous men within the Cathedral are the tombs of the Duke of Wellington (the Victor of Waterloo) and Admiral Nelson (the hero of Trafalgar).
St. Paul’s Cathedral is still a place of regular Christian services, baptisms, weddings, and special services – some of national importance, for example, the wedding of the Prince of Wales to the Lady Diana Spencer.
For nearly one thousand years Westminster has been the seat of Britain’s government, and for most of that time the home of its monarchs.
Westminster, meaning the monastery to the west, is a part of London where the Queen’s residence, the Prime Minister’s residence and the government offices are situated. That is a “district of power”.
The Houses of Parliament , or Westminster Palace, is situated on the bank of the Thames, near Westminster Bridge. Edward the Confessor, England’s king from 1042 to 1066, chose Westminster as the site for his royal palace. Since that time the palace has been rebuilt many times. Almost every English monarch altered the building in some way.
In 1265 Westminster Hall, the largest hall in Europe at that time, which was added by the son of William the Conqueror, was the scene of England’s first parliament. From the 14th to the 19th century the hall was used mainly by the King’s Courts of Law.
Westminster remained in use as the royal residence, where Parliament also met, until the 16th century, when Henry VIII in 1512 moved his residence to Whitehall and then to St. James’s Palace.
In 1834 most of the Parliament buildings were destroyed by a fire. The Houses of Parliament were rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry in the late Perpendicular Gothic style. The House of Lords and the House of Commons were ready by 1850. The Commons Chamber, however, was again destroyed during an air raid in 1941.
There are two big towers in the modern building: at the western end of the building is the Victoria Tower, completed in 1860, under which is the Sovereign’s Entrance, built for the annual ceremonial State Opening of Parliament.
At the eastern end is the Clock Tower, completed in 1858, so well known that it has become a symbol of London. The Tower is 320 feet high and its clock is said to be one of the most accurate in the world. The other name of the Clock Tower is Big Ben. Actually it is the name of the clock bell called so after Sir Benjamin Hall, superintendent of works when the clock was installed. The bell’s weight is about thirteen tons. Big Ben chimes the hours to notes from Handel’s music.
Westminster Abbey is situated not far from Westminster Palace. It is the chief church of England (St. Paul’s is the chief church of London). Westminster Abbey is first mentioned in a document of the 10th century. Originally there was a monastery or a church there. In the 11th century Edward the Confessor rebuilt it. Nothing of this church remains. The present-day building was begun by Henry VIII (13th century), and from that day on extensions and modifications in the Westminster Abbey continued for many centuries, the last major addition is the façade of the 18th century. Despite the range of time it covers, the Westminster Abbey is a harmonious whole in the English Gothic style.
It is not only architecture that makes Westminster Abbey one of the most popular places in London. The Westminster Abbey is also a museum of monuments and memorials to the great men of the past. Here are statesmen, scientists, philosophers. In Westminster Abbey the British monarchs are crowned and many are buried.
Literary men are gathered in Poet’s Corner, among them Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, William Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling. Those who have memorials here, although they are buried elsewhere, include William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Robert Burns, William Blake, Jane Austen, sisters Brontë, William Shakespeare. Scientists buried in the Abbey include Newton, Darwin, Kelvin.
Near the Abbey’s west door is one of the best known memorials in the church, the grave of the Unknown Warrior whose body was brought from France and buried here in 1920. The grave commemorates those who were killed during the First World War, 1914-1918, and whose place of burial is unknown. The inscription on black marble includes the sentence “They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his House”.
Buckingham Palace is also in Westminster. It is the official London residence of the royal family. The palace is a grey stone building. The flying Royal Standard over the Palace proclaims that the Queen is in the Palace.
The building of the palace was constructed in the 18th century for the Duke of Buckingham, and was called Buckingham House. King George III was greatly admired by the palace and bought it as a family home in 1762 for 28 000 pounds. In the 19th century the famous architect John Nash enlarged the palace and gave it a grand archway, called the Marble Arch, which was later moved to Hyde Park, because it turned out to be too narrow for the royal coach. The first monarch to live in Buckingham Palace was Queen Victoria. The latest modification as made in 1913, when Sir Aston Webb rebuilt the façade of the building in the neoclassical style.
The public is admitted into the palace to see the Royal horses and coaches and the Queen’s gallery. The ceremony called Changing of the Guard takes place every morning in front of Buckingham Palace and lasts about 30 minutes. This ceremony is a symbol of the most splendid traditions of the British monarchy.
In front of the gates of Buckingham Palace there is the Queen Victoria Memorial . Victoria was greatly loved by her subjects who placed a monument in her honour in front of the palace from which she ruled the country for more than 60 years. The huge monument made of marble and bronze was erected in 1901.
Buckingham Palace faces St. James’s Park , one of the most beautiful parks of London. The park is famous for its nice lakes where all kinds of waterbirds find a home. The park extends from Buckingham Palace to Whitehall, one of the main streets of London. The Cenotaph , the monument to those killed during the world wars, is in Whitehall. The “cenotaph” is a Greek word meaning “an empty tomb”. It looks like a plain obelisk.
Whitehall has also become the centre for government offices, most of which date from the 18th century and later, among them are the Home Office, the Foreign Office, The War Office as well as the residence of the British Prime Minister in Downing Street. The house at number 10 was given to Robert Walpole by George the Second in 1732.
The West End
The West End is a part of London where people go to do shopping and entertain themselves. The most expensive and luxurious London shops, hotels, restaurants, theatres and cinemas are in the West End – in Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street. The best London museums and galleries are located in the West End.
Trafalgar Square is situated in the West End too. Trafalgar Square was completed in 1841. It commemorates the great battle, which Admiral Nelson won in 1805 against the Franco-Spanish fleet; Nelson himself lost his life in the battle. The tall granite column, 1445 feet high, in the centre of the square is dedicated to Nelson. The statue of the admiral is on the top of the column. At the base of the column are four enormous lions, symbolizing the power of Britain. Two large fountains with blue water decorate the square. Trafalgar Square is the place for various demonstrations.
The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are to be found in Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery was founded in 1824 with only 38 paintings. Now it contains one of the best in the world collections of European paintings including the masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and others. The present day building was built in 1839. The National Portrait Gallery contains over 9000 portraits of British prominent men and women from the 16th to the 20th century. It is a gallery of great people, not great artists.
English paintings and modern European and American Art can be seen in the Tate Gallery overlooking the Thames. The gallery was opened by Sir Henry Tate, the sugar refiner, in 1897. The paintings by famous English artists Turner, Blake, Constable, Hogarth, Gainsborough and the sculptures by Rodin and Epstein are exhibited here.
The British Museum is one of the richest in the world. Behind its classical façade lies one of the world’s most fabulous treasure stores. The museum was founded in 1753 with a collection of books, manuscripts, paintings, antiques donated by Sir Hans Sloane, doctor of George II, on condition that 20 000 pounds was paid to his daughter on his death. The collection expanded in 1757 when King George II presented the museum with the royal Library, a collection of books gathered by the kings and queens of England from Tudor times. The modern building of the Museum was constructed in 1852 inspired by the classical Greek style.
Among the museum’s best known antiquities are Greek sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, the Egyptian Rosetta Stone dating from 196 BC, a collection of gold and silverware of the Renaissance period. The British Museum’s Library contains over six million volumes.
South Kensington is a part of the West End which is sometimes called London’s museumland. In the 19th century this area was developed as a cultural centre on the initiative of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband). There are four large museums: the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Geological Museum and the Science Museum.
The Victoria and Albert is a museum of fine and applied arts of all countries, styles and periods. The museum exhibits range from armour to watercolours and woodwork.
A must for many tourists to London is a visit to Madame Tussaud ’s , the waxworks museum where the figures seem even more real than the originals.
A two-storeyed house in Baker Street attracts detective story lovers from all over the world. This is the house where, according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson lived. The house was turned into a museum in 1990.
Hyde Park is the largest in London. It was once the property of Westminster Abbey. Then the park was a forest in which the monarchs hunted deer, wolves and bears, James I opened the park to the public. Modern Londoners like to take long walks over the park’s grassy slopes, go riding there. Or else, they go to the Speaker’s Corner, where on Sundays orators of all sorts stand up and speak of anything at all.
Piccadilly Circus is a small irregularly shaped square, which is considered to be the centre of London. There is an old tradition according to which the British citizens should meet on this spot at least once in their lifetime. The Statue of Eros is in the centre of the square.
The West End is also known as “theatreland”. There are more than 50 theatres in London. They range in size from the tiny May Fair (310) to the giant Coliseum with its capacity of 2 352. The oldest theatre is Drury Lane (1663). One of the newest is the National Theatre, opened in 1976 and combining three theatres under one roof. Covent Garden is the world’s famous London’s Opera House. The Globe Theatre is still the place where Shakespeare’s plays are staged. Until recently London’s two principal concert halls were the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall. In 1982 a new art centre – the Barbican was opened by the Queen. It is the largest art complex in Europe with the largest concert hall, an art gallery, several exhibition halls and restaurants.
The East End
The East End is the poorest part of London and the industrial centre of the capital. Most of London plants, factories, docks are situated in the East End. Workers live here. The streets here are narrower and dirtier but the shops are cheaper. People who live in the East End call themselves cockneys. The word “cockney” is a fairly wide term, meaning “a true Londoner”. Cockneys have their own peculiar dialect, their own turns of phrase, proverbs and their own accent.