London is not just vast horizontally but vast across time. History has left it sumptuously jumbled. -Bill Bryson from The Road to Little Dribbling
Before and during our trip we have been reading Bill Bryson’s books about England aloud as a family. Notes from a Small Island and now The Road to Little Dribbling are side-splittingly funny accounts of life by an American who has lived and worked in England most of his adult life. Most of the books recount his travels to small towns and the remoter regions of the island, his two weeks in London summarized into just one chapter of The Road to Little Dribbling. Like all big cities, there are neighborhoods with their own unique flavor, Soho, Mayfair, Brixton, etc. London is a city of little neighborhoods seamlessly blending into each other. But because of its long history, there is a continuity of overall flavor that I’ve never experienced in any other big urban space. One of the things I enjoy most about walking around London is finding the hidden treasures, either from centuries past or from the modern inhabitants, that you stumble upon nestled in the otherwise fairly uniform chaos of a big city. Below are a few examples of early timber framed buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the even greater threat of developers in the three and half centuries since.
This pedestrian bridge connects the building pictured on the left, allowing it’s occupants to avoid the filth of the streets below.
Staples Inn. This amazing Tudor era building’s frontage still survives on Chancery Lane. Like most of London it is a palimpsest of history. The plaque reads “Original building erected 1545-1589 by Vincent Enghame and Another. The rear elevation was cased in brick in 1826 The front, after various alterations, was restored to it’s original design in 1886. The entire building was reconstructed in 1937 the old front being retained.” You can read about it’s fascinating history as a woolens warehouse here (features the plague… I highly recommend it!)
Fitzroy Square. The northern side of Fitzroy Square. This small square in central London is surrounded by four sides by similar facades. Built in 1794, it is typical London. One can easily imagine the grime of the sooty coal smoke pouring from the hundreds of chimney pots- seven stoves per home — count them. It is fun to wander around the square and read the many blue historic medallions indicating famous residents of the past. You can read more about them here.
Soho It occurs to me as I look back over most of my pictures of London that there is very little color in the architectural streetscape. The near constant grey weather, the dark stone and the brick do give the city an overall grey feeling. But Londoners do many creative things to add color. Overhead lights on narrow alleys as we see here in the Soho neighborhood is one way. Draping the entire exterior of your restaurant with flowers is another favorite tactic. Soho, like it’s NYC namesake is a hotbed of hipness in the middle of central city wealth.
My favorite “hidden treasures” are the neighborhoods outside of the city center. We have been to quite a few and our new favorite is Peckham. I recently discovered that so many British place names end in “-ham” –West Ham, Clapham, Peckham — because “ham” is the Saxon word for village. The other common endings “-ton” and “-tun” are also old Saxon words meaning an “enclosed village.” Peckham is a vibrant neighborhood whose high street is full of halal meat markets, Caribbean fruit and vegetable sellers, stores selling hair products, colorful clothes, you name it. Street life is lively in these immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.
We took in a movie at the Peckhamplex, whose logo is graffiti based, a reference to the neighborhood’s reputation 15-20 years ago. I don’t have many good pictures but here is a fun website about the area. Go see it now, because Conde Nast featured the Rye Street market in last month’s issue. Gentrification, here we come!
Bill Bryson on London: “But then that’s the thing about London. It does a lot of things supremely well and gets hardly any credit for it. So let me say right here, I think London is the best city in the whole world. I know it doesn’t have New York’s electricity and edgy dynamism or Sydney’s harbour and sandy beaches, or Paris’s boulevards, but it has more of almost everything else that makes a city great — greenery, for one thing. Nobody realizes it, but London is one of the least crowded cities on earth. New York has 93 people per hectare, Paris 83, but London just 43. If London were are densely populated as Paris, it would have a population of 35 million. Instead what it has is parks — 142 of them — and more than six hundred squares. Almost 40 per cent of London is green space. You can have all the noise and bustle of a metropolis, then turn the corner a hear birdsong. Perfect.”