What exactly is London?
It’s often difficult to say where a city begins and ends. Is New York just the five boroughs, or is it a much larger metropolitan area? Traditionally, Paris is the ‘Ville de Paris’, roughly situated inside the Périphérique motorway – but the suburbs extend for miles beyond.
So what is London? Perhaps there are many different Londons…
London originally covered one square mile on the north shore of the rather grey, muddy River Thames. This was the original Roman city, Londinium, which dates back about 2,000 years. For centuries, London was largely confined to this very small area. Today, we know it as the City of London – which is still governed a little independently of the rest of the capital. At one end of the City is the Tower of London, which has been standing there for 1,000 years to protect against invaders coming up the river. A more recent, 19th century, addition is Tower Bridge, one of the best-known sights of London, and the first bridge across the River as you come up to London from the sea.
Today we just call the City of London ‘the City’. Everyone knows which city we’re talking about! The name is now synonymous with banking and finance, for this is the business centre of London. Where once the City was a maze of narrow streets, today it has a lot of very grand buildings, many of them used by banks, and you will also see a lot of high-rise towers, some of them very distinctive and original. Also in the City is St. Paul’s Cathedral, built after most of the City was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Very few people live in the City. During the week, it’s full of activity. But in the evenings, and at weekends, especially in the winter, it’s incredibly quiet…
But London also has another city, the City of Westminster, or just Westminster. Centuries ago, the kings and queens of London decided to base themselves a few kilometres upstream from the City, which was then rather dirty and smelly, and settle instead in another riverside settlement, Westminster. Today, Westminster is the centre of government for the whole of the UK. Here you will find the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben, all built in the 19th century. Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Queen, is here as well. So, too, are Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, 10 Downing Street (the residence of the prime minister), and the magnificent Westminster Abbey, the other great church in London, much older than, and quite different from, St. Paul’s.
In between the City and Westminster, long since built up, is the legal centre of England, with a lot of lawyers’ offices and some of the main courts.
But Westminster is not just about government. As you head away from the River, you come to the area of theatres and clubs, centred on Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. We call this part of London the West End. And after that, you reach one of the main shopping areas along Oxford Street and Regent Street. Carry on just a little further (you’ve only walked about 2km), and you come to Bloomsbury, home of the British Museum and a number of component parts of the University of London. University College London (visited by KE students) is here, as is the Senate House, the administrative centre of the whole University. Other branches of the University, including other KE destinations such as the London School of Economics and King’s College, are actually very close to the River.
The South Bank. So far, we’ve just talked about the north side of the River Thames. What about the South Bank? Well, here you will find more theatres, galleries and arts centres, shops and museums. The London Eye, the capital’s favourite viewpoint, is here.
And then we start to move a little further afield. Outside the centre, but still not far away, and very much part of London, are a number of other places of interest.
Kensington is one of the wealthiest parts of London. It’s quite close to Hyde Park, the largest park in Central London, and a lot of foreign embassies are here. There’s also one small area dominated by huge museums, such as the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Imperial College – one of the UK’s leading universities for science and engineering – is in Kensington, and a popular destination for KE students working in those fields. Between Kensington and Westminster is London’s most famous department store: Harrods.
Most of our students now visit Greenwich. Where is it, and what’s there? If you continue downstream from the City, towards the sea, and after about 5km, you come to Greenwich. This was another place where the kings and queens liked to live to escape from the City. In particular in the 17th and early 18th centuries, some magnificent buildings were built in Greenwich, and most of them can be visited today. The great Painted Hall is unfortunately under renovation, but you can still see the Chapel, and also walk up the hill to a different part of Greenwich. Here you’ll find the Royal Observatory, in which you can stand on the Greenwich Meridian, the imaginary line, zero degrees of longitude, dividing the Eastern and Western hemispheres in two.
And there is more… Greater London, one of England’s counties, is divided into 32 boroughs, with a total population of around 8.5 million. On a first visit, you’ll probably just visit a few of these in the centre. But some of the others are worth a visit if you’re travelling on your own at any point. How about these:
Camden has a number of very different faces: in one part is London Zoo and the beautiful Regent’s Park. Then you’ll find the huge Camden Market – cheap and cheerful! Finally you come to Hampstead, a suburb on a hill to the north of London, famous for its wooded Heath and the distinguished residents who have chosen to live there over the centuries.
Richmond-upon-Thames is another riverside suburb, but in the opposite direction from Greenwich, where the River is narrower and meandering. Richmond was also a favourite residence of the kings and queens, and here you can visit the majestic Hampton Court, while the world-famous Kew Gardens are also on the banks of the River.
Finally, what about the airports? London actually has five: Heathrow, the busiest, is on the westernmost edge of Greater London. City Airport, quite small, and mainly used for short business flights, is the closest to Central London. The other three, quite a long way outside London itself, are popular for cheaper, holiday flights: Gatwick, to the south, is unfortunately not very convenient for KE centres. Luton to the north-west, and Stansted, to the north-east, are both used extensively by budget airlines.
All KE students attending programmes in the UK visit London twice, with one trip focusing on the City and Greenwich, the other on Westminster.
For more information on our UK programmes, please go to www.http://kefoundation.org/study-centres/uk/.