London, Part 1

Eleven years ago I made my first trip to Europe. Then it was France, but mostly Paris. Last week it was England, but mostly London. My ancestors came from England, at least those on my father’s side. My father lived 89 years and never saw his ancestral home. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see England. I think my late father would have found the visit as deeply satisfying as I did.

Ah to be in England, now that spring is here! Although it was technically still winter while we were there, spring was in the air. You could smell it in the flowering trees and see it on the flowers of the lawn at Windsor Castle. Yes, far further north it was much more temperate. While we were gone Mother Nature left another foot of snow at our home in western Massachusetts. England, known for endless dreary and often wet days, treated us pretty well. The sun was out most days, highs generally hit the high 50s (Fahrenheit) but the wind was often bracing, particularly on Saturday when a bus journey out of London took us to Stonehenge. There will be more on that later.

London and the River Thames from the Tower of London
London and the River Thames from the Tower of London

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but until you go someplace you never really quite know whether you will like what you find. London though turned out to be the city of my dreams. In retirement I moved much closer to nature, but in temperament I am more a cosmopolitan kind of guy. London is arguably the best, largest and most prosperous large city in the world. Its major downside is that most of us cannot afford to live there. With prices comparable to living in New York City, it’s not for the monetarily challenged. A decent apartment in one of the nicer parts of the city will run you £3000 or so a month, which works out to about $3700. On the plus side, if you can manage to pay the rent, you shouldn’t need a car. London’s Underground goes practically everywhere, and it does so briskly and efficiently.

Arguably the Underground is the city’s most impressive achievement. You rarely wait more than a minute for a train once you are on the platform. On the major lines you have options on both sides of the track with all trains going in the same direction. The Tube is massive, extremely clean and very well maintained with some lines, like the Piccadilly Line, two long escalator rides belong the primary line. Running almost as frequently as these underground trains are the many double decker buses crisscrossing the streets. This investment in transportation is beyond massive, but it pays for itself in the connections and possibilities it allows. If only the U.S.A. could get this enlightened it would probably be a lot more prosperous.

Overall London is a mixture of old and modern, but it rarely looks shabby. One of my favorite streets in Washington, D.C. when I lived near there was Connecticut Avenue. Yet it’s just one street. In London, most of the city looks like Connecticut Avenue: endless blocks of midrise housing, usually with businesses along the streets and mostly well maintained. Some streets, particularly close to the city center, are much more commercial: hotels, banks, theaters and just enormous amounts of restaurants, most reasonably priced. We never had a bad meal mainly because we had no reason to eat “English” food. But we did eat one dinner at an honest to God English pub, on a “mew”, sort of like an alleyway where the servants usually hung out. It was good dining if a bit peculiar (you ordered at the bar).

London is a great big melting pot, but more white than black and more Asian than Hispanic. I actually saw more people of color back in Washington, D.C. but like D.C. you can hear most languages spoken in London too. For the most part the people look good and seem healthy, thanks in part to their National Health Service. There are homeless in London, but they are actually hard to find. For the most part anyone who wants to work can find work and the wages are generally enough to live decently, even if you may have to commute quite a ways to find more affordable housing. It’s a city that glows and buzzes that is awesomely massive in size. Cranes are everywhere. Scaffolding contractors are everywhere too, helping to maintain the brick facades of buildings hundreds of years old. There are plenty of cars on the roads too, mostly belonging to those with deeper pockets. It’s unclear to me why anyone would want the hassle of a car in London. And yes, cars drive on the left side of the road there, which for me meant mentally checking myself before crossing streets because the dynamics of the flow were the opposite of what I expected.

Obviously this is the most recent incarnation of London. It retains sketchy neighborhoods, but overall it feels and is a safe place to live and work. The opportunities in the city are endless. Every major company has a presence here, but London is anchored by its banking sector in the City of London. Yes, there is a City of London, but it is just a tiny part of the London metropolitan area, which is broken up into many independent boroughs. In the real city you will see little but banks, insurance companies and tall, skinny men in black suits and white shirts doing important stuff that is hard to quantify but must pay very well indeed.

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London
Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

The Thames River splits the city between its northern and southern sides. The northern side is considered tonier, but many of the prime attractions are on the south side. The Thames really moves, mostly due to tidal forces that push water inland then move it out hours later, creating strong currents. London Bridge is actually on its third iteration and this latest one fields nearly as many pedestrians as cars. Lots of bridges cross the Thames, but Tower Bridge near the old city and the infamous Tower of London is probably the one that you will mistake for London Bridge.

London is a mixture of new, old and ancient. Come along with me on our journey.

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