LONDONCategory: Land + People
London is a city which was never planned. It has accumulated. For this reason, and also because its development was chiefly guided by mercantile considerations, London is no longer, at first sight,overtly beautiful. Haphazard and shapeless, it offers few fine vtetas and has no kind of symmetry. Its component boroughs seem self-contained and unrelated to each other, for once beyond the ancient boundaries of the City proper, and once outside Government quarter of Westminster and Whitehall, London is nothing but a mass of rural villages — Kensington, Tottenham, Paddington, Camberwell, Edmonton, Hampstead and so on — engulfed in the tide of two centuries of swift urban expansion. Even Westminster itself was long a separate entity, an Abbey church and royal palace standing high across the watermeadows, accessible to Londoners by river.
The Thames in London is now only beautiful at certain times of day, in certain lights, from certain viewpoints — from Waterloo Bridge at dawn or on a summer’s evening for example, and at night from Cardinal’s Wharf on the South Bank. In 1951 the Exhibition buildings for the Festival of Britain may do something to alleviate the dreary aspect of the Thames’ South Bank; but such alleviation, in its essence temporary, is too local and too late to the London river that lost spaciousness and splendour that once made it rival the Paris Seine.
It is certain that the stranger — English or foreign — must be initially bewildered by his first sight of London; it is not unlikely that he may also be disappointed or repelled. It will seem noisy and inchoate, over-crowded, over-large, and filled with undis- ciplined-looking buildings, many of them — Caxton Hall, Albert Hall Mansions, the Hotel Russel — in more than dubious taste. But, though we cannot claim for it the immediate fascination of Paris, nor Dublin’s tired charm, nor the stinging stimulus of New York’s first impact, this city contains not only a number of architectural works of the first importance, but a myriad places of quiet, rather melancholy beauty, as well as many hundreds with historical and literary associations for students and lovers of the past. The architectual beauties of London are most often unexpected. They are sometimes hard to find. Not many people know that if you push open the high forbidding wooden gates of the Deanery at St. Paul’ s, you will find yourself standing in a moss-grown courtyard made dark by plane trees, and facing the dim front of a brick town-house by Sir Christopher Wren.’ One can wager that, many, many Londoners have never seen the sphinxes in Chiswick Park, the Tudor tombs at Stoke Newington the splendid Norman pillars of Waltham Abbey, the small street sloping down to Saint-Andrew- by-the-Wardrobe, the Italian villas on the Paddington Canal, the little graveyard, feathery with sheep’s parsley in summertime, of the Old Church at Edmonton where Charles Lamb lies buried, or that oddest of all Victorian funeral schemes, the Catacombs and Columbarium in Highgate Cemetery.
It is safe to say that the three most famous buildings in England are Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. In spite of Henry VII’s chapel, the Abbey is not, in its exterior, a very inspired nor in any way a major example of English Gothic; it is the Abbey’s rich contents that make each visit to it so rewarding. Seen across Parliament Square, the Abbey looks overshadowed by its neo-Gothic neighbour, the New Palace of Westminster. It does not stand out. The outlines of the Tower and St. Paul’s, on the other hand, loom along the river, two silhou ettes which’ have come to represent London to people all over the world. The area which these two buildings together dominate — the area of the City, from Blackfriars to Tower Hill — is one in which the feel of old London has lingered longest. In atmosphere the City might be loosely termed “Dickensian” but the names of the streets and alleys and wharfs, the names of the churches above all, take one back to the Middle Ages, and to the. days before the Great Fire. The City of London, scourged by fire in 1666, by bombs in 1940, suffering in the last century from such pieces of vandalism as the sale and deliberate demolition of some of Wren’s churches by the Bishop of London, by day an inferno of petrol fumes and scurrying office workers, takes on an almost medieval immobility by night. When the typists have been drained away to the suburbs by the Underground, and the offices and churches stand locked and silent, the City of London assumes a timeless quality.
If you pursue your way down lower Thames Street, you come at length upon the ruined church, All Hallows Barking, and the Tower. Long, low, irregular, protected by a broad ditch and crouched behind casemate walls, the Tower of London looks sinister by night. A stray light may be glimmering through a mullion window, or in some turret. An ugly war-memorial obscures your vision of the scaffold site outside the walls, on Tower Hill.
Although succeeding generations have done many things to the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral which would have made Wren wince, the Cathedral is unquestionably the finest specimen of Renaissance church architecture in this country. As much as Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s repays a series of visits, for it contains many details which on a hurried visit one might miss. [...]
All through the nineteenth century, London was spreading. It was creeping outwards on all sides, down towards Chelsea, up to Highgate and Hampstead which it quickly swallowed in its maw. Owing to the preservation of the Heath these two places seem couptry towns rather than regions of London. Heath Street and Golden Yard are more like corners of Tewkesbury or Romsey than parts of a metropolis. Next to arriving in London by air at night, when it looks like a complete continent of lights, you can get the clearest sense of its immensity by standing on Hampstead Heath, and looking down across the leafy countryside to the city below.
London has undergone many changes. But in spite of all that has been destroyed in one way or in another, by war, commercialism or stupidity, its essential character survives unaltered.
(From Beautiful London by J. Pope)