“I wander thro’ each chartered street, near where the Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.”
From “London” by William Blake
We landed in London yesterday afternoon for a weeklong stay. This is only my second time in London, so I am still very much getting to know the city—and there is so much to know! London is an ancient city, founded in Roman times, and was the first city ever to reach a population of a million people, in 1811. It was the world’s largest city until surpassed by Tokyo in 1957, and is one of the world’s most visited cities. Voltaire, Edgar Allen Poe, Ho Chi Minh, Mahatma Gandhi, Vincent Van Gogh, Sigmund Freud, and Hitler’s half-brother all lived in London for a time. The Houses of Parliament in London are officially known as the Palace of Westminster—the largest palace in all of England. Westminster Palace has 1,000 rooms, 100 staircases eleven courtyards, eight bars, a hair salon, and a rifle shooting range. London is perhaps the most culturally diverse city in the world. The 300 different languages spoken here are more than in any other city in the world. Of the top ten museums and galleries in the world, three are in London, which boasts 170 museums and 857 art galleries. The reading room at the British Museum is where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, allegedly between bouts of getting drunk and borrowing money from Friedrich Engels. He also drafted the Communist Manifesto in a room above the Red Lion pub on Great Windmill Street. Beginning in 1599 with the first performance of Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater, London now offers over 200 theatrical performances to choose from each day. London is full of pubs associated with writers, artists, and poets. Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street was a famous haunt of Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, and Aleister Crowley. The house where Charles Dickens lived and wrote Oliver Twist and Pickwick Papers between 1837 and 1839, at 8 Doughty Street, is now a museum. Jimi Hendrix once lived at 23 Brook Street, and gave his last public performance in 1970 at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on FrithStreet. In 1963, all four Beatles shared a flat at 57 Green Street near Hyde Park.
Among some of the more bizarre facts about London: London Bridge, originally built in medieval times, was in use for more than 600 years, featuring heads on spikes for much of that time—including the heads of Guy Fawkes and William Wallace. The world’s first traffic light was erected outside the House of Commons in 1868—it blew up the following year, injuring the policeman who was operating it. Only six people died in the Fire of London, but seven people have died by falling or jumping from the monument erected to commemorate it. Big Ben is not actually a clock tower, but the bell inside the tower—the tower is known as the Elizabeth Tower. In 18th century London, twenty percent of the women were prostitutes, and the Bedlam asylum was one of the most popular tourist attractions—visitors paid a penny to watch the suffering inmates, with free admission on Tuesdays. To get a London taxi license you have to take a test called “The Knowledge”, proving that you know every single street and landmark in the city—a test that typically takes 2-4 years to study for. When British Airways was having trouble erecting the London Eye, the owner of Virgin Airlines, Richard Branson, flew an airship over it with a banner that said, “BA Can’t Get It Up!” The GDP of London is significantly larger than that of several European countries, including Belgium and Sweden. George Washington’s statue in Trafalgar Square sits on soil imported from the USA because he claimed he would ”never again step foot on English soil.”
So much to do here and so little time--we got our Tube passes today and visited the Tate Museum of Modern Art. Only 169 museums to go…………..