London Calling

View of Tower Bridge from the south side of the River Thames at night.

View of Tower Bridge from the south side of the River Thames at night.

With a steadily rising population of approximately 8.3 million, London is a busy, bustling, vibrant city – a hub of energy that hits you when you first arrive. If this is your first visit, hire a London cab for a tour. The drivers, with their amusing Cockney accents, will keep you laughing as they drive you through the many roads and back lanes of London. These guys really know their way around; it takes two to four years of studying to get a cab license! They will regale you with one story after another.

Double decker bus tour makes its way past the shops. (Photo credit London on View)

Double decker bus tour makes its way past the shops. (Photo credit London on View)

Take a tour on a London double-decker bus. The roofless top tier will allow you to see many more sights. Go for a stroll across the high walkways over Tower Bridge, crossing the River Thames. It will give you a fabulous bird’s eye view east to west. If you are lucky you may even see the riverboat cruises passing below.

There are so many places to visit and so much rich history to absorb. Some of the very typical tourist sites include Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament (both the House of Lords and House of Commons).

At Westminster, next to the Houses of Parliament, is the third tallest and probably the most famous clock in the world, although Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside rather than the clockworks. St. Paul’s Cathedral, standing on Ludgate Hill, is the highest point in the city of London. It is an Anglican cathedral designed in Renaissance and English, baroque-style architecture. Built in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren, the cathedral is one of the most recognizable sights in London. Its dome is framed by the spires of Wren’s other churches and has dominated the London skyline for 300 years. Among its many unique features is the famous Whispering Gallery.

The Tower of London is another of the many must do’s of this effervescent city. It is home to the beefeaters and ravens and houses the infamous Bloody Tower and the Crown Jewels. If you want to get up close and personal, this is the place to be! As you enter the building, with the ravens dancing around your feet, you will notice how truly fortified it is, even by today’s standards. It has 4.6-metre-wide walls. It was built by William the Conqueror in the year 1078 and, at 90 feet tall, was once the highest building in London. At that time it was a resented symbol of oppression inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite.

Coldstream Guards at a sentry box during the Changing of the Guard ceremony outside Buckingham Palace. Photo by London on View.

Coldstream Guards at a sentry box during the Changing of the Guard ceremony outside Buckingham Palace. Photo by London on View.

Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the Queen of England, includes 19 state rooms that are open to the public throughout the summer months. The Changing of the Guard is always a great spectacle. Be sure to check for times.

Shoppers have to visit the world-renowned Harrods of London. The prices may be high but it is a spectacular store and full of history.

There are so many museums to visit: the Natural History Museum, London Museum and the National Gallery. The British Museum (free entry) is dedicated to human history and culture. Its permanent collection, numbering some eight million works, is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence.

Madame Tussauds is known for recreating life-sized waxwork models of celebrities. The attraction, which houses its famous Chamber of Horrors, now has 12 branches throughout the world, including one in Victoria, B.C.

New York has Broadway and 42nd Street; London has the West End. As long ago as 1576, The Theatre (Shoreditch), used by William Shakespeare, was the first permanent public playhouse. The first West End theatre known as Theatre Royal opened on Bridges Street, May 7, 1663, in Drury Lane. The current theatre was rebuilt after a fire and redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren. It was renamed Theatre Royal Drury Lane. With more than 29 live theatre shows running throughout the West End, there is always something to do in the evenings.

The Palace Theatre in the West End has been home to shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Misérables over the years.

The Palace Theatre in the West End has been home to
shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Misérables over
the years.

The River Thames has played a significant role in British history and some of the most famous events have been played out on or around its shores, including the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1215 and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

There are numerous ways to see and enjoy the river, ranging from small boats to luxury moon-lit dinner cruises. Most of the trips come with guides but the crew of your vessel may also double as your guide for a small remuneration at the journey’s end.

The Thames has contributed to the richness of the English language. The word, “wharf ”, it is said, originated from the phrase “warehouse at the riverfront”. The term “Dutch courage”, which is usually associated with having a drink if about to undertake something of importance, is believed to originate from the time of the plague of 1665, when only the Dutch were willing to trade with the city of London.

If you embark on your river tour at Greenwich, you can stand on the Prime Meridian with a leg in each hemisphere. You can visit the Cutty Sark, one of the oldest reconstructed tea clippers in the world. Daily guided tours are available to the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum as well.

If your journey about London has made you thirsty, stop by the local corner pub, not only for a warm glass of local ale, but for fish and chips or toad in the hole, typical staple pub grub and great comfort food for many a weary traveller.

Given its rich history, stretching back over 2,000 years and its many ancient sites and landmarks, there is never a bad time to visit London. The noise and the hustle and bustle of this vibrant city will soon be echoed by your heartbeat as you go about your day.

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By Geoff Graham, a retired London customs officer. He now lives in Jersey, Channel Islands.