The West End of London originally wasn’t part of London at all. The ancient
heart of the town was built on the remains of the Roman city of Londinium,
which lies a mile or so to the east. That area, which today houses the city’s
financial district, is still known locally as the City. The West End is the
unofficial name for the large area of the City of Westminster and the Royal
Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – two of the communities that make up the
modern super-conurbation of Greater London.
If you think that’s complicated, just try getting around. When
the Romans built the original city (the City, remember? Try to keep up…) they
laid it out on a sensible grid pattern which still persists to a certain
extent. But as the capital grew it was expanded in a haphazard fashion – roads
were built here and there, and nearby towns and villages, along with their own
road networks, were absorbed.
finding your way around the West End today is not always easy. A really good
place to start is Piccadilly Circus. From this crowded junction it’s
straightforward to access the two main shopping streets of London – Oxford
Street and Regent Street. Each of these thoroughfares has a slightly different
character. Oxford Street is the home of the ‘flagship’ stores of the great UK
chains such as Marks and Spencer, while Regent Street’s range of stores
branches out a little more from the mainstream.
Walking around the center of London can get very intense,
especially in summer. Despite any misconceptions we might have about the
British climate, the temperature in June, July and August regularly gets well
into the eighties. This is made worse by the invariably high humidity and the
large volume of traffic. So its hardly surprising that some of the parts of
their town that Londoners value most are the Royal Parks. Green Park, St.
James’ Park and Hyde Park join together to form a huge area of greenery in the
heart of the city – locals call them ‘the lungs of London’. They are truly
great places to chill out and relax, and an informal atmosphere pervades.
Although the parks are beautifully well kept, there are no petty rules about
not walking on the grass such as you might find in Parisian open spaces. You
can roam where you like. One of the great pleasures of London is sitting under
a tree or in one of the hundreds of deckchairs that are available for hire and
reading a book or simply dozing off.
If you like to read, then London isn’t just the capital of the
UK – it’s the center of the whole world. There are a number of huge book
superstores from national and international chains such as Waterstones and
Borders. If you walk from Piccadilly Circus roughly eastwards, along
Shaftesbury Avenue, after around half a mile you will come to the junction with
Charing Cross Road. It’s the home to any number of second hand bookstores, as
well as Foyle’s – the largest and best independent bookstore in the world.
(Like so many streets in London, Charing Cross Road was built by
the Romans. It’s common in the city – but nowhere else in the UK – to put ‘the’
in front of road names. So you’ll hear locals talk about ‘The Charing Cross
Road’ and ‘The Tottenham Court Road’. Before you go embarrassing yourself it’s
best to remember that this only applies to thoroughfares that are ‘roads’ – not
‘streets’ – and then only to routes in the center of town. As in so many
things, London just doesn’t know how to do things simply.)
evening out in the West End is unforgettable. The area is sometimes called
‘Theatreland’ (note the UK spelling) and is effectively the twin of Broadway in
entertainment terms – major US musicals come here first after premiering in New
York, exchanging places with British works by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and co.
that have started their run in the West End.
As to where to eat – the choices are endless. You could eat out
in London every night of your life and still not cover the whole place. London
is now rated – jointly with New York – as the best city in the world for dining
out. The French, as you can imagine, are less than happy about this. But
Londoners don’t care. Their city’s thriving multiculturalism ensures that all
cuisines of all qualities will be represented for years to come.
London is another of those cities where really you need to set
aside a whole lifetime to do the place justice. Try to digest the place in
manageable chunks – because if you try to cover this most exuberant and
historic of cities in just a few days it will overwhelm you.