Grokking London

Detractors call the city “Big Smoke” because historically as a center of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, it was terribly polluted. Compared to other cities in the UK, it still is. Joseph Conrad, looking out over the city, saw a vast “heart of darkness.”

Those who like London call her “Blighty” or some other endearing term.

When Julius Caesar invaded Britain (55 BC) from what we know as France (to Caesar it was northern Gaul), London was already a settlement marked by scores of beehive-shaped huts with thatched roofs. The local Celtic-Aryan inhabitants called their settlement “Llyndin” (“Fort-on-the-Lake” in Celtic), and the Romans Latinized its pronunciation to “Londonium.” With its navigable riverway (the Thames) and access to the ocean, plentiful nearby sources of fresh water, local forests and arable land, London was a natural center for settlement and commerce. Roman walls still stand in London today.

Roman wall in London

Remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman wall still stand in portions of London today, a memento of the past.

Over centuries, many settlements grew up in the area, and over time one city after another gradually grew together with other cities nearby to create the mega-city that we know as London. If you understand that London is comprised historically of many separate little towns and cities that grew together, then the streets, addresses and names around London make a little more sense.

Today, artifacts of these historic towns are preserved in the names of the boroughs comprising the city. They have names like “Kensington,” “Westminster,” “Whitehall,” “Picadilly,” St. James’s,” “Regent’s Park and Marleybone,” “Smithfield and Spitalfields,” “Whitechapel,” “Knightsbridge,” “Covent Garden,” “The Strand,” “Soho,” “Southwark,” “Islington,” “Chelsea,” “Bloomsbury,” “The Docklands,” and “The City.” Each of these boroughs historically had its own market (you and I would call it a farmer’s market), and many still function today. While there are a few modern above-ground thoroughfares that have been carved through the British capital, streets by-and-large remain short. That is why in a city of 7million people I can tell a cab driver, “Leather Lane,” and he will take me to the market at Leather Lane, and I will be only a short walk from what for many years was my favorite Chinese food restaurant.