London city guide

city of londonThe City of London (also known as ‘the City’) is known as the ‘Square Mile’ because its area is approximately just that. Stretching from Covent Garden in the west to the Docklands in the east, it has had city status since its start 2000 years ago and its boundaries are virtually unchanged since Medieval times. It has a resident population of only 8,000 but every day some 320,000 people commute into the City to work. It is located on twin hills by the River Thames. Ludgate Hill, once known as Ludhill, is now dominated by St. Paul’s Cathedral, whilst on Cornhill is the modern business, banking and insurance area which includes the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall and the Mansion House. To the east is the Tower of London and east of the Tower lies Canary Wharf, the new financial and commercial centre and the Docklands area. This area of the City, alongside the banks of the River Thames, was the centre of London’s world-wide commercial power with the Thames as its lifeline. Today it is a buzzing lively place, a major business centre with many of the old wharves and warehouses having been converted into luxury riverside residences. Most of the docks are still there, used today for leisure pursuits such as watersports and marinas. London also still retains some of its ancient markets: Smithfield, the huge meat market has been on the same site since the 10th century, making it the oldest market, and the last surviving historical wholesale market in London. Leadenhall Market, located at Gracechurch Street, is a covered market selling fresh produce which dates back into the 14th century. Originally selling meat and poultry it is located on what was the very centre of Roman London. Billingsgate, on the riverfront close to London Bridge, was London’s principal fish market since the 16th century. The building still exists as a corporate events venue but the market relocated to a new site in Canary Wharf in 1982. Covent Garden was the chief market for fruit, vegetables and flowers for over 300 years. It has relocated to a new site, south of the River Thames. However, Covent Garden is still laid out in its original format and houses the Royal Opera House, market goods for the tourist trade, cafes, bars and restaurants as well as providing good street entertainers. The City is run by the Corporation of London, which is unique in the United Kingdom as, since 1067, it was awarded a royal charter by William the Conqueror which gave rights and privileges that no other city has. For example, it has its own police force, which is completely separate from the Metropolitan Police force of London. It also has its own Mayor, Lord Mayor of the City of London, whose office is completely separate from the Mayor of London’s. The principal governing body of the corporation is the Common Council which has the right to collect local taxes and change its own constitution.

The noise and bustle of the City is more noticeable by the fact that modern buildings still follow the dense medieval street plan. The whole of the Square Mile abounds with interesting and historical sites and buildings with architectural styles which vary from classical Greek, Gothic, Renaissance and Ultra-Modern. It is an area best discovered by foot where you can explore the narrow streets and small alleyways between the buildings, find hidden pubs and tiny churchyards. From Ludgate Hill westwards the towering buildings of finance and commerce give way to the quieter mellowed Inns of Court, divided by the bustle of Fleet Street. The Inns of Court are England’s ancient societies o lawyers and the headquarters of the legal profession. Two of the four Inns, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple come under the control of the City of London. Temple in particular is a very restful place. A secluded island of barristers’ chambers, ancient halls and great lawns which lie between the roar of traffic in Fleet Street to the north and the Embankment to the south. Reached from Fleet Street by a 17th century gateway and shaded alleys it consists of the Inner and Middle Temples. The buildings, much restored after being damaged during the Second World War, include noble assembly and dining halls, where a prospective barrister must eat three dinners a term for 12 terms before he can qualify – and the beautifully restored 12th century Temple Church. It was built by the Knights Templar and served as their English headquarters. The church has recently gained in popularity as a place to visit due to it having been one of the locations for the film, The Da Vinci Code.

The area located between the City and Westminster is the Aldwych and the Strand. Here a noticeable change of pace and architecture can be identified. The theatres and hotels which are located here seem like the first outposts of the West End. At the east end of the Strand is the Victorian Gothic building of the Law Courts and near by is the Wren church of St. Clement Danes, the St. Clements in the famous English nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Further west are St Mary-le-Strand a masterpiece built in 1714 by James Gibbs; and Somerset House, which backs onto the riverside and used to be the site where registers of all births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales were kept. Historically, the Strand was where many noblemen used to reside. The streets around the area, leading down to the river, still carry the names of their prestigious associations, names like: Essex, Norfolk, Buckingham and Northumberland are all named after the Earls and Dukes who had splendid residences with gardens sloping down to the river.