London: World Centre

The official center of London is at Trafalgar Square, marked by a small brass plaque in the pavement beneath a statue of Charles I on horseback. “Stand here and you will eventually see everyone you know in the world,” they say. And it’s true I once bumped into someone I worked with a decade before in Africa.

The square is dominated by the Greco-Roman columns of the National Gallery and the tall Nelson’s Column with four massive lions at its base. Despite the warning notices, children and those who should know better clamber over the bronze lions, polishing them ever further. Proud parents and giggling friends photograph the fun. Camera phones, GoPros on sticks and every possible size and brand of camera are in constant action. But most people are just sitting or strolling, taking in the view and the people around them.

Looking around, I see visitors whose clothing and languages proclaim them as coming from every corner of the earth. There are all ages, all shades and no doubt most faiths. London sees more than 17 million foreign visitors a year, but what is its attraction?

“It’s a mixture of high and low cultures, of different cultures from across the world,” says Dr Michelle Johansen of the Bishopsgate Institute, who studies the history of tourism in the capital. It’s not just the diversity of the people who live and work here but also the visitors is also key. There’s an edginess and excitement but it’s completely secure. It’s interesting that a lot of the guidebooks will feature a policeman on the front cover. That represents London as a space that is safe. The police are unarmed, wearing those ridiculous capes and helmets that convey a sense of heritage and are a tourist attraction in themselves. But it also makes the streets seem safe.”

In Leicester Square, I stop to talk to a policewoman sheltering out of the rain under a hoarding. She is happy to chat but we are continually interrupted by people asking her directions, to the theater, a toilet or even Leicester Square. One slightly drunk Eastern European man stops just to shake her hand and tell her how much he likes the British police. She tells me that, when not doing patrols in the central London, she works as an armed officer at one of London’s airports. While she enjoys the challenges of that work as well, she misses the fact that people do not talk to her when she is carrying a weapon.

I watch two women stop to film a talented busker on their phones then walk off without leaving a donation. People sit around communicating with their cellphones rather than each other. At nearby Piccadilly Circus, young people from all over the world capture selfies of themselves in front of the iconic winged archer statue of “Eros”. Two neon-jacketed police officers and a souvenir stall owner chat to each other, looking on in wry amusement at the big fuss being made about what’s only a busy traffic roundabout, circled by red buses and taxis, and dominated by flashing advertising signs.

The arrow of Eros points up Shaftesbury Avenue to the West End’s theater district and the delights of the busy Soho district. Regent Street heads off to the left, its luxury brand shopping leading to the frenetic shopping of Oxford Street. These are London’s busiest areas, packed with people who spend much of their time just walking around.

“Visitors during the 1970s gave ‘atmosphere’ as a key reason to visit London,” says Michelle. “Most of them would spend at least some of their evenings just walking around. It wasn’t just to take in a West End show or go out and eat. It was to take in the atmosphere.”

I turn in the other direction for a walk of my own, tracing the route of the Piccadilly Line under my feet that heads toward Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington. Piccadilly starts with an odd mix of upmarket shops, posh cafés and outdoor shops before it slumps into the stretch outside St James’s Church with an outdoor craft market. A homeless couple dozes on the sidewalk, sharing the warm of a dog.

The atmosphere lifts again at Fortnum and Mason – “Greengrocers to the Queen” – where tailcoated staff guide me through the purchase of some loose-leaf tea from a near-endless selection. At the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the fourth floor, “opened by HM The Queen”, I find I can enjoy Afternoon Tea “starting from £44” but realize I’m not that hungry.

Opposite is the Royal Academy, where I catch my first glimpse of a more local clientele. Ladies of a certain age walk past me in pairs, bearing white hair and spectacles on a chain, discussing how Monet captured the “shimmering light”. A man on mobile phone stands outside the two red phone boxes by the gates. I wonder if he knows they are the oldest in London, the actual prototypes for one of Britain’s most familiar icons.

Another homeless man sleeps outside the very upmarket Burlington Arcade, a scrupulous few inches from the boundary line patrolled by the top-hatted Beadles who have guarded the arcade since its opening in 1819. A few steps away two red-coated fundraisers – of the type the British call “chuggers” (short for “charity-muggers”) – try to raise interest in Shelter, the homeless charity.

Their presence is a sign I am reaching the domain of working, rather than tourist London. I am soon near Green Park station where the snacks bars and piles of commuter newspapers confirm the change. I avoid the bedlam of buses and traffic by turning down into St James’s. Here, it’s all men in suits and ties and women with cut-glass accents and pashmina scarves bearing bags from the various upmarket “By Appointment To” shops. Men in cashmere overcoats disappear into the discrete doorways of the street’s various clubs.

I cut through into The Green Park, so-named for the absence of flower beds. Its starkness makes it a popular setting in spy films for clandestine meetings, when the backdrop of St James’s or Buckingham Palace can hint at the machinations of power behind the scenes. It’s still possible to see suited men hurrying through, carrying a document case, or sitting on a park bench. The imagination can easily turn them into spies making a drop or whispering the clue that will eventually unravel a sneering villain’s plan for world domination. The reality is that they are more likely a hotel receptionist or a luxury car salesman on a lunch break.

Through the trees, I can see the gleaming white Victoria Monument and flashes of gold from the gates of Buckingham Palace itself. Crossing The Mall, I have to flinch my way through a barrage of cameras snapping the view of the palace, a taste of the life of a celebrity.

I join the crowd on the steps of the Victoria Monument, which make a perfect platform for viewing the bear-skinned guards patrolling the front of the Queen’s residence. The presence of the Union Flag rather than the Royal Standard shows she is not at home, and groups of heavily armed police makes the soldiers’ endless ceremonial pacing seem even more pointless.

The monument is surrounded by a marble moat, half-filled with green slime in which floats a man’s leather glove, a woolly hat, newspaper, tourist maps and a discarded cigarette packet. No doubt it will all be cleaned up for the summer ceremonial season when the bright red uniforms of the Guards regiments dazzle everyone with their spit-and-polish and drill.

“The Royal Family and the Monarchy are enormously important to the tourism draw of the UK,” says Bernard Donoghue, Director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA). “The vast majority of overseas visitors say that the top reasons for coming to Britain are history, heritage, tradition, pageantry and our museums and galleries. Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s are on any overseas visitor’s top ten list of things you must do in London. They are associated with Royal events and that has a huge effect.”

After Green Park, the Piccadilly Line goes on to Hyde Park Corner and Kensington High Street. I walk back to follow the route, using the underpass under Park Lane to come out at Apsley House. Once the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, it was know informally as No.1 London.

It’s hard to imagine this busy spot as the edge of the city, but Hyde Park itself offers a few glimpses of how the countryside might have looked before the endless urban sprawl swallowed it up. It is frequented by joggers, walkers, pushchairs and dog-walkers, as well as those brave enough to swim in the chilly outdoor waters of The Serpentine. I settle for some traditional fish and chips in the Serpentine Café.

I walk on along Rotten Row – supposedly a corruption of “Route de Roi” – being careful to avoid the cyclists rushing into town from Kensington. Several out-of-towners are not so observant and ignore even the ringing of bicycle bells until one cyclist shouts at them. British manners are tested but remain under control.

Hyde Park was the setting for the Great International Exhibition of 1851 but few physical traces of it remain here, other than some ornate railings. Its legacy, however, is the great museums of South Kensington, as well as the Albert Hall and University College, London. Funded by the proceeds of the exhibition catalogue, and backed by the passion of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, the area stretching from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) to the Albert Memorial has been dubbed “Albertopolis”.

“The Great International Exhibition in Hyde Park, later moved to what became Crystal Palace in South London, was a key moment [in tourism] because it attracted six million visitors to London in a six-month period,” says Michelle. “People came from all over the world, and from all backgrounds, including lots of working class people. It was a huge success and really put London on the tourist map.”

“From then, the numbers of visitors expanded, attracted by the cosmopolitan atmosphere, the beauty of the architecture, the heritage and tradition. The traditions were often played out through large public events like Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in the late 19th centuries and the coronations of the 20th century, which were all seen as moments when people gathered in London. There was always something to see or do.”

In Hyde Park, I catch the Household Cavalry returning from the Changing of the Guard ceremony. They jingle past on beautiful, well-groomed horses, their shiny, thigh-length boots, bright cuirasses, helmets and swords gleaming in the sun. Every tourist within range comes running to take a picture or just admire the sight.

At the top of Exhibition Road, a milepost of 1911 says “London 1 Mile”. I walk down past the Science Museum to the Natural History Museum, both thronged with visitors. Opposite is the glorious ornate architecture of the V&A, although the Natural History Museum has its own decorative gems of pterodactyls and other hidden delights for those who study its façade.

“[In 2015] more people visited the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, combined, than visited Venice,” says Bernard. “More people visited the British Museum and the National Gallery, combined, than visited Barcelona and more people visited the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, combined, than visited Hong Kong.”

The foyer of the Natural History Museum is dominated by a large marble statue of Charles Darwin, who makes a popular subject for a selfie. Such pictures are much easier for evolutionists than creationists. Unnoticed nearby is the bust of big game hunter turned conservationist, Frederick Selous, close friend to US President Theodore Roosevelt. He went to South Africa when he was 19 and wandered through the entire lower half of the continent shooting every animal he could find. I wonder how many 19-year-olds here today will have such an adventurous life?

In the V&A, I admire the sculpture gallery and chat to one of the guards. I ask him which is his favorite and he points out a life-size bronze statue of Psyche by Francis Derwent Wood. Wood is best known for his statue of David (The Machine Gun Corps Memorial) at Hyde Park Corner, whose handsome rear confronts drivers coming down Park Lane. It’s remarkable how many fine works are on display here, but equally remarkable how much is on view in London’s streets.

From the V&A, I walk along Knightsbridge, an unusually wide boulevard for London. It’s lined with art dealers, interior design shops, brands such as Emporia Armani and estate agents. I see a one-bed apartment in Kensington being offered for £1,895,000. From Harrods opposite, I watch a stream of shoppers emerge with the trophy of its distinctive green bag.

At Knightsbridge, I jump on the Piccadilly Line to head back towards the center. Crowded into the carriages, it’s easy to see how the nickname of ‘The Tube” – derived from the round tunnels – has stuck. I’m jammed against several strangers. Eye contact is avoided; heads are buried in newspapers and phones; earphones block out the world. The adverts are for online dating, travel insurance, temporary offices and investment brokers.

I hop off a few stops early at Leicester Square and walk towards Covent Garden. The ride between Leicester Square and Covent Garden is the busiest section on the Underground network but it’s actually quicker to walk as it’s also the shortest.

At the end of Cranbourn Street, a bronze bust of Agatha Christie pays tribute to The Mousetrap, London’s longest-running play. It has been in the West End continuously since 1952, and at St Martin’s Theatre since 1974. St Martin’s Lane is one of the six streets that meet here and I turn down towards the English National Opera.

The narrow pedestrianized alleys of Cecil Court and St Martin’s Court add to the atmosphere here, as does Freed of London, where West End dancers find their shoes. I dive down tiny Goodwins Court with its line of Georgian bay windows and emerge back into daylight to follow New Row towards Covent Garden Piazza. Here, a busker is trying valiantly to rustle up a crowd for his juggling act.

After enjoying the show, I walk up to the station, with its red tiling, cramped into a corner with Long Acre. A line of the black cabs that dominate the traffic in this area pause momentarily to deal with the crowd of tourists bumbling their way across the street.

Neal Street has lost its hippie vibe at this end, being taken over by brands such as Mango and a cupcake shop. The Astrology Shop, clinging on near Shaftesbury Avenue, is a last remnant of its former incarnation. Around the corner, the quaint Arthur Beale shop hints at another history as well. It may seem incongruous to see a Ships Chandler in the middle of the city but it has done well out of the theatre trade with its need for such things as rigging to raise and lower scenery and curtains.

At the British Museum Rotunda café, I pay £6.50 for a coffee and a scone. My plastic knife is not really up to the task of spreading the butter. Chinese tourists sit to drink tea and check their phones. A Filipino mother speaks Tagalog to her two daughters, who ignore her while gossiping to each other with strong American accents. A school party crocodiles past the shops, led by a teacher who towers over them.

I walk through the galleries, admiring Japanese pottery, Persian reliefs, Benin bronzes and Arab calligraphy. I touch a replica of the Rosetta Stone, on display here since 1802, that first allowed Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to be deciphered. A crowd is gathered around the mummies in Egyptian Gallery but the museum is big enough to swallow up most of its visitors. With some seven million every year, it is the biggest attraction in London and indeed Britain.

“The appeal of the British Museum is that, wherever you come from in the world, you know that you are going to see something of your culture represented there,” says Bernard. “It’s like a one-stop shop for knowing Britain’s place in the world and the world’s place in Britain.”

Leaving the museum, I see another crowd of visitors taking selfies of themselves and their loved ones in front of its portico. Their actions mirror those of the people I saw earlier in Trafalgar Square, a reminder that the biggest attraction in London is not the British Museum but London itself.

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