25 Things You Should Know About London
Buckingham Palace, Wimbledon, Notting Hill, Westminster Abbey, and the West End—none of these sights are in the City of London. Before you call us mad, consider this: While they are all in what we call London, which is technically Greater London, the City of London is actually a small city-within-a-city, squeezing 7400 residents [PDF] (plus some 300,000 commuters) into an area slightly larger than a square mile. The larger London area has 8.6 million residents living in its 32 boroughs (the City of London is considered the 33rd). Within its former walls, the City of London is home to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Leadenhall Market, and the cucumber-shaped Gherkin Tower. It also has its own mayor, whose official title is “Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of the City of London.” Read on for more facts about England's capital city.
1. The original settlement of the City of London was formed when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 ACE and established Londinium, where the Thames River was narrow enough to build a bridge. Londinium replaced Colchester as capital of Britannia in the 2nd century, but was completely abandoned in the 5th century.
2. Many versions of bridges have spanned the River Thames connecting the City of London and Southwark, but an early medieval version of London Bridge, which lasted 600 years, really did fall down—in 1281, 1309, 1425 and 1437. Although the rhyme has roots in a Nordic saga, “my fair lady” was added during this time, attacking Queen Eleanor for taking the tolls for her personal use instead of spending it on the necessary bridge repairs.
3. The site where the 828,821-square-foot Buckingham Palace stands today used to be a mulberry garden, meant to rear silkworms for King James I in the 1600s. (Unfortunately for him, his staff planted the wrong kind of mulberry bushes.) Now the Queen’s official London residence has 775 rooms, including 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms, 514 doors and 760 windows.
4. Every single morning—even Christmas Day—gravel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace is “dragged” in order to clean and comb it. Two more inspections happen every day “just in case there is any rubbish.” The purpose? “To ensure the forecourt always looks spick and span.”
5. Hidden underneath the city are dozens of lost rivers and canals. As the population grew, many were converted into sewers, including River Fleet in Smithfield, into which butchers had tossed the remains of dead animal. The banks of the former River Effra, however, turned into the The Oval, home of the Surrey County Cricket Club.
6. The London Beer Flood took place on October 17, 1814, after a three-story high wooden vat of beer exploded at Henry Meux and Co. brewery. The tidal wave ended up killing eight people.
7. The nickname Big Ben is actually for the Great Bell at the Palace of Westminster, not the tower or clock. The 13.7-ton bell chimes at the musical note E. Also in the belfry are four quarter bells, which ring at G sharp, F sharp, E and B. None of the bells swing—they’re all struck with hammers.
8. So what is the name of the tower? Victorian journalists called it St. Stephen’s Tower and most refer to it as the Clock Tower, but in 2012, the 315-feet tall structure was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee.
9. Harrods department store in Knightsbridge has 330 departments—including a “Perfumery Hall,” “Toy Kingdom,” and “Great Writing Room”—and hosts 15 million customers a year on its seven floors spread over 4.5 acres.
10. Forget the GPS: For more than 150 years, in order to get a license to drive a traditional black taxi (also called a Hackney carriage) in London, cab drivers must pass The Knowledge, a test requiring them to memorize every route within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross [PDF], which includes 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. Typically, it takes cabbies two to four years to cruise through it.
11. The largest catering operation for any annual sporting event in Europe? Tennis’ grass Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon. During the two-week event in 2015, 28,000 bottles of champagne were supplied—only to be topped by the 150,000 bottles of water, 235,000 glasses of British Pimm’s, and 350,000 cups of tea and coffee. Also on hand were 190,000 sandwiches, 32,000 fish and chips portions, 142,000 servings of English strawberries, and 6,000 stone-baked pizzas.
12. Charles Dickens’ “house in town,” which he called it, was at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury and is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum, housing more than 100,000 items related to the 19th century author. Special events include candlelight tours to experience the home the way Dickens wrote in—as well as taxidermy workshops which are, per a warning on the museum's site, “not for the faint hearted.”
13. All the world’s a stage, but William Shakespeare's favorite performance space was London’s Globe Theater. (His first play performed there was likely Julius Caesar, in 1599 [PDF].) But on June 29, 1613, a stage cannon misfired during a Henry VIII performance and the theater burned down in less than two hours. It was quickly rebuilt, but shut down by the Puritans in 1642. The current Globe Theater, also known as the Third Globe, opened in 1993, thanks to the persistence of American actor/director Sam Wanamaker [PDF].
14. The only fully independent market in London is Borough Market, with a history that dates back to the 11th century. A blue plaque hangs there, calling it “London’s oldest fruit and veg market” as “voted by the people” of the borough of Southwark.
15. Arguably the world’s most famous crosswalk, Abbey Road—where The Beatles posed for their iconic 1969 album cover—crosses an actual (busy!) street, where cars often have to wait for tourists to snap their photos mid-walk. Abbey Road Studios now has a live cam pointed at the intersection.
16. The London Eye on the south bank of the Thames isn't a Ferris wheel—according to a London Eye press release [PDF], it’s actually “the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel.” Still, at 443 feet high, it would have been the tallest Ferris wheel when it opened on the last day before the new millennium (thus its nickname, the Millennium Wheel). Since then, taller Ferris wheels have gone up in China, Singapore, and Las Vegas. The Eye has been used as a filming location for movies like Wimbledon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and for $552 you can get a private ride in a Cupid’s Capsule, which includes a bottle of Pommery Brut Royal Champagne and a box of Hotel Chocolat Pink Champagne truffles.
17. London plays an important role in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (after all, it's home to both the British Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley). Rowling herself, however, was born 110 miles away in Yate. A very different double-initialed female author hails from the British capital: 50 Shades of Grey scribe EL James.
18. In southeast London’s Shooters Hill district of Woolwich, there’s a street called Ha-Ha Road, so named, some say, because locals would laugh at people falling into the ditch that used to run alongside it. But the joke was on the locals when the road was closed from July 7 to September 19 in 2012 while the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks hosted the Olympics and Paralympics shooting events.
19. Despite its name, only 45 percent of the London Underground, which opened in 1863 and carries 1.3 billion riders a year, is in tunnels.
20. Teen genius 13-year-old Joseph Malin is credited for inventing fish and chips on the East End around 1860. He came from a rug weaving family who started making fries in their basement to supplement their income—until little Joseph decided to combine them with fried fish from a nearby shop. The business continued until 1970s. Now the longest running chippie (Brit speak for fish-and-chip shop) is Rock and Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, which opened in 1871, and where a regular-sized order costs $21.80.
21. Another young man who broke from his family’s weaving business: Thomas Twining, founded the Twining of London tea business more than 300 years ago. The shop he bought in 1706, Tom’s Coffee Shop, which stood apart from the competition by also serving tea, is still open at 216 Strand.
23. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who was born in London, sometimes pays the rent of struggling students in the city. “I get letters from people trying to go to drama school and needing to pay their rent,” he told GQ. “And so that's something I occasionally do. It's impossibly expensive to live in London."
24. London was named 2016’s best city for volunteering in Europe, thanks in great part to Team London — Mayor Boris Johnson’s program, which has 120,000 active volunteers, half of them being children and youth.
25. The famous blue door Hugh Grant invited Julia Roberts through in the 1999 film Notting Hill is at 280 Westbourne Park Road. But the original chipped one from the film was sold at a Christie’s auction for about $8000 in 1999. For a while, the door was painted black to deter tourists, but the current owners have painted it blue again—nearby shops even sell tote bags featuring “The Blue Door.”