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25 Things You Should Know About London

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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.”

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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.


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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. 

22. Crime pays: Among the many dark attractions in London are The Clink Prison Museum, The London Dungeon and the Crime Museum exhibit at the Museum of London.

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.”

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National Geographic Ranks The 25 Happiest Cities in the Country
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Feeling unhappy? Maybe it's time to move. National Geographic recently released rankings of the 25 happiest cities in the U.S. The results: Eight of the 25 locations are in the Golden State, but the honor of No. 1 happiest city goes to Boulder, Colorado.

The rankings are based on 250,000 interviews conducted in 190 metropolitan areas between 2014 and 2015. The survey—developed by Dan Buettner, author of the new book The Blue Zones of Happiness, and Dan Witters, a senior scientist at Gallup—looked for data points that are correlated with life satisfaction and happiness, like whether or not you exercise, if you feel safe in your community, whether you feel like you live within your means, and whether you feel like you are reaching your goals.

A map of the U.S. showing which cities made the top 25 happiest cities index.
Courtesy National Geographic

Of course, all that isn’t necessarily the result of your geographical location. But you don’t see cities like Los Angeles or New York—where wealth is also clustered—on the list, so presumably San Franciscans are doing something a little differently.

Take a look for yourself. Here are the 25 happiest places in the U.S., according to the results.

1. Boulder, Colorado
2. Santa Cruz-Watsonville, California
3. Charlottesville, Virginia
4. Fort Collins, Colorado
5. San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, California
6. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California
7. Provo-Orem, Utah
8. Bridgeport-Stamford, Connecticut
9. Barnstable Town, Massachusetts
10. Anchorage, Alaska
11. Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Florida
12. Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, California
13. Salinas, California
14. North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida
15. Urban Honolulu, Hawaii
16. Ann Arbor, Michigan
17. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California
18. Colorado Springs, Colorado
19. Manchester-Nashua, New Hampshire
20. Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, California
21. Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, Virginia/Maryland/West Virginia
22. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minnesota/Wisconsin
23. San Diego-Carlsbad, California
24. Portland-South Portland, Maine
25. Austin-Round Rock, Texas

You can grab a copy of November’s National Geographic to read more about the world’s happiest places.

The cover of Dan Buettner’s The Blue Zones of Happiness and the cover of November 2017’s National Geographic.
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These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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