Field notes: London, England
December 26th, 2018
I was in London for a conference for a few days in late October. The city was lovely, an unexpectedly nice place to wander. I came in with low expectations, expecting a drab, grey metropolis congested with traffic and filled with suited financiers scurrying from place to place. What I found was an agglomeration of charming urban villages, each with their own specific flavor. They were pedestrian-friendly, spotted with parks, and draped with trees, and the people-watching was great.
It's worth mentioning that (a) I primarily stayed on the north end of the river and (b) the weather was unusually sunny and warm for late October. In other words, I doubt I got a representative snapshot of London. Nevertheless, my brief exploration of London may have been my favorite city walk I've done.
For starters, place names in the UK are incredible. And by "incredible" I mean hard to believe. With a few of these I'd swear the Brits were screwing with me.
"Where did you go to school?"
"I went to Goodenough College."
"Haha, no but really."
Oh come on...
"The Ladbroke Arms"... but don't worry, he didn't break his legs.
UPDATE: Anthony Hay, a native Londoner, reached out to me with some additions to the list of funny street signs that I found...
Place names: there are many unusual street names in the City of London, including Bird-In-Hand Court, Bolt-In-Tun Yard, Crutched Friars, Ducks Foot Lane, French Horn Yard and Labour-In-Vain Court, as well as many food related ones including Beer Street, Bread Street, Camomile Street, Garlick Hill, Honey Lane, Lime Street, Milk Street, Oat Lane, Pie Corner, Poultry, Pudding Lane, Stew Lane and Sugar Loaf Court. (See maps.thehunthouse.com/eBooks/City_Street_Names.htm for much more information.)
Signage & wayfinding
Great signage in general, both for clarity and entertainment!
"Open till late"... thanks for the specificity.
"It seems probable that the houses were erected in that year..."
"THIS IS NOT A STRIP CLUB"
Nice wayfinding in the Tube:
I love it when platform-specific metro maps show only the lines that are relevant to you from that location in the station.
Little language differences are always fun:
To let, or not to let. That is the question.
Oh dear! What frightened them?
Brick size forensics
In the 1780s, Great Britain adopted a brick tax to help pay for the wars with the American colonies. Bricks were taxed at 4 shillings per thousand.
In response, brick makers began to increase the size of their bricks. As a result, brick size can be used to date buildings.
It was fun to keep an eye out for these jumbo bricks while exploring the city! In this picture (borrowed from Wikipedia because I forgot to take pictures), pre-brick tax bricks were used in the house on the right, while the building on the left were made with oversized bricks.
WiFi names arms race
Lots of WiFi names begin with underscore to be first on list. Turns into a bit of an arms race though, because others can just put more underscores to get farther ahead on the list. There were a few cafes out of which I worked where the top 5 names with multi-underscore prefixes battling for first place. I wish I'd thought to screenshot one of these, but you get the idea with the one to the left here.
London has not made much of its access to the Thames, especially compared to Paris' gorgeous Seine waterfront. The banks of the Thames are not nice places to hang out, at least the areas where I crossed. They are bordered with roads full of traffic, surrounded by sterile new towers with few cafes and activities.
UPDATE: Anthony Hay also had the following recommendations for better spots along the river—
Riverfront: there are plenty of places to enjoy the river front away from roads. The most central is on the south bank between County Hall (Westminster Bridge) and City Hall (Tower Bridge). This passes the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern as well as many pubs and cafes. My favourite is Battersea Park.
Narrow Streets for People
Wonderful examples of Narrow Streets for People!
Reverse curb cuts: The road came up to meet the sidewalk in many places rather than having curb cuts. Easier to walk, especially for wheelchairs and strollers, and has the added benefit of being a small speed hump for cars. Nice little detail that shows that the neighborhood prioritizes pedestrians over cars.
Can be a little scary in some places though when drivers sped around the corner, since there's little stopping them from getting up on the curb. And of the places I've been London drivers were not the most careful...
My takeaway was that the efficacy of these reverse curb cuts depended a lot on specific conditions and implementation.
Crossing warnings: "LOOK LEFT" and "LOOK RIGHT" were painted wherever the crosswalk mets the street. Very helpful for a hapless American like me who kept looking the wrong way.
Street trees: I expected London to have few trees from exploring it on Treepedia, so I was delighted to find that the neighborhoods I explored had many glorious trees. Treepedia gives it a "Green View Index" of 12.7%, which is on the lower end and doesn't match my experience. However these aren't really inconsistent because as you can see from the map the neighborhoods I wandered have some of the densest tree cover, especially Notting Hill. Guess I just got lucky!
Now on to the main event, the trees themselves...
Blocked off pedestrian street + walkway: pedestrians can walk through but cars cannot drive through. Lots of nice walking-friendly details like this throughout the city!
Curb cut grips: I can imagine that these grips are important when the ground is wet and slippery. Would not be fun to find yourself tripping into oncoming traffic...
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who pointed out that this tactile paving is actually to help blind and partially-sighted people to identify safe crossings and various characteristics of the street. A good explainer video below:
Sun-bleached paint: Looks like the sun bleached the black paint from the upper floors. You can tell this building has probably been around for a while.
Nice protected bike lanes! Impressed by the cycling infrastructure that I saw while walking from place to place, though I didn't get a chance to bike around much so I'm not sure how well-connected it all is.
Nice unassuming little plaza
Chimneys: Tons of chimneys! Not quite sure why. One guess is Victorian heating technology requires one per room, but many of the homes I saw otherwise look like they were built somewhat recently.
Private gardens & public parks
There are many private gardens in London. My initial reaction was sadness that they were exclusive, closed off to people who couldn't afford to pay the club dues, but then I realized they're at least better than private yards. They're a more efficient and cooperative solution than if each neighbor had their own, mostly-unused space behind their home, and they preserve green space in the city in a semi-public fashion without imposing a maintenance cost on the city. Plus, they are pleasant to walk by even if you can't go in.
London also has a lot of public parks as well, and they're great. They were small- to medium-sized and never a long walk away, which I prefer rather than one big green space for the whole city. Dotting a region with lots of small parks makes them more accessible for the average person, and there's something less relaxing about being in a park where you know half of the city is there with you on a sunny afternoon. It's nice to have the feeling of tight-knit, local community that you get from a smaller park. (It's worth noting that this goal is also helped with the existence of private community gardens.)
Not to say I dislike big parks. In fact, SF's Golden Gate Park is one of my favorite places in the city, and there is a qualitative difference to having lots of green space all at once, shielded from traffic and isolated from the rest of the metropolis. It's just a shame when it comes at the cost of excessive distance. So despite its size, Hyde Park ("London's "Central Park") is glorious on an autumn day. Wish I'd had time to take a run through it!
I enjoyed nearly all of the neighborhoods that I explored. Bloomsbury, Hyde Park, Soho, Notting Hill, and Mayfair were especially pleasant.
The one exception was a brief stint walking around the South Bank, which was full of bland office spaces with little ground-floor retail or neighborhoods. Central Business Districts (CBDs) tend to feel quite unwelcoming, because there's not much happening at street level outside of work hours. This means that while many workers frequent the place all at once, there's not enough of a continuous stream of different kinds of people throughout the day to support interesting shops and activities.
My hotel and the conference were near University College London, so I spent most of my time there. The neighborhood around was so charming! Lots of good energy from the university students, not far from the major International train stations, and lots of bookshops. I'll likely stay there again next time I go to London.
Nice attempt at trying to get the temporary buildings to match the style of the old one...
The one dark spot on my stay in that neighborhood was one night I walked to a pharmacy a few blocks away from the hotel, and two men on a motorcycle drove up on the sidewalk and tried to snatch my phone out of my hand. I yanked it out of their grip and they zoomed off down the street. It all turned out fine—they didn't hurt me and they did not get my phone—but it was the first time anyone had tried to rob me, so it was quite startling. Also, had they made a small error, they could have hit me or run over my foot with their motorbike. It gives me the shivers to think about other branches of the multiverse.
Easy to find bathrooms while walking around, throughout the city core. I've been developing a rubric for comparing cities, and this experience was a good reminder to include "access to clean, public toilets" in it.
Prices, even very low prices, are an effective tool to discourage abuse. As a result, these public bathrooms on the perimeter of Hyde Park were clean and comfortable!
Most areas I explored around London were well-kept. (It's a large city and not Singapore, so I wouldn't use the word "clean", but it generally felt like folks took care of the place.) The one exception to this was walking down Edgeware Road after a delicious Lebanese dinner. Some folks call this neighborhood Little Beirut or Little Cairo. There had been a market of some sort that afternoon. Most merchants had already left, though a handful were finishing packing up. Many had just thrown their cardboard boxes, packaging, and other trash on the ground for someone else to clean up. It may be that the norms are for the market organizers to clean up after everyone else, but it seemed more an issue of lack of accountability. Either way, it made the road unpleasant that evening.
Crutches and leg braces: I saw many more people with crutches and leg braces walking around than I typically see in San Francisco. It was a striking difference, so I don't think it was just a fluke. A few hypotheses:
TV licenses and socialized healthcare: The people I hung out with while there were bitter towards the required TV licenses and "religion" for NHS in public discourse. Curious how widespread this attitude is.
Surveillance: CCTV cameras really are everywhere! No wonder so many dystopian films are set and created in the UK.
Indian food: Everyone complains about English cuisine, but what they forget is that you can eat Indian food every single day.
British women and their leopard print! I will never understand.
The Brunswick Centre
The Brunswick Centre seemed to be an attempt to re-create the feeling of a tight-knit neighborhood center. It was not great but not terrible. But also probably much more expensive and controversial to build.
That concrete and stucco facade does not age so nicely... 20th century architecture is rife with Chesterton's Fence situations when it comes to materials. Modernist designers chose the material of the age to stay on the cutting edge, choosing materials like concrete over brick concrete versus brick. Unfortunately in this case, the concrete has not aged nicely despite being just a few decades old, while the brick buildings that neighbor it are much older but have only gained more a sense of permanence.
Meanwhile the street next door is just so charming (pictured below ⤵). It's much more nondescript than the Brunswick Centre, which really stands out, but it's a welcoming place that's much better integrated into the neighborhood around it, in both aesthetic and accessibility terms. You can see the Centre to the left, while the right side is more traditional.
The same street, just facing the opposite direction. (The Brunswick Centre is just out of sight to the right.)
The districts I wandered were about as dense as my neighborhood in San Francisco, yet much quieter. I believe this is mostly a function of many more people walking rather than driving, but I'm curious to learn if there are other factors too.
It was so peaceful that, while walking from St. Pancras train station to my hotel, I felt obliged to pick up my suitcase rather than roll it across the ground. It just felt rude to make that much noise. This would not be the case walking 10 minutes from the Caltrain station at 4th and King, that's for sure.
London population density by borough, 2010
Population density by neighborhood in San Francisco, 2010
The comparison from square miles to square kilometers here is a bit unfortunate, so here's the conversion: 1mi² ≈ 2.6km²
Several locals insisted that London's weather is not as bad as people think, it's just unpredictable and variable. A few other claims I've read/heard on the topic:
What struck me more than the weather was the light. It's easy to forget how much farther north Europe is relative to my expectations based on the equivalent latitude in the US. Intuitively, London feels to me like it is roughly at the same latitude as New York, but NYC's latitude is actually closer to that of the heel of Italy, while London is further north than Vancouver, Canada.
The result is that the sun is weak, even at high noon, because it's at more of an oblique angle on the horizon. The entire afternoon feels like a long dusk, and the golden hour is more like 2+ hours.
It's amazing how much the Gulf Stream moderates the climate of Western Europe. According to Weather Online, "Without this steady stream of warmth the British Isles winters are estimated to be more than 5° C cooler, bringing the average December temperature in London to about 2° C."
- London taxis are custom-designed to have a tight turning radius of only 25 ft for the narrow streets of London. (h/t to Jose Luis for this fact!) Some sources cite that it was purpose-built to accommodate the small roundabout at the entrance of the Savoy Hotel, but given that the tight turning radius is legally required of London taxis I find this a bit far-fetched. More likely
- Seems like they are in some sort of transition for the address system.
- Google maps has letters and numbers, but when you get to the street there is a typical name.
- While researching this question, I found that London's postal system is rather unique: tripsavvy.com/london-postcodes-info-1583386
- Long stop lights (explanation from email... separate post linked to and from Manchester post!)
- One-trip tickets on the Tube were surprisingly expensive, £4.90. This is likely a form of price discrimination for tourists, as the cost for the Oyster and Contactless payment cards is much lower.
- Great trains! I flew into Manchester and took a train into London (because flights to London were shockingly expensive... 10x the usual!). It was smooth and comfortable, much better than going in and out of airports for a short flight. It was a Virgin Pendolino, apparently some of the best trains on the line.
Not sure what's going on here but it's interesting.
UPDATE: @Alby pointed out that these buildings are "built in the shells of old gasometers"!
UPDATE: Anthony Hay again:
[These are] the Gasholders development which consists of luxury flats built inside former gasholders. (Seegasholderslondon.co.uk). The gasholders were originally located close by and stored gas that was produced by what was London's largest gas works, operated by the Imperial Gas, Light and Coke Company.
Candy cane buildings
UPDATE: @em_de6 pointed out that this pedestrian bridge connects the Royal Ballet School to the Royal Opera House. A few more photos from the developer's site:
I of course didn't see everything London has to offer, so keep that in mind that these observations may not (and likely do not) generalize! To get a sense of where I actually spent my time here's my Google Timeline from those few days in London:
DAY 1: Sunday 21 Oct
DAY 3: Tuesday 23 Oct
DAY 2: Monday 22 Oct
DAY 4: Wednesday 24 Oct
Keep in touch!