For most of its history, London was the most important city in Britain (and, many Londoners would maintain, in the world). With a fortunate location in terms of trade and climate, it thrived as a Roman settlement (despite being burned by Boadicea), and grew into a substantial town, with temples, luxury villas and a forum within defensive walls.
When the Romans pulled their troops out of Britain, much of their city fell into decay. Less is known about London in the Dark Ages, but it seems that the principal inhabitated area moved westwards, towards what is now the Strand.
London’s strategic importance was never totally neglected, however, and kings from Alfred the Great onwards began focussing their attention on the city, and rebuilding some of its defences. By the time of the Norman Conquest, the city was the undisputed seat of power, and it was here by the Thames that William the Conqueror built the fortified Tower of London
Gradually, from its days of semi-abandonment, London emerged to become the legendary bustling city of the Middle Ages, noisy, smelly and above all exciting. From the chaotic City parishes emerged early theatres, printing presses, radical politics, philosophy and literature.
By the time London was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, its growth was unstoppable. In the City itself, new buildings were put up to replace those lost. Although there was much discussion about redesigning the street layout, land ownership caused so many problems that most streets were rebuilt following the medieval plan. Even today the narrow winding streets with evocative names bear witness to the early city.
As the noble and the rich moved to the area west of the City – the air was fresher and the Court was close by – acres of expensive residential development resulted in the great squares and elegant streets of West London. Many of these areas still belong to the aristocratic families who have leased out whole streets for centuries.
On the other side of the City, manufacturing and other trades – including fishing – thrived in the East End. And although the centre of London has always provided a unique melting pot where aristocrats could mix with orange-sellers, and poets with sailors, the divide between East and West can still be seen.
The East End is a traditionally working class area, notorious for crimes by Jack the Ripper and gangs like the Krays. Despite the recent trendiness of ‘mockney’ films feting this violent aspect, the area, while still poor, has recently gained in respectability as fashionable young professionals move in. The areas close to the city, around Brick Lane, Whitechapel, and most of all Shoreditch and Hoxton, have become immensely fashionable with an arty young set, with studio spaces fetching inordinately high prices.
Today legacies of all London’s past eras can be found, along with more recent influences. Consecutive waves of immigration have led to a richly diverse culture, while regeneration initiatives have cleaned up some of the most deprived areas. The high-rise futuristic Docklands area has changed London’s skyline. Like most cities, London still has its problems,but it remains an unmatchable destination, rich in history, architecture, culture and interest.