Recommended reading for travelers to London is Peter Ackroyd’s “London: The Biography.” My Kindle reader tells me I’m only 15 percent of the way through the book, but that’s okay. In a week’s time I probably experienced less than 1.5 percent of this enigmatic, energetic city.
Even though I’ve read only as far as the 1500s, it’s enough. In London, the more things change, the more they stay the same. By 1580, the city was growing so fast and had become so overcrowded that Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation that more or less demanded, “Stop!” It didn’t work, nor have any of her successors managed to stem the tide.
Ackroyd writes: “The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled.” Consequently, the most stunning aspect of the London skyline in 2019 is the vast number of construction cranes at work. Even Big Ben, also known as Elizabeth’s Tower, is hidden behind scaffolding for a refurbishment that is, of course, taking longer and costing more than expected. Although I walked right past Big Ben, I can’t claim to have seen it.
In addition to sky-high construction, the city is working on infrastructure repair. On the sidewalk directly in front of my hotel was a pit revealing aged pipes. Similar pits appeared at intervals up and down the street, each surrounded by steel fencing to keep pedestrians from falling in.
In what seemed a random pattern, traffic lanes were blocked off for street repair. The result was congestion that would stupefy even the most intrepid Seattle driver. Once again, nothing new.
“The state of traffic … was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation,” writes Ackroyd. John Stow, born in 1525 and a chronicler of his times, complained: “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth …”
Modern London pedestrians tend to throw caution to the winds, frequently ignoring traffic lights and crosswalks. One afternoon I happened on the scene of an accident. A bus had hit a jaywalking pedestrian. I have no idea how badly the pedestrian was hurt, but seeing the cracked windshield on the bus was chilling.
The good news is that there’s no gridlock because there’s no grid. The meandering streets and byways were never systematically laid out. They were created to make connections and serve purposes that no longer exist. In Ackroyd’s words, it’s a “bewildering network.”
Our hotel provided free maps, and I’m a pretty good map reader, but this one confounded me.
“[T]he mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable,” warns Ackroyd.
Nonetheless, when our group took a two-and-half-mile walking tour (much better than being stalled in traffic on a bus), one of the women was determined to mark the route on her map. All along the way—Trafalgar Square, China Town, Big Ben, Parliament, the Thames—she concentrated on her map. At one point she walked up beside me and asked, “What was going on at that gate back there? Why did everyone stop?”
“No. 10 Downing Street,” I answered.
She wheeled around and flew back to the gate for a look, her map still in hand.