Sunday, October 12, 2014

Museum of London

Everyone is used to thinking of London as England’s capital and one of the world’s great cities. It is difficult to imagine a time when it was otherwise. Yet the city was founded on the north bank of the Thames less than 2000 years ago. For almost half a million years before this, the Thames Valley was home to close-knit communities of hunters, and eventually herders and farmers. These people travelled, occupied and transformed the land in ways that best suited their different needs. Their lives were governed by the rhythm of the seasons and the heavens, and by the changing moods of the great river. Its valley was well known to them. Every hill had a name, every well-worn path a purpose, every woodland clearing a significance born of long familiarity. The land was rich in meanings and memories for those to whom it was home.

The Roman conquest brought an influx of new people into the valley. Many who toiled in the work gangs on the low twin hills of the new Roman town of Londinium spoke in unfamiliar tongues. They paid small heed to local customs and older pasts. But for those with eyes to see and minds to comprehend, the land bore witness to the generations who had trod these same hills before. Londinium was an ancient name that spoke soothingly of the great river – a small sop to wounded pride. For there were some who has forsworn the upstart foundation, some who preferred tribal ways.
In the 600s, the Anglo-Saxons built a new town known as Lundenwic (London-port) to the west of the old Roman city. Merchants could beach their ships on the gently sloping riverbank, now called the Strand. A Christian cathedral dedicated to St Paul was built inside the Roman city walls. At first East Saxon kings controlled Lundenwic. Later powerful rulers of Mercia, a kingdom in central England, took control, and the town became Mercia’s chief port. But after Viking attacks in 842 and 851 Lundenwic was abandoned.

The century from the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 to the Great Fire of 1666 was one of the most turbulent in London’s history. The English capital was a divided metropolis; home to pleasure-seekers who flocked to Shakespeare’s plays, and evangelical Puritans who wished to burn the theatres down. But it was also a centre of trade with a network starting to reach around the globe. The population trebled and suburbs sprang up around the City walls. Times were changing from medieval to modern. In 1649 London saw the Civil War’s most momentous event – the execution of King Charles I. More troubles were to come. In 1665 plague raged through the city, killing some 7000 people a week. Then London suffered its most cataclysmic disaster, the Great Fire of 1666.

In the 20th century, London moved into the machine age. The nerve centre of nation and empire, it had a network of radio waves and telephone lines that stretched around the globe. As motors replaced horses, electricity and mechanisation energised London and quickened the pace of life. Greater London doubled in size, spreading further into the surrounding countryside. Londoners moved out from the crowded inner city to newly built homes in the suburbs. New, fast, suburban roads were lined with factories producing cars and electrical goods for the modern home. Commercial buildings staffed by an army of office workers reshaped life in the capital. London became a city of commuters, with over a million workers travelling every day from the suburbs on the buses, trams and trains.

Between 1950 and 2000 Londoners changed London. From being a city where difference could be looked on with suspicion, London became famous for the extraordinary diversity of its street style. All this reflected deep-rooted changes in the population. The city became more multicultural than ever before. The young became more assertive about individual freedoms and rights.

The City of London is a place full of contradictions. Its skyline is punctuated by spectacular modern buildings, but it is also the oldest part of the capital. The City covers just over one square mile, but what happens here can be felt on the other side of the world.   

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