Wednesday, 4 December 2013

London: just the place for an influx of visitors from abroad

It was a great pleasure to have friends from France with us this weekend. 

One of them had never even been to England before, poor chap, so it was particularly rewarding to be able to put an end at last to his exclusion from the finer side of life.

What most foreign visitors want, when they come to see us, is to be shown London. It’s always enjoyable taking them round. If they’re French, I like to get them as quickly as possible to Trafalgar Square and then down to Waterloo Bridge. It seems to get the tone about right, somehow.

Most of the time it’s familiar to us, of course. St James’s Park, again. The monument on Whitehall to the women who served in the war, once more. The Millennium footbridge, for the nth time. And yet, St James’s remains one of my favourite parks in the world, the Millennium bridge with its near-horizontal suspension cables is extraordinary, and the women’s monument, just coats and overalls hanging on pegs, is strikingly moving. Seeing them with people who are discovering the sights for the first time brings them into sharp new relief.

Monument to the Women of World War 2
Besides, I had only last week listened to a radio programme that examined just what we mean by ‘road’ and ‘street’. I’d always thought of the first as applying to the countryside, the latter to towns, but the programme took that idea a step further: roads are about getting vehicles from place to place but streets make spaces.

Now that’s quite an insight. St James’s Park, which I like so much, is defined by the streets that surround it, helped by the presence of some pretty spectacular buildings along them: the rather ponderous Buckingham Palace, for instance, where our present monarch Elizabeth II lives, opposite Whitehall Palace where her distant ancestor Charles I was executed.

Given how unfortunate that link is, it’s 
perhaps just as well it’s provided by such an enchanting stretch of greenery.
St James: one of the world's great parks
But the thoroughfare which I find particularly attractive, and at the same time powerfully definitive of a space, is the Thames. The river’s long curves give London its shape. And, when it comes to travelling through the capital, it’s unsurpassed: the boat trip down to Greenwich is a delight in itself, and leaves you in a wonderful place, where among other joys you can have such fun jumping across the Prime Meridian, from the Western hemisphere to the Eastern and back again.

It was far from the first time I'd taken the boat down to Greenwich, though that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any the less. What I’d never done was travel on the river by night, as we did on the way back, which was truly magical: it's worth it just for the sight of the the skyline and the bridges lit up in the dark.

The Millennium Bridge is beautiful during the day,
haunting at night
It was a good day. And all down to a visit from France.

These days, the free movement of citizens between EU nations gets a pretty bad press in Britain. Not from me. It’s given me a lot of fun. Bring it on, I say. Let’s have more of it.

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