In 1814, invading British forces burnt my home city – or more accurately the city that my suburban hometown relies on for survival – to the ground. This summer, I’m going to return the favor. London, get ready.
In all seriousness, I am deliriously excited to be going to London this summer. So excited, in fact, that I bought 3 different guides of London, only to discover you really just need one. Turns out, the big things to do and see in London are ubiquitous, who would’ve thought? Though I like to think of myself as a ‘local experience’ kind of guy, you can be sure that I am going to see all the big spots. I’m not too proud to avoid them because they are too ‘touristy.’ By and large, they are actually just cool and monumentally important to the history of the world. Some of the places I am most excited to see are the Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, and the Museum of Stolen Artifacts – ahem… the British Museum. If you want a London Tour Book recommendation, Lonely Planet is the way to go. It’s more information dense, packed with suggestions off the beaten trail, and covers a wider area of London than the other books I got.
As the day of arrival gets closer and closer, I can feel my anticipation building. By the time I am in London I fully expect that little sparks of electricity will be flying off of my skin with excitement. Even though I have done a ton of reading and preparing for this trip in an effort to convince myself that I will know what to expect, the only thing I know I can reasonably count on is the unexpected happening. I’m an anxious planner (Exhibit A: buying three books that all say the same thing just to be sure I didn’t miss anything obvious) and despite the fact that I generally envision 1,000,000 scenarios for how things could go wrong – and how I should react to them – it always seems to be the 1,000,001st scenario that ends up happening. Oh well, such is life.
In an effort to avoid something unplanned happening that throws off my mojo, I’m going at this experience a little different. I am not planning a thing. I am learning about the culture, history, important places, and practicalities of London so I don’t make a fool of myself but in terms of plans, nada. My logic: if I don’t plan anything, nothing can mess up my plans. It seems pretty ironclad to me. My dad likens it to a great crab cake, just enough filling to hold it all together. Sorry to all those who have never eaten a genuine Maryland blue crab cake.
So, what preparations have I made?
I learned about the Oyster card, London’s public transport payment card, how to effectively navigate the Tube London’s metro rail system, purchased an International SIM card, booked travel to and from London Heathrow airport, and familiarized myself with British cultural expectations and norms.
I am bit of a history nut, and so I prepared myself by beefing up on as much of London, England, and Great Britain’s history as I possibly could. If you are interested in a not-so brief timeline here it is (if you aren’t just skip it! don’t bore yourself):
Pre 55 BCE: Many disparate tribes roam the British Isles, speaking a variety of Celtic dialects and observing Pagan Religious Practices.
55-54 BCE: Julius Caesar tries to invade Britannia (what would become Great Britain), decides that its people are barbarians and it isn’t worth it, then leaves.
47 CE: Rome decides they actually do want Britannia, they invade and found Londinium (Modern day City of London, a neighborhood inside the Borough of the City of London, which is part of Inner London, which is part of Greater London. London’s political geography is both confusing and hilarious)
CW: *sexual violence*
61 CE: Boudica, who watched her daughters get raped and beaten by Roman soldiers, comes back with an army of pissed off celts and burns the entirety of London to the ground. She annihilates any and all roman legions that stand in her path. WOMAN POWER!!
410 CE: Rome dips out, leaving a culturally Roman people with no real military or political power.
Late 400’s and 500’s CE: Roman Britons, fearing the extinction of their culture, invite Anglo-Saxon warriors from modern day Germany, Northern France, and Denmark to fight against Celtic and Scottish invaders. Their efforts are successful, until the Saxons decide they actually want to rule Britain. Britain splits into many Saxon kingdoms, the most powerful of which are Wessex and Mercia.
Around the same time, Saxon merchants establish a trading post outside the old city walls of Londinium naming it Westminster (Church in the West). This eventually becomes the seat of power for Modern day Britain.
1066 CE: William I, or William the Conqueror, of Normandy gets really upset when his distant cousin, King Edward the Confessor, names Harold Godwinson as his successor to the throne. He throws a legendary temper tantrum, invades England, becomes king, and starts the millennia long feud between France and England.
1215 CE: King John I is terrible at being king. So terrible that his court begins to question whether he is really above questioning. Since they already began questioning, they realized he wasn’t above questioning and made him sign the Magna Carta. This was the first known limit on royal power.
1337 - 1453 CE: The kings of France and England get petty with each other and go to war, and then their sons, grandsons, and great grandsons continue the tradition. To be fair lifespans were shorter back then and the war certainly didn’t help.
In the meantime, peasants continued to suffer and got senselessly murdered during battles. Even better (read worse), the Black death ravaged both countries, which put a temporary stop to the war. Joan of Arc does her thing and messes up the British. In the end, neither country gained any lands or power.
1455 - 1487 CE: The War of the Roses. This is some real Game of Thrones type stuff. The two most powerful houses of England, the house of Lancaster and house of York, duke it out for supreme power over the nation. In the end, the house of Tudor and Henry VII claimed the throne, bamboozling both of the warring houses out of their power. My man was a real life Littlefinger.
Late 1400’s, early 1500’s: Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived. King Henry VIII’s desire for a son sparks a bloody centuries long conflict between Catholic and Anglican Christians.
1556-1558: Reign of Queen Mary I, of Bloody Mary fame, burned 280 Anglicans at the stake during her reign, for which she earned her nickname. What’s funny (or not so funny depending on your perspective) is that this had been done and continued to be done for many years after her reign. So, what made her different? Oh yeah, she was a woman so she MUST HAVE been irrational, merciless, and cruel for having the audacity to do what every man before her had done.
1558 - 1603 CE: Queen Elizabeth I ushers in a new era of religious tolerance. Some of England’s greatest writers, thinkers, and artists came about during this time. Think William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, John Webster, Sir Walter Raleigh, and many more. Elizabeth jails then executes Mary Queen of Scots. The Scots weren’t too happy about that. They got happier when upon Elizabeth’s death, King James VI of Scotland was named James I, King of England.
1588 CE: British forces led by Sir Francis Drake defeat the previously unbeaten Spanish Armada, setting the stage for British naval dominance in the coming centuries. This ultimately leads to Britain invading and colonizing much of the world.
1649-1659 CE: The English citizenry rebel against the throne, behead Charles I, and then dismantle the monarchy, establishing the Rump Parliament. The rebel leader, Oliver Cromwell, heads up coup d’état of his own government in 1653, naming himself ‘lord protector.’ When he dies, his son Richard is named the successor. The English, realizing they have a king in all but name, collectively go ‘bruh’ and reinstate the monarchy but this time with more limited powers. If you take a trip to Ireland don’t – and I mean don’t – mention Oliver Cromwell’s name. He is not the most fondly remembered for his ruthless genocide of their people. yikes.
1666 CE: Great fire of London. Most of the city burns to the ground, oops. The fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane, so at least it started on a street with a fun name.
1688 - 1729 CE: London, recovering from the great fire 20 years prior and burgeoning into a major urban center, buckles at the seams and struggles to cope with its massive population growth. As a result, the docklands of east London become overrun with vast swaths of low quality, overcrowded housing. The harsh industrial conditions and the squalor caused by poor living conditions pushed many Londoners to the bottle, starting the ‘Gin Craze.’ It was during this time that Jack the Ripper did his ripping and women, men, and children could be seen in a drunken stupor at all times of day. Londoners affinity for drinking continues to this day, even though living conditions have certainly improved.
1707 CE: During Queen Anne II’s reign the United Kingdom is founded by the merging of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. This formalized their union, which had been in 100 years of courtship after King James VI of Scotland/James I of England (wow this is confusing. yes, they are the same person) became the first monarch to rule both kingdoms simultaneously.
1714 - 1830 CE: The Georgian Era of the United Kingdom sees Parliament and the Prime Minister (PM) controlling much of English politics. British colonies in North America become irate at their lack of representation in this government and revolt against the rising taxes the British levied to fund their imperial conquests. The British come in to stomp down the rebellion, but the French and Spanish make it a proxy war by supporting the rebel cause, ultimately leading to the United States’ independence.
Some commentary – it’s wild to think that our nation is the result of a proxy war, and then a century and a half later we colonized and involved ourselves in proxy wars to do essentially the same thing we revolted against at our founding. Often times, a global perspective offers a completely different account from what the history of our nation suggests.
1837 - 1901 CE: Queen Victoria’s reign is the height of British power and global importance. During this time, the British empire expanded greatly. Rival European powers colonize the rest of the world and precipitate the conditions for World War I.
1914 - 1918 CE: World War I and the Spanish Flu decimate mainland Europe and the United Kingdom. Britain helps itself to Germany’s colonies and grows to its greatest size, controlling 500 million people and 25% of the worlds land mass.
1938 CE: PM Neville Chamberlain cedes part of modern day Czechia to Germany in an attempt to appease Hitler and prevent another world war. This ended up not being the best idea.
1939 - 1945 CE: Germany was not appeased. PM Winston Churchill becomes an inspiring war time leader for Great Britain. London’s industrial east end is obliterated in the blitzkreig (Lightning War) of the Battle of Britain, it is still recovering. WWII marks the end of the British Empire, with the USA and USSR becoming the main world superpowers.
1979 - 1990 CE: Margaret Thatcher serves as PM of England; she helps the country recover from rising inflation and high unemployment following its deindustrialization.
1986 - 2000 CE: Notably to the history of London, the conservative Thatcher had an epic beef with the progressive Greater London Council (GLC) led by Ken Livingston. The GLC’s headquarters, which were situated directly across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, regularly trolled Thatcher’s government by hosting massive banners with inflammatory content such as the current number of unemployed people in the country. Thatcher did not appreciate these antics and dissolved the GLC in 1986. The next 14 years saw each borough of London independently managed, which caused quite a bit of chaos in the city. In 2000 the Greater London Authority was formed to address the aforementioned chaos, and Ken Livingstone was elected mayor. Who came out on top of the beef? I’ll let you decide.
tl,dr: Religious intolerance, petty royals (and later PM’s), misogyny, and unfettered desire for domination (first of the British isles, then mainland Europe, then the world at-large) summarize the vast majority of British history.
– END OF HISTORY OF LONDON, ENGLAND, AND GREAT BRITAIN –
I am an adventurer at heart. I love to explore and experience new and exciting things, and I love it even more when that adventure leads to something unexpected, unplanned. My love for spontaneous exploration exists in conflict with my anxious planner side, and I am determined for my spontaneous side to win. That is why I pulled out the master tactic of tasking my anxious brain with learning about every single possible aspect of London. It turns out that when I tell my anxious planner brain to go find something else to do, that something else is studying up on and then writing an entirely unasked for history of the country and city I am going to visit. Who could’ve guessed? not me!
^That’s a lie, I and anybody who knows me could’ve told you that was inevitable.
I can’t wait to uncover the many layers of culture and history that comprise London as I explore its nooks and crannies. The city’s crowded, crooked streets physically show the dizzyingly complex history of England and the United Kingdom. Its cultural makeup of nations from around the world – over 50% of Londoners speak English as a second language – recall the British Empire’s domineering grip over global power during its era of imperialism. Its historic buildings and relics tell the stories of feuding kings, world-changing creative minds, and the fight between democratic and monarchal power. Its gleaming glass skyscrapers, elegant neo-gothic churches, and world leading music halls, art galleries, and restaurants mark it as a center of culture for the entire world. London’s storied history creates a vast and diverse fabric of cultures, heritages, and cuisines that I am honored to get to explore.
To honor this fabric and to explore it as genuinely as possible, I am going to be a living monument to the mentality of "just go with it." Go out to a pub for some water at 11 am? sure why not! Arrive 15 minutes late to class because a street performer caught my attention on the way there? I had no other choice! Fall asleep on the tube and get out in a random neighborhood on the outskirts of the city? I clearly needed the nap. Get a cheeky kebab at 3:30 in the morning? Nothing ever hit better. I hope that I have good times and a few bad times as well. I hope that I am forced to grow. Most of all I hope when I come home my zeal for adventure is unaccompanied by its co-partner, Mr. Plan-it-all-out. At least for the month of July, I officially sacrifice myself to the spirit of adventure, wherever it may lead me.
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<p>Hello! My name is Anand Ambrosi, and I am very excited to be studying abroad in London for the summer of 2022. I study civil engineering at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC and I am fascinated by the many ways that cities impact the lives of those that live within them. In my free time I enjoy reading books, hanging out at coffee shops and public parks, and learning about geography (specifically urban geography). I look forward to sharing my experiences throughout my summer in London as I explore as much I can of what this great city has to offer.</p>