MG Mason

A Sense of Place: London, The Eternal City


It’s been almost two years since I wrote about creating a sense of place in your urban landscape when writing, but I want to revisit it following a most recent trip to London where I climbed the O2 arena and was able to take in a good portion of the city while on top of the dome.

Much has been written about the cultures and ethnic elements of London, and that is part of its attraction for many, but I want to talk specifically about the melting pot of the architectural fabric. On the journey back, I really started pondering about all the things I had seen that day and just what a stylistic, architectural and historic mish-mash London truly is.

Source: wikimedia

My MA in Landscape Archaeology really made me appreciate just how profound and intricate an urban landscape can be. We often take them for granted, paying little mind to the developments that have made them what they are. Very often, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind once a redeveloped area has obliterated most traces of what went before. Yet landscape historians and archaeologists, and GIS specialists in urban planning and cartographers with knowledge and understanding of urban evolution, will always be able to piece it together. Even though I don’t do any of those things as a career, I have been trained to think that way and old habits die hard or, what is seen cannot be unseen – you get into a certain mindset. So when I was Up at the O2 at the weekend and saw the panorama of the immediate area of London, my brain started working overtime on this.

It’s a nice view from up there, but it’s not the best view of the capital – many of its most famous monuments are miles away. The City of Westminster, including The Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral and so on are around 7-8 miles to the west. The Tower of London is about 5-6 miles west. Olympic Park is about 4-5 miles immediately to the north (the strange helter skelter tower is visible from the roof of the O2). Wembley Stadium, Kew Gardens, Whitehall, Marble Arch, Nelson’s Column, all of these places are too far away to see.

Canary Wharf from the top of the O2 Arena copyright: MG Mason

It is opposite The Isle of Dogs which famously has the tall buildings of Canary Wharf, including The Gherkin (not visible in the image above as it is behind the skyline). To the east is the Thames Flood Barrier and just north of that is the Excel Arena. Not the most exciting monuments as I said, but still giving you enough of the lay of the land to see how the city has grown up organically in places. It’s interesting to see the little “islands” of development that make up the extended urban area of London, the way they seem all thrown together into this jury-rigged city is fascinating in making you realise that our cities rarely move in unison and all at once.

When you look at the buildings themselves, you can see just how much of a mishmash the city is. Brand new towering buildings of Canary Wharf dwarf much older buildings around it. Even on the O2 side, new tower blocks are going up in the post-recession period. Around the area, most of the buildings are low level so this business district dominates the land even more than it would had it been built farther to the west.

Fun fact: London’s tall buildings are less numerous and much shorter than equivalents in New York and other American cities, not because British business doesn’t want to go to that expense or because we have collective vertigo, but because beneath London is an enormous bed of clay and silt which makes it impossible to put too much weight on top. The city could quite literally sink! It’s also made digging tunnels for the Underground much easier, hence why the city is able to build one of the most extensive metro networks in the world.

Statue of Shakespeare. Source: wikimedia

Moving back through London, my brother and I first headed for Leicester Square, part of the main hub of the entertainment district and close to the beating heart of the city metropolitan area. Here, industrial development and high rise give way to grandiose Victorian buildings and modern development as cinemas and theatres mix with shopping venues. This is an incredibly busy part of the city with some great architecture and has the definite big city feel.

Leicester Square is near to the City of London and the area to the north and northwest (incorporating Covent Garden and Hyde Park nearby) that is the cultural capital of the capital. This is where the government buildings are, St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and The British Museum, and a little farther back towards the east is The Tower of London and other iconic monuments.

It’s when you visit these areas that you get the best feel for the place – the sense of grandeur, pride, history and arts & culture.To most people, this is London and it feels very, very different from where I started my journey on top of the O2 at (what I feel) is a soulless Canary Wharf – that’s not to say I don’t appreciate the interesting architecture or the organic growth of this part of the city, I just don’t feel very inspired here and I doubt few will – there’s just no comparison between The City and the new developments between Canary Wharf and Olympic Park.

No matter where you go, whether it’s the developing east with its business district or the culture central area or western gateway, it’s not difficult to feel a certain magic. There is a buzz to the capital that you cannot quite define. I couldn’t live it, the city is too big, too busy, too loud and too rushed, but I do feel the need to visit once in a while to grab my own little bit of adrenaline. Whenever I do visit, it’s not difficult to see how Neil Gaiman & Lenny Henry were inspired to create Neverwhere, and Ben Aaronovitch was inspired to write his Rivers of London series.

Every exit from the underground station, every arrival at Paddington (or Waterloo as I used to arrive when I lived in the southeast) or Victoria Coach Station and that adrenaline is already with you. Love it or hate it, there’s no place like it on Earth.