London Calling

The capital of the United Kingdom has a multiplicity of historic sites, memorable attractions and entertaining diversions. Forget the exchange rate and cash-guzzling black taxis, if you’ve never been then 2012 is the year to visit Europe’s largest and most diverse city. The highlights of the year will be Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and the XXX Summer Olympic Games. Philip Barker outlines London’s Olympic past, present and future while Paul Trow guides you ’round the middle of town.


They sent out the invitations to London’s big Olympic party with a fanfare of trumpets in Trafalgar Square. London won the Games in 2005 from Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York to become the first city to stage the modern Olympic Games three times. “The athletes will be competing in state-of-the-art facilities in the home of fair play,” said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge on a visit to Britain. He might have added that many of the sports are also coming home. The British can claim a greater Olympic heritage than any other nation, even perhaps Greece.

Never mind 2012, there were “Olimpick” Games in England in 1612. Organized by landowner Robert Dover, they took place on a meadow above the village of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. Wrestling, shin kicking and stick fighting were all included. They were interrupted by the [English] Civil War but restored under the “Merry Monarch” Charles II and continued into the 19th century when drunken behavior and disorder forced their closure. In the 1950s, they were revived once again and continue to this day. A special 400th anniversary celebration takes place on Friday 1st June 2012.

A month later, in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock, they’ll celebrate the Olympian Games. These were begun in 1850 by local doctor William Penny Brookes with the aim “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighborhood of Wenlock.”

The fame of the “Olympian contests” soon reached Greece where similar events were also being organized. Back in England, Brookes was busy again with the National Olympian Games, held in 1866 in the London district of St. Pancras. Visitors heading to the Olympic Park via St. Pancras station can walk past this historic building, the first purpose-built gymnasium in England.

In the years that followed, a young Frenchman called Pierre de Coubertin was inspired by these developments. He visited Much Wenlock and acknowledged his debt to Brookes when he set about reviving the Olympics. The first modern Games were held in Athens in 1896, followed at four-year intervals by Paris and St. Louis, Missouri.

London staged them in 1908, but the British capital was not first choice. Rome had been designated hosts, but Mount Vesuvius erupted, causing devastation in the Bay of Naples. The British had less than two years to prepare, but thanks to the influence of British Olympic Association chairman Lord Desborough, they did so with a flourish. It helped that they did not have to pay a cent for the Olympic Stadium. All costs were covered by the Franco-Britannic Exhibition held in London that summer in return for a generous proportion of the gate receipts. The “Great Stadium” hosted athletics, cycling, wrestling and swimming in an open-air pool in the middle of the stadium. King Edward VII performed the ceremonial opening of the Games in July. By then, many gold medals had already been decided. The Games had begun in April with rackets at Queen’s Club. Ice skating made its first Olympic appearance, alongside polo, motor boating, rugby and even tug of war, won by the City of London Police, but golf, contested in 1900 and 1904, was dropped from the program and will only be readmitted in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Controversy erupted in the 400 meters final. When the British runner Wyndham Halswelle was jostled by John Carpenter of the United States, the judges disqualified Carpenter and ordered a re-run. The only other athletes in the race were Americans and they withdrew in protest. Halswelle ran a solo lap to claim the gold. It was one of the strangest episodes in Olympic history. The British judges were accused of bias and the organizing committee was forced to publish a pamphlet, In Reply to Certain Criticisms, as a war of words erupted in the newspapers.

There was further drama in the marathon, run from Windsor Castle to the Stadium over a distance of 26 miles and 385 yards. An Italian pastry cook called Dorando Pietri, arrived at the stadium in a state of exhaustion. He staggered about on a fateful final lap and was eventually hoisted to his feet and helped across the line by officials. Inevitably, he was disqualified. The next man was an American, John Hayes, who was awarded the gold medal and the huge trophy which accompanied it. Both men did well out of the race. They took part in lucrative races in the U.S. the following year and Irving Berlin’s first hit song, Dorando, told the tale of Pietri.

Controversy or not, the events in London put the Olympics on the map. The Games themselves did not finish until the last day of October. Small wonder, then, that nearly four decades elapsed before London bid again.

The city was chosen for the 1944 Olympics but war meant these never took place. When peace came, London was elected by postal ballot for 1948. Once again, organizers had only two years to prepare. No new facilities were built but the boss of Wembley, Sir Arthur Elvin, put his stadium at the disposal of the Games. The main village for competitors was at a Royal Air Force camp in nearby Uxbridge while others were accommodated at hostels and schools. The U.S. team arrived by ocean liner and brought with them gifts of food, gratefully received in a land where petrol and commodities were still rationed.

The Games opened on a blazing hot day. It fell to George VI to make the King’s Speech. “I proclaim open the Olympic Games of London, celebrating the XIV Olympiad of the modern era.”

Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands won four gold medals in track and field and was the star of the Games, while the U.S. dominated men’s track and field. Harrison Dillard blasted his way to the 100 meters gold and Mel Patton won the 200 meters. Barney Ewell claimed the silver in each race. Bob Mathias, at 19, wrote his name in the history books with the first of two gold medals in the decathlon.

Next door the Empire Pool was the setting for swimming and diving. When the water sports were completed, they simply stretched a canvas over the swimming pool to form a boxing ring. One boxer who lost in the first round had a famous son who would later win Olympic gold. The son’s name? Andre Agassi.

London 1948 ended on a sunlit evening. Once again the city had stepped into the breach and helped secure the future of the Olympics.

The East End of London provides the hub of the 2012 Games which will run from July 25th to August 12th. Visitors who arrive on the Olympic Park through the new Westfield shopping mall will be greeted by a stunning aquatics center. Designed by the acclaimed architect, Zaha Hadid, it features a spectacular, wave-like roof, 160 meters long. Spectators will watch the action from temporary wing stands that will be removed after the Games. It will be a fitting venue for the incomparable Michael Phelps. He won eight gold medals at the Beijing Games to eclipse the magnificent seven won by Mark Spitz in 1972.

Anish Kapoor’s controversial Orbit sculpture looms over the Olympic Stadium, centerpiece of the 2012 Games and surrounded by waterways on three sides. The setting for the opening and closing ceremonies, it will hold 80,000 during the Games. The final of the men’s 100 meters on Sunday 5th August is sure to be the hottest ticket. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt did the sprint double four years ago in Beijing, but his shock disqualification at the 2011 World Championships certainly increases the voltage.

Organizers are still hoping that soccer team West Ham United will move into the stadium after the Games but the track will remain because London is due to stage the 2017 IAAF track and field world championships.

Basketball’s “Dream Team” won’t have far to go as their venue is the nearest to the athletes’ village. It is a 1,000-tonne, steel-frame temporary structure complete with elevators. The final stages of the tournament will take place at the O2 Centre, or North Greenwich Arena in “Olympic-speak.” When the basketball players move out, the handballers move in, followed by wheelchair basketball and rugby during the Paralympic Games that will follow from August 29th to September 9th.

Field hockey fans had better pack their sunglasses as they head to the Olympic Park. For the first time, the pitches will be bright blue and the surroundings are shocking pink. In contrast, grass is the surface of choice for the tennis tournament and that presents one of the biggest challenges. The Championships at Wimbledon finish only three weeks before the Olympics begin so a special, quick-growing grass seed will be installed to perfect the surface in time for the start of Rafael Nadal’s defense of his Olympic title. Roger Federer will be there too. He met his wife to be, Mirka, at the Sydney Games in 2000 so gold in London would give his Olympic adventure a romantic symmetry.

At Lord’s Cricket Ground, the elegant Victorian pavilion will offer a magnificent backdrop for archery, the first individual sport scheduled in London 2012. The “Brady Wave” trademark of flamboyant American archer Brady Ellison should be in evidence here. He won the test event held on the ground last October. For beach volleyball, head to Horse Guards Parade, sandwiched between Whitehall and The Mall and only a few yards from Downing Street, so convenient for Prime Minister David Cameron. They’ll work overtime to bring in over 2,000 tonnes of sand to transform it into an arena fit for volleyball. This is also where the Queen’s traditional birthday parade takes place each year, and it will be one of the focal points during the diamond jubilee celebrations from 2nd-5th June.
Two of the newer Olympic events take place in Hyde Park, a short walk from Kensington Palace where Wills and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) have their London residence. The triathlon has been a big hit since half a million thronged the streets of Sydney to watch its debut and a similar turn-out is expected in London. The long distance swim will take place in the Serpentine, where enthusiasts (masochists?) break the ice for a dip on Christmas Day.

At Greenwich, another Royal park stages the equestrian competitions in the shadow of the Royal Observatory, somewhat to the chagrin of local residents who fear the damage that the horses may cause to their historic pleasureground. Also in the park will be modern pentathlon, a sport that was devised by Coubertin and comprises fencing, swimming, riding, running and shooting. It made its Olympic bow exactly 100 years ago and should provide a fitting finale to the third London Games.

A Tale of One City

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of towns and the worst of towns. It towers over Europe like a colossus and is a melting-pot for every culture and race. Welcome to London, where the streets echo with a thousand years of tradition while reverberating to the trends of tomorrow. Most visitors know about such landmark sights as Westminster Abbey (scene for last year’s high-profile wedding) along with the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Marble Arch and Royal Albert Hall. These institutions are cultural icons as well as symbols of the advance of western civilization, yet they only scratch the surface of this remarkable metropolis.

The West End and the City are twin magnets that draw much of the world’s wealth to London, the former via tourism, shopping and commerce, the latter via banking, insurance and fund management. Between them is a buffer zone, known to local realtors as Mid-Town, which for centuries has absorbed immigrants, Huguenots, non-conformists, refugees, bohemians and students. The City, or Square Mile as it’s known to the financial community, dates back to medieval times with its livery halls and pageantry, and Mid-Town is not far behind in terms of longevity. The West End, though, is much younger, shaped by architecture and parks dating back mainly to the 17th and 18th centuries. Ironically, it is in the City where most of the striking new buildings changing the face of London’s skyline can be found.

All three precincts line the northern bank of the River Thames, along with the office developments to the east in the reclaimed docklands. South of the river, many architectural sights also abut the waterfront—from modern constructions like the London Eye at Waterloo, the soon-to-be completed Shard beside London Bridge station and the O2 Centre, formerly known as the Millennium Dome, to restorations like the Tate Modern gallery and Globe Theatre, to the historic grandeur of the park and observatory at Greenwich.

Throughout this mesmerizing kaleidoscope of human endeavor is a jigsaw of quaint conduits and mews, ancient structures and monuments, teeming pubs and restaurants. No wonder Dr. Samuel Johnson proclaimed that “he who is tired of London is tired of life.” Not surprisingly, unique talents like Dickens and Shakespeare, Marx and Lenin, Caxton and Wren, Hogarth and Turner, flourished here.

Gallery of Delights

Central London is also blessed with many galleries and museums, with pride of place going to the British Museum in Bloomsbury. At the south side of the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge across the Thames at Blackfriars is the Tate Modern, on the site of a former power station. The building itself is as aesthetic as much of the modern and contemporary art displayed on its walls—works by Matisse, Picasso, Rothko, etc. Nearby is the Clink prison museum, halfway between London Bridge and Southwark Bridge. Dating back to the 12th century, this macabre establishment gave its name to the slang term ‘in the clink.’ Within its dark cellar are torture devices and restraints while a skeleton hangs outside in a cage above the entrance. Next door to the Tate Modern is the Globe Theatre, established by William Shakespeare in 1599, then rebuilt in 1613 following a fire only to be torn down in 1644. The modern Globe, built according to the original plan, was the brainchild of American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, who instigated its resurrection a quarter of a century ago.

Wining and Dining

London offers fine dining and refreshments to suit all palates. These include Bleeding Heart just off Hatton Garden in the heart of the jewelry quarter near Farringdon metro station, and Rule’s in Maiden Lane, a stone’s throw from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. El Vino’s, a wine bar in Fleet Street which opened in 1870, is traditionally a haunt for journalists, though it’s now a regular watering hole for legal eagles thanks to an impressive wine list. Meanwhile, Dickens used to visit Simpson’s in The Strand to talk politics, play chess, sip coffee and smoke cigars. In 1848, the eponymous caterer, John Simpson, carved joints of meat at the table. His original trolley, 160 years old, is still in use.

Time Gentlemen Please!

Does London have more churches or pubs? Whatever the answer, there are thousands of both. The Olde Mitre Tavern, built in 1546, is hidden down an alley between 8 and 9 Hatton Garden, and most people who work in the area are unaware it exists. The Citie of Yorke on High Holborn is another ancient English pub behind a mock-Tudor façade. The bar to the rear is popular with lawyers and has a high-pitched roof and large oak wine vats near the entrance.

Where to stay?

The Russell Hotel is one of London’s most impressive red-brick edifices. Built in 1898, it is within walking distance of Covent Garden, Oxford Street and The Strand. For those in pursuit of the ultimate in hospitality, the Fairmont-managed Savoy Hotel, a luxury icon since 1889 that seamlessly blends Edwardian and Art Deco interiors, sparkles with timeless elegance and glamor. Located between The Strand and the Thames, the Savoy is a must-visit—if not to stay a night or two, then at least to have a drink in the American Bar.

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