The most vibrant places in London - Citimarks
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Babylondon

People and buses crossing the Oxford Circus, London.
School groups visiting the Covent Garden Piazza.

Citinotes

This is the largest agglomeration of existences - the most complete synthesis of the world. The human race is better represented there than anywhere else and if you get to know London you have learned a lot.
Henry James, 1893 in Henry James, Carnets, Denoël, 1954.
chapter 1

Bigger, faster, stronger

Everything is here on a larger module; private clubs are like palaces, hotels are real monuments; the river is like an arm of the sea; cabs go twice as fast; sailors and omnibus drivers swallow a whole sentence in a word: they save on words and gestures, they make the most of action and time; man produces and spends twice as much as in France.

Hippolyte Taine,
Notes sur l’Angleterre, Hachette, 1890.

I saw the most astonishing thing that the world can show: […] this forest of brick houses, crossed by a fierce river of living human faces, with all colors of their passions, with all the maddening haste for love, hunger and hate… I’m talking about London.

Heinrich Heine,
Reisebilder Tableaux de voyage, Renduel, 1834.

A city like London, where you can walk for hours without even reaching the beginning of the end […] is something truly extraordinary. […] – All of this is so grand, so immense, that one can become stunned and amazed of the greatness of England before even setting foot on its soil.

Friedrich Engels,
The condition of the working class in England, Otto Wigand, 1887.
People watching a street performance at the Covent Garden Piazza in London.
People watching a street performance at the Covent Garden Market in London.
A juggler performing at the Covent Garden Piazza in London.
chapter 2

An extraordinary listening post

(London) is an extraordinary listening post. It is the only place in the world where one can meet, on the same day, a banker who disembarks from New York, a journalist who arrives from the USSR, a hunter of wild animals returning from Congo, a prospector who descends from the plane Cap-au-Caire; where one has at his disposal the most rapid cables, the best newspaper correspondents, the most alert foreign diplomats, and in general, the most reliable documentation. […]

(The city) extends to infinity, without getting lost in the abstract like Moscow, or without the intention to surprise like Berlin. […] (London’s) geography is made for its own use: we therefore learn that Montreal is ten seconds away from Piccadilly and Singapore within reach from Strand; whereas Toulouse is six months away and Warsaw an entire year. The British universe is a hermetic world sufficient in itself […].

Built on the marsh, London […] is not based on civilizations superposed like mattresses; here, everything is mixed up. Are we in the 13th, the 18th, the 20th century? No one knows that more than they know if it is noon or eight in the morning, by merely looking at the sky.

Paul Morand,
Londres, Plon, 1962

Man preparing food in the Old Spitalfields food market.
People waiting by the red light, London.
Wheelcake island counter at the Old Spitalfields Market, London.
Gentleman with suit riding a bicyle on London streets.
chapter 3

Those merchants who made London

From the 12th to the 19th century, […] the aristocracy was born from the bourgeoisie […] and this bourgeoisie was powerful: the first thing London merchants purchased was their freedom from the royal justice and the sheriffs; […]

But these merchants, so skilful and so jealous, were not endowed with imagination; they still had so little sense of the sea and trade that they had to appeal to foreigners for foreign trade; in times past, sometimes it was the Romans, other times it was the Danes (who, apparently, pushed their naval trips to the New World and the Far East), then the Normans, the Genoese; then, it was Flanders and Guyenne that London would address to.

(The city) had become as cosmopolitan as was the heritage of the Plantagenets; the Hanseatic League owned the monopoly of the Baltic trade; the Jews and the people of Lombardy possessed the banking monopoly. The Flemish settled in with their large corporate families, called guilds; the latter grouped together – as in Bruges, as in 12th-century Paris, and still today in the City or in the oriental souks- trades and professions by street. Harley Street still remains the street of the doctors; Victoria Street, that of the engineers.

These guilds, real mutual aid societies -each possessing its own life, its monopoly, its patron saint, its public holidays- have been grouped together in a common room of the Town Hall, the Guildhall; it is they who created London.

From the 14th century onwards, they own considerable possessions and with each financial crisis of the royalty (kings are always in need of money), every time they were called in, they were enriched with new privileges. […] The role of the guilds was crucial; still today, they provide the look of the city of London. […] They generated those municipal assemblies of free citizens, from which the English Parliament arose, as the father of all parliaments on earth.

Paul Morand,
Londres, Plon, 1962

 

Badge of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, Blackfriars Railway Bridge, London.

Badge of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, a railway company in south-eastern England created in 1859- from the first Blackfriars Railway Bridge.

Store banners hanging along the Old Spitalfields market, London.

A modern version of the old business banners hanging along the facades of the stores in Old Spitalfields market.

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chapter 4

Swallowed by the city

This is simply to say that London is before anything else the world’s market, and that markets are as sensitive as opera singers. And this no doubt explains why London is the least splendid, the least ostentatious of the great capitals. Property is what it cares for. It has no definable style, though, as Henry James said, it has a succession of attempts at style. […]

The plain fact is the mercantile class that has owned London is now making gross fortunes by speculating in the rebuilding of it and is too greedy to be splendid. […] The merchants have always beaten down the planners; the mercantile mind cannot tolerate either vista or perspective.

It is indispensable for traders to dwell, as Walter Bagehot said, in a twilight where no shapes, sizes and distances are defined. We have no rhetorical architecture at all, and it is notorious that when Sir Christopher Wren planned a new London after the Great Fire of 1666, he was defeated. The Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are among the few great edifices to stand in sufficient space, compose a view, and dominate a distance. St Paul’s, on its hill, is still shut in by the money-makers. Our only boulevards are the Mall and the Embankment of the river from Blackfriars to Chelsea; and though we have our monuments, palaces, mansions, formidable institutes, our rich art galleries and even a triumphal arch or two, these have been swallowed by the city. They are domesticated; they are never ornately imposed.

V.S. Pritchett,
London Perceived, Hogarth Press, 1986
The Royal Observatory in London.

The Royal Observatory is one of the most important historical scientific sites in the world. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, a highly acclaimed English architect of the Baroque era, and designer of St. Paul’s cathedral, in the aftermath of London’s Great Fire.

Ibex House office building in London.

Ibex House is an impressive Art Deco office building of 1937, set on the East side of the City of London. A Fuller, Hall and Foulsham’s design in the Streamline Moderne style, the edifice’s curved corners soften the geometry of the facade’s faience bands.

London's skyline from the Waterloo bridge.

Post-modern skyscrapers with their edgy style are set to hug the soft curves of St Paul’s Baroque cathedral, along with countless brutalist, renaissance and gothic facades, in one of the most plethoric skylines of the western world.

chapter 5

Oxford street tide

In Oxford Street there are too many bargains, too many sales, too many goods marked down to one and eleven three that only last week cost two and six. The buying and selling is too blatant and raucous. […]

Everything glitters and twinkles. The first spring day brings out barrows frilled with tulips, violets, daffodils in brilliant layers. The frail vessels eddy vaguely across the stream of the traffic. At one corner seedy magicians are making slips of colored paper expand in magic tumblers into bristling forests of splendidly tinted flora – a subaqueous flower garden. At another, tortoises repose on litters of grass. […]

News changes quicker than in any other part of London. The press of people passing seems to lick the ink off the placards and to consume more of them and to demand fresh supplies of later editions faster than elsewhere. The mind becomes a glutinous slab that takes impressions and Oxford Street rolls off upon it a perpetual ribbon of changing sights, sounds and movement.

Parcels slap and hit; motor omnibuses the kerb; the blare of a whole brass band in full graze tongue dwindles to a thin reed of sound. Buses, vans, cars, barrows stream past like the fragments of a picture puzzle; a white arm rises; the puzzle runs thick, coagulates, stops; the white arm sinks, and away it streams again, streaked, twisted, higgledy-piggledy, in perpetual race and disorder. The puzzle never fits itself together, however long we look.

Virginia Woolf,
The London Scene, Hogarth Press, 1975

People and lady crossing the Oxford Circus, London.
Red London double-decker buses.
People crossing the Oxford Circus, London.

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