LOVING LONDON: The Ever-present & Underrated High Street

It is often said London is a series of villages that merge together to form a city. Travelling around the city for work and play, as a tourist and a local, I find each little neighbourhood has its own unique identity. But all these little enclaves are centered around a High Street (or Main Street to US readers) that is the lifeblood of that area.

Many people do not stray further afield than their own ‘hood on the weekends, even though geographically (and compared to the longer distances in the US) they are sometimes only 2 or 3 miles from the next village/town. Most people in Barnes are not going to venture to Chiswick, people in Blackheath aren’t going to go to Clapham. There’s so much to do right at your doorstep, there’s no need to.

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(Chiswick High Road)

You run into people you know on the High Street, you have your local butcher or green grocer (organic foods). The fishmonger is there. And the High Street shops like Jigsaw, SweatyBetty, Monsoon all have presences around the city.  State schools are all local and therefore most of your social groups. Plus there are a lot of local, wonderful eateries and pubs as well as the bigger chains like Byron Burgers, Carluccio’s and Cote offer good options for meeting up with friends.  A friend from the States sent me an article on best London pubs in the winter, wishing she could come over, but my list would be quite different — too many to choose from just in my own area that are cozy, comfy, fun, and most important, close by (topic for a blog post!) to tuck into on a dark, winter evening.

That’s not to say that people won’t venture into other areas but it tends to be for a reason. I’ll go to Covent Garden several times a year to see the ballet at the Royal Opera House and meet up with friends for an early dinner. Or visit museums and see exhibits, catch a play, do a Fun Run, take visitors to tourist sites. Any of these things will bring us into the city. But generally speaking, it’s unlikely we’ll venture from the Chiswick, Kew, Richmond area.

I don’t know if this is similar/dissimilar to the US (?). Do people in Brooklyn go to the Upper West Side on weekends? Do people in the Village head up to the Upper East Side? If you are in Union Square, would you go to Williamsburg? I think Americans are more used to travelling further distances as is the nature of a big country. But let me know!

If you hopped in a car and headed east, it’s less than 4 miles from Chiswick High Street to Kensington High Street, but on the weekends, that could take up 45 minutes, and then you have the nightmare of looking for parking. US expansion and growth included massive parking lots to their cityscapes, but London was already formed and established and there is literally no room.  By Tube, it’s probably 1/2 hour. From Fulham to Shoreditch in East London, it’s only 8 miles, but I don’t know anyone who’d drive it.   London is just too congested to even contemplate that.

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(Camden High Street)

Perhaps that’s why the public transport is so good (compared to anywhere I’ve been in the States, it’s VERY good). The bus lanes are actually that. I made the mistake of driving in one when I first got the car — twice in two days — and I got two tickets for £160 each, thanks to a CCTV camera (they’re all over London). Never again. Plus the Tube and trains run often and regularly. Even still, it takes us longer to get from West London to a concert at the 02 Arena near Greenwich than it would to go from our house to Christchurch Meadow in Oxford.

So the Hood is very appealing — especially if you’ve been running around this 10mill strong, gritty, cavernous, cold city all week.  You can see the Greens (communal village grassy squares at the centre of commerce and churches) dotted around as you fly over the city in approach of Heathrow and they fill a vital purpose to the landscape and zeitgeist of the “Big Smoke”, adding charm and reminding us of the history.

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(Clapham High Street)

London is an expansion of little villages that started to run into each other as the city exploded over time.  In the 17th and 18th century, Kensington and Chelsea were rural farm areas, known for their markets and gardens. Notting Hill Barns in 1828 was 150 acres of dairy farm and and Portobello Farm was cornfields and meadows. Shepherd Market was a little village known for its 15 days of a May Fair (where the area Mayfair got its name) and farmers brought in cattle and sheep to trade from the fields out West (including Shepherd’s Bush). Spitalfields was named after the hospital and priory founded there in 1100’s called St. Mary’s Spittel. And was considered rural until the Great Fire of London in 1666. Anyone under 30 hangs out in the ultra-cool, hip Shoreditch in East London but it got its name from the watery marshland it used to be back in Ye Olden Days (soersditch meant Sewer’s Ditch).

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(Notting Hill then)

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(Notting Hill now)

Like New York City, all these little enclaves grew over time, but unlike New York, they were edging outwards from around 1000 AD. It’s really fascinating to go to any part of town and see old Roman Walls or great architecture and palaces from long before America was even discovered.  It’s awe-inspiring. You don’t have to walk far to run into a beautiful, well-preserved building that dates back to the 15th or 16th century.  History is palpable here.

Nowadays, each High Street defines the character and livelihood of London.  Kensington High Street is all swank and money with its glittery high-end shops, Barnes is wealth and bucolic with the lovely duck pond, Shoreditch is vibrant, cool and hip, Nottinghill is eclectic, wealthy and boho, Camden is gritty and cool and hip city, Chiswick, Clapham and Putney are wonderful combinations of city and suburb near the River, Kew is insanely cute and almost rural with Kew Gardens on the doorstep, Kentish Town, Regent’s Park, Greenwich, Bermondsey, and on and on.

Tourists don’t see enough of these areas, but spend a little time here and you discover what each neighbourhood stands for and brings to the table that is the feast of London.

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(Kensington High Street then)

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(Kensington High Street now)

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(Bucolic Barnes)

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(Colourful Notting Hill)

 

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