I have always had a love-hate relationship with London. It’s the city I have lived in (almost) all my life. As a child, I found it horribly restrictive; I was never allowed beyond the front door on my own. When I went to stay with friends in the country – I went to a boarding school – I could not believe the freedom of being able to step outside the house unaccompanied; to be allowed to romp in the garden without fear or supervision.
How I longed to escape the dastardly streets of London with its noise, its fumes and its unknown hazards lurking at every corner.
Later, as an actress with aspirations to appear on the West End, I resented my city for not inviting me into that illustrious place (I got close but not close enough). London began to represent Failure.
When I found myself teaching theatre to visiting students from the US, I had to gen up on my city’s history, most particularly its theatre history and more specifically still, Shakespeare.
I learned about the old rivalry between the original City of London and the West End; how the City itself, otherwise known as the Square Mile, was – and still is to some extent – administered separately from the rest of London, and in Shakespeare’s time by the City Fathers, who as puritans banned all form of fun and games, including theatre, from their precincts.
Which is why the first ever purpose-built theatres were constructed in remote suburbs such as Shoreditch and Southwark.
Even in January, the worst month of the year, my students showed enthusiasm. They told me things about my native town I did not know. (Not all of which, such as the best night clubs and Jack the Ripper tours, was strictly relevant to their ageing teacher.)
They did all the usual tourist things, they even found joy and delight in old favourites like Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. I took them on a Shakespeare tour of the back streets of the City and Bankside, where Shakespeare hung out.
I learned and passed on the fascinating history of St Paul’s Cathedral, London’s most iconic building, which survived the Blitz in WW2 only because our PM Winston Churchill insisted it be saved for the sake of morale. So firefighters were installed throughout the building during the bombing in order to smother the fires before they took hold. (It is now one of very few pre-war buildings in the City still standing.)
About the ancient Roman temple of Mithraeus, uncovered during building works in the City and now restored and open to the public. Of astonishing recent discoveries of the foundations of original playhouses dating back to Shakespeare’s time. Of the excavation only last year during building works of a huge Roman mosaic floor near London Bridge. Of the plethora of ancient artefacts that wash up on the foreshore of the Thames every day.
There is so much more. There are not enough hours in the day to visit all the new and old wonders of this amazing city. A trip down the Thames at night-time to see the wonderful light displays on the bridges – an American creation by the way, and apparently the longest art installation in the world.
Every spare moment I have I will join a group to investigate the hidden museums that very few people know about, or to fossick on the riverbank at low tide for ancient treasure. I never used to have hobbies, but I sure do now: discovering the place where I live.
And expensive, and stressful, and partly polluted. But thanks mostly to visitors to the city of my birth I have grown, albeit grudgingly at times, to love it.
Do you live in a big or small city? Have you taken the time to be a tourist in your own city? What new have you learned about it?