Unusually, this trip came a full year since the last jaunt to London. I am normally able to drop in a short visit thanks to work. But a whole twelve months away felt like a long time, especially as London seems to be changing at the speed of light.
Once upon a time the city could be depended upon for certain things, such as dilapidated public transport, dirty streets, mediocre food, and a sense that Londoners were enduring rather than enjoying the city.
But how things have changed. It was a shock to arrive into the brand new Heathrow Terminal 2, which not only functions well, but proved to be a pleasure to travel through with its light airy interior and inventive artistic installation – resembling an engorged metal snake. The Tube also – while not exactly a joy to experience in summer – (when will the invention of air conditioning reach the Underground?) – was clean, well lit, and efficient.
At every turn there seemed to be something new. King’s Cross where I once lived has become a haven for day trippers as opposed to tripping junkies. Where runaways, prostitutes and drunks used to fill the space in front of the station, crowds now bustle around a piazza filled with organic food stalls.
The south of the River Thames – a place that some Londoners preferred to forget existed – has become a magnet for cultural venues and business. Wandering from London Bridge Station to the Design Museum near Tower Bridge shows off both renovated Victorian warehouses and gleaming new office buildings.
Londoners themselves have been transformed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of newcomers. In the space of a couple of hours I encountered a museum guide from France, a butcher from Slovakia, a barista from Poland, and a mini-cab driver from Somalia – all had arrived in the city within the past few years, and all now called the city home.
A walk down any random street was akin to a stroll through corridors of the United Nations. London is a meeting place for work and play for millions of people from every corner of the globe. But of course as with every success story there is a downside. The city’s population is estimated at 8.6 million; the highest number in its history. That means public services are stretched to bursting point. Travelling on a packed Tube train at rush hour requires a contortionist’s dexterity combined with a Bedouin’s tolerance for heat.
House prices have also reached stratospheric levels leaving many people literally stuck out in the cold. The city needs to build swathes of properties to house those not earning multi-digit salaries. But the current government seems more inclined to accommodate the needs of well-heeled foreign visitors seeking a bolt-hole, rather than finding space for those truly in need.
Nevertheless, the city is undergoing a renaissance based on its business friendly, creative and tolerant mindset. It is a beautiful and irresistible mish mash of architectural styles, languages, and cultures.
Of course even as some things change, so others remain stubbornly the same. The area where we were staying is thoroughly gentrified with gourmet butchers, organic cafes, and yoga studios. But the pub at the end of the high street, stands as a monument to that proud British tradition of noisy chat, irreverence and utter inebriation. And come Saturday night, the raucous drunks staggering between crushed beer cans and packets of chips served as a reminder that while London may be a world city, it still retains some old habits and traditions that make it forever……London.