- darkometer rating: 2 -
The capital city of Great Britain
and the country's hub in many ways. It is one of the
premier city holiday destinations in the world in general, but it also has a couple of sites that are of special interest to the dark tourist (including two that are top-notch in their respective categories).
[UPDATE: if you're looking for a chapter for Grenfell Tower here, then you've come to the wrong place. I do not consider that recent disaster site a legit tourist attraction!]
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: London is one of Europe's mega-cities, a metropolis of enormous proportions, the seat of political and financial power (so a real powerhouse in every sense of the word). It also has a very multicultural population and is in general culturally a melting pot of the highest order. This is where it all happens, all the theatre, music, etc. – and it's heavenly for culinary multiculturalism too.
London seems to split people's opinions, though. It appears to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I'm in the love-it faction – and I have loved London since my very first trip to Britain (when I was still a teenager – on a school trip). I do understand the misgivings some people (including my wife) have about London as regards the stressful, hectic nature of this busy place, the confusing navigation, the distances, the grime. Also there is a certain arrogance that non-Londoners often perceive in Londoners. But that's nothing that should deter (or even affect) the international traveller.
I've been to London as a tourist (as well as on business) more times than to any other place I could name. I lost count somewhere after about a dozen times. So I know it quite well – although in more recent times I haven't been back as frequently as in the past. Every time I do go back I'm overwhelmed by the changes, so I never get bored of the city (even though I do not view all changes favourably!) – the buzz remains.
As regards the history of London, the usual "more background info" sections of this site couldn't do the city justice … so, er, sorry, but I won't even try in the case of London. It's simply too much and way beyond the scope of this website. I'm afraid I have to refer you to other sources – of which there are more than plenty, literally centuries' worth of reading material … Here I will mostly just stick to the couple of sites that are of interest to the specialized dark tourist.
What there is to see:
London may be a huge city and one of the most touristy capitals in the world, but for the decidedly dark tourist there isn't actually that much to see (compared especially with Berlin
's dozens and dozens of dark sites, even though the city is only half the size of London).
Of the few sites that there are to see, however, one stands out as possibly the finest example of an old Victorian cemetery, abandoned and most enchantingly overgrown. A gothic sepulchral El Dorado, as it were: Highgate cemetery
. Restricted in access but eminently worth a (pre-planned) visit.
The Imperial War Museum
(IWM) in Lambeth is also a favourite – albeit on a very different theme, which is sufficiently explicit in the name. Apart from the more glamorized perspective on war, the museum also covers the distinctly dark aspects. It's an institution. Not to be missed. Also recommended is one of the IWM's branches, in Whitehall, namely the Churchill War Rooms
All three of these places are therefore given their separate entries here:
Also under the umbrella of the IWM is the HMS Belfast
, a WWII
cruiser moored opposite the Tower of London and open to the public. So the dark tourist with a leaning towards war tourism
can get much more out of London.
Unlike Highgate cemetery, all of those WWII-related sights are quite family-oriented, at times over-commodified affairs. At these other war-related sites, the glamorization of Britain's role in WWII
can get a bit much too – at HMS Belfast I once witnessed a young family putting a toddler in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun and inserting a 50p coin into a slot which activated taped sounds of gunfire for "entertainment"… kind of the amusement park variety of war education …
Finally, a much studied case of alleged dark tourism has to be mentioned here: the London Dungeon
at Tooley Street (underneath London Street Station). Note that I do not even regard that sort of attraction as dark tourism prope
r (mainly for its lack of authenticity, but also because it harks back to the too distant past to be part of the modernity-oriented concept of dark tourism
– more explanation as to why I exclude the Dungeons chain on these pages can be found here
). I have to acknowledge, however, that it is a much discussed site in academic dark tourism studies – so I cannot simply leave it unmentioned here. I've also visited the place myself – twice, in fact. Once in its early days in the 1980s, and again in the late 1990s, by which time it had developed much more into the "theatrically" spruced up affair that the various branches of this chain tend to be these days. There's a lot of pseudo-gory Middle Ages stuff (torture, rats, the plague, you name it) and some of it does achieve a certain spine-chilling Hammer Horror kind of effect. But it is of course all as fake as any fairground-type 'chamber of horrors' (or theatre). There's also a large shop, which underscores the commercialism of the place (though admittedly I was able to find a fantastic piece of gothic jewellery for my wife there once!).
Another huge attraction that is certainly on the dark side – and is also frequently discussed in dark tourism studies – is the (in)famous Jack-the-Ripper guided walks
. These take tourists past the sites where these then high-profile mysterious murders took place, whose perpetrator was never identified for certain so that the case left plenty of scope for speculation and conspiracy theorizing. But: for the tourist today there's nothing at all to see at these places. Just bare street corners, the odd concreted-over yard, grimy Spitalfields side streets. It may have a certain dereliction appeal, but to make the actual connection with the Jack the Ripper case(s) you have to rely solely on your imagination (helped along by the guides and their story-telling competence, of course). Numerous agencies offer such guided walks.
But speaking of dereliction: I'm in general strangely attracted to dereliction (cf. why this interest
) and London fed a lot of this interest in my early days of travelling. London was my first frequently revisited independent travel destination and back then, in the early 1980s, I also discovered the London Docklands
and became almost obsessed with the "industrial archaeology" associated with this part of London. I recall still seeing some of the Docklands before they were totally transformed ("redeveloped") into the modern office and (often very posh) residential districts they are now. Back then I was fascinated by the grim – and yes: somewhat dark – appeal that these abandoned areas of the ship-less docks and ware-less warehouses exuded. Much of this is now gone for good (see lost places
). Traces of a similar nature can only be discovered in some hidden corners, not so much by the river and the docks themselves but rather slightly off the actual Docklands, e.g. along the canals. (I remember that the area of Mill Meads, north of where the Limehouse Cut canal and the Bow Creek part of the River Lea meet, was a pretty fascinating "exotic" hidden corner of London – it felt very adventurous to be poking around those totally non-touristy pockets. The nearby Abbey Mills pumping station, moreover, is an outstanding hidden gem of Victorian industrial architecture; aptly it has been described as a "cathedral of sewage" …)
On a more contemporary dark note, there is now a memorial to the victims of the "7/7" terrorist bombings of 2005. It consists of steel pillars, one for each of the dead. It's located in Hyde Park.
The long-standing and famous Cenotaph on Whitehall (focus of the Remembrance Day processions) which honours Britain's war dead ("the glorious dead" it says on the side!), is a pretty unremarkable affair in comparison.
London is also justly well known for its pubs – and a couple also have a dark association, e.g. the Town of Ramsgate in Wapping: go to the back by the Thames stairs and spot the gallows … The infinitely more touristy Prospect of Whitby a bit further up the road also sports a fake gallows outside by the river …
Finally, I have to mention my favourite building in London: Battersea power station
(I can almost feel some Londoners raising their eyebrows when reading this – but I really mean it!) It's a fantastically gigantic brick pile standing on the Thames in the southern district of the same name. In fact, it's said to be the largest brick structure in Europe. It's long been disused (it closed in 1983), and there have been various attempts at converting the place into something or other. In the process it's been gutted and the main roof as well as part of one side wall are missing. (The development plans to turn it into some kind of theme park thankfully fell through, though). The main architectural features still stand – its four huge cream-coloured chimney stacks rising from the squat dark-red brick hulk of the main building (some say it looks like a gigantic upside-down billiards table). The edifice has also prominently featured as a film set – and there's another dark connection: it featured in the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" (with Richard Burton starring stunningly in his last role as O'Brien!). It was also on a Pink Floyd album cover … so I'm not the only one admiring this distinctive architectural stunner … In fact, other admirers and local campaigners have successfully stopped other (indeed inadequate) development plans. There's now one in the pipeline that appears to have wider approval. Work may begin in 2011 … but I'm not holding my breath. Too often things have changed. But watch this space.
in the south of Great Britain
, on the River Thames, straddling the length of a good proportion of the river – from its wide estuary in the east to the little country trickle it is on the western outskirts.
Google maps locator: [51.51,-0.11
Access and costs: easy to get to, but not cheap to be in.
London is easy to reach, by plane to one of its five airports (Heathrow being the main one), served by scores of airlines including no-frills budget ones. Rail connections include the Eurostar international train that connects London to the continent via the Channel Tunnel. Within the country, cheap bus connections make the city accessible from the rest of Great Britain.
The one thing you don't want to chose as a means of travelling to or within London is by car! Car traffic is highly restricted these days (there's a congestion charge and it's almost impossible to park anywhere). If you have to travel by car, then choose some motel-like accommodation in the outskirts and make your way into the centre by public transport.
Within London, the London Underground, or "Tube", makes most parts of this sprawling city accessible. The system is ageing but still pretty efficient. In the city centre and during normal daytime hours, trains tend to be impressively frequent too. It is, however, not the cheapest metro system … nor is the rest of London's public transport, i.e. mainly buses. The characteristic red double-decker buses, however, are indeed a good way of getting around while enjoying the free bonus of sightseeing from the upper deck.
Otherwise, get good walking shoes on and use your legs – you will probably have to anyway. I've often spent hours on end, sometimes whole days, just walking, walking, walking. Particularly cool are the riverside walks – and more and more stretches of riverbanks have been made accessible as riverside walks over the years (when there was still an active Port of London within the city limits, access to the river was much more restricted!)
Accommodation options in London are extremely varied, from budget hostels (some quite agreeable, others infamously grotty – so do shop around in advance with care) to top-notch super-luxury hotels at crippling rates … and anything in between.
Overall, London isn't a cheap place to be in – and daily living costs can really add to the traveller's budget significantly. On the other hand, the options for eating out in London are staggeringly diverse. The several thousands of restaurants include virtually every cuisine of the planet. For lovers of exotic food and culinary adventures
(like myself) London is close to paradise (well, maybe New York
even tops it).
Time required: London is the typical long weekend city break destination. But if you really want to get to grips with this huge and complex metropolis, you should spend a lot longer in it than that (or do what I've always done and come back on frequent return visits). You could spend months here and still be overwhelmed by all those things you still haven't got round to seeing.
For just those few dark places outlined above, a long weekend would indeed do, though – but it would be a shame not to explore the many other facets of this fantastic city too … well, it's your call …
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see Great Britain
– London may appear to be a good base from which to go exploring the country further, but in fact you're much better advised not to do so. Rather get a hire car or a bus or whatever, leave London behind and set up base elsewhere. In fact, driving is the best option once you're outside London (within London it would be crazy to even think about using a car), especially as all the other dark sites in the country are so spread out …
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
London itself has more to offer than I could even dream of halfway capturing a mere indication of … so I simply won't try to do so. Instead a few words of advice and some selected tips:
Not all of the standard mainstream sites are really worth it. In particular, it has always baffled my why Piccadilly Circus should be on anybody's itinerary at all. (Maybe many decades ago when large-scale neon adverts were something new and spectacular in Europe, but now … come on!) Similarly over-hyped is Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Rather move on to the western part of the park, which is called Kensington Gardens – it's the much nicer half in my opinion …
OK, as a first timer you may want to include a quick peek at Buckingham Palace, but as for the tease-the-busby-hat-guard experience you're much better off going to St. James's Palace just north of The Mall (the guards are not supposed to flinch or bat an eyelid no matter what … but I've witnessed some of them unsuccessfully struggling to suppress a giggle on occasions).
Whitehall, the seat of government power is also rather underwhelming as a tourist site – and Downing Street (the humble residential street where the Prime Minister's house is at No. 10) is not accessible for tourists. The neo-Gothic pile of the Houses of Parliament, however, admittedly doesn't fail to impress. Similarly the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
Of the great cathedrals in London I would recommend Westminster Cathedral as a less well-known gem of architecture (I especially like the gloomy interior) rather than the more famous but overly touristy Westminster Abbey, or St. Paul's in the City.
As regards modern architecture, London also has plenty to offer. Its new landmark "Gherkin" building is indeed a stunningly extravagant example – much more so than the nearby Lloyd's building (which, like the Centre Pompidou in Paris
, is rather of the inside-out, guts-exposed type of modern).
And speaking of modern – the Tate Modern, housed in the former Bankside power station building on the southern side of the Thames opposite the City is probably my favourite gallery of modern art in the world. And the interior of the building, more precisely: the enormous main hall, is by itself the most stunning exhibit!
Coming back to London's famous pubs … there are too many cool pubs to mention here, so again just a hint slightly off the mainstream. My favourite London pubs tend to be those on the riverbanks outside the city centre – such as the Cutty Sark Tavern in Greenwich (I made it a frequent stop on my former Docklands explorations) or the Angel and Mayflower pubs in Rotherhithe. They all afford great views of the river, which is a pretty mighty wide expanse of water out here. At the other end of town, out in the west where the Thames is a mere little country river, there are also nice and atmospheric riverside pubs, especially at the top of the bend between Hammersmith and Chiswick.
For outside London see under Great Britain
- London - old and modern
- London 01 - Tower Bridge and Tower
- London 02 - skyline with St Pauls seen from Tate Modern
- London 03 - inside Tate Modern
- London 04 - Thames and the City
- London 05 - top of the Gherkin
- London 06 - view from the top
- London 07 - the Belfast seen from the Gherkin
- London 08 - Millennium Dome
- London 09 - Dome and redevelopment
- London 10 - the Thames redeveloped
- London 11 - the new Docklands
- London 12 - old harbour cranes now redundant
- London 13 - the Docks of London, now mostly gone
- London 14 - war-time PLA shelter
- London 15 - Canary Wharf tower letting off steam
- London 16 - Museum in Docklands
- London 17 - Camden Locks
- London 18 - pub with hanged teddy bear
- London 19 - suburbia
- London 20 - crammed and stranded on Strand
- London 21 - Concorde permanently stranded at Heathrow airport
- London 22 - London in hazy smog as if to recreate the cliche
- London 23 - the Eye and flags
- London 24 - Trafalgar Square
- London 25 - Charing Cross
- London 26 - Big Ben
- London 27 - Houses of Parliament with Victoria Tower
- London 28 - Westminster Abbey
- London 29 - in Whitehall
- London 30 - Horse Guard
- London 31 - Horse Guard parade
- London 32 - park
- London 33 - memorial for the victims of the 2002 Bali bombings
- London 34 - British Museum
- London 35 - Rosetta Stone
- London 36 - death in the British Museum
- London 37 - Battersea Power Station undergoing detrimental refurbishment
- London 38 - the Shard
- London 39 - The Thames and new London skyline