04 October, 2011

Street Shenanigans

It is funny to experience London again after three years in DC. DC is organized on a grid of sensible, predictable streets running north-to-south (numbers) and east-to-west (letters), with a few diagonal avenues (states) thrown in there just to keep things exciting. An average person with an average sense of direction can navigate with relative ease. London, however...Ah, London. Its streets are an entirely different beast, a pulsing bundle of off-shooting nerves that tell the story of a city in their wildly diverse names, widths, and directions. When I am on a ramble with no real deadline or intended destination, it's the most delightful place to be because there is something new to discover any which way I turn. "Sweden Gate," "Helsinki Square," "Greenland Quay," and "Russia Dock" all help tell the story of the former shipping and trading activity in the Docklands. "Bread Street" and "Saffron Hill" remind us of things sold or grown long ago on spots that have long since been paved over to make way for a metropolis. "Gracechurch Street" -- well, Pride and Prejudice, need I say more?

So when there is time to bask in my discoveries, I love the rhyme-and-reason-less tangle of London streets. However, when I really need to be on time or am trying to find a specific place, the Washingtonian in me rears her ugly head. Would it hurt to be just a little bit more systematic, Britain? What's wrong with letters and numbers? Why does the same street change names five times? Why does the GPS say that my flat is in the river?! Was there a secret meeting between the city planning authorities and the cab drivers to craft an elaborate scheme ensuring that tourists get so lost, they give up and hire a cab? Or is it just the result of your national obsession with walking, walking, and more walking?

DC loves efficiency, order, and clear definitions between groups. London is happier to sacrifice those things for greater visual interest, the preservation of stories, and a real organic flow from neighborhood to neighborhood. When all's said and done, the latter approach really is fun. Just keep a map handy. :)

My re-acquaintance with the grand muddle of London streets has reminded me of "How to be an Alien," George Mikes's wonderful little book of observations on Britain and the British. Here is his analysis of this whole street situation: http://f2.org/humour/howalien.html#Plan

1 comment:

Anna said...

meandering aimlessly in London was one of my favourites =)