Travel: How history comes alive in London

Every nook and corner in the capital city has a story to tell

By Rakhee Roy Talukdar

Published: Thu 2 Feb 2023, 9:38 PM

“London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play and a story and a poem without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets… To walk alone in London is the greatest rest,” wrote author Virginia Woolf about her muse : the city of London.

Truly I found most people walking alone somewhere in this buzzing city. Whether it is relaxing is contentious as visitors are often awed in this city replete with rich history, pageantry, art and endless attractions.

A paradise for typical sightseeing tourists, the city can also offer soul-searching moments for loners in many of its vast verdant spaces. Green Park, with its towering trees, rolling grasslands in the heart of London, just a few minutes’ walk from the imposing Buckingham Palace, offers a relaxing spot for Londoners and tourists alike.

The green relaxing expanses, however, measure up to the workaholics as well. As I sat trying to be one with nature, a fashionable, young lady, sitting next to me on the bench, completed her interview over phone. Whether she got the job remains unknown, but she sure did it in the most beautiful surroundings!

Things of beauty indeed dot London. More than 100 museums and 800 art galleries showcase their exhibits, many rare ones too. And people often get tired traversing the museums’ huge premises. Even then most do not want to miss a peek at the exclusive treasures like the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. Rosetta’s inscriptions enabled scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Interestingly the stone was discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799 near the town of el-Rashid. When Napoleon was defeated, it became the property of the British.

Another priceless exhibit is Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting at the National Museum, which was splattered with tomato soup by environmentalists as recently as October 2022. For Van Gogh, the Sunflowers symbolised ‘gratitude’. For me as I gazed at it intently, the three different yellow shades made me want to infuse my life with more colours and happiness.

The happiness, however, disappeared for a while as I walked out to the Trafalgar Square just in front of the National Museum. The biting cold was giving me the goosebumps but when I saw the old and young, spiritedly jumping up to climb the enormous lion statues to get that perfect pose in front of the imposing Nelson’s Column, my shivering gave away to good cheer. The Column built in memory of Admiral Lord Nelson killed in action in the Battle of Trafalgar, stands in the Trafalgar Square, one of the most lively squares in London, humming with tourists all year.

Art is, however, not confined to the museums alone. You can discover the colourful street art in East London’s Shoreditch or Brick Lane. Abstract and expressive at the same time, I felt these graffitis spoke an entirely different language, triggering cries for change.

But some things never change. Like some of the unique English traditions. And it would be sacrilege to give them a miss.

Like the afternoon tea ritual, a national obsession and a ceremonious way to indulge in typical British culture. For a classic afternoon tea, there are umpteen options, one of the best being at the Diamond Jubilee Tea salon at Fortnum & Mason with 82 varieties of tea, freshly baked cakes, unsurpassable scones and, ‘tearistas’ on hand to expertly guide you through the experience.

Another must-do is a theatre visit — performances range from the glamorous West End musicals to experimental fringe plays. The West End district has some of the longest running musicals and plays like The Mousetraps which is playing at St. Martin’s Theatre since 1974. And the best way to buy tickets is to go online or wait for the last minute cancellations.

London is also one of the world’s top cities for shopaholics with legendary luxury stores like Harrods and Selfridges.

But do not leave without a visit to a London pub. Besides their 2,000 year-old history and legacy, pubs are places where Brits, generally considered reserved, literally unwind and they talk and talk — even to strangers. And for me that day at a pub in Covent Garden, seemed the most familiar as I could chat to my heart’s content. And believe me the ‘lonely in London’, syndrome which I felt initially just seemed to melt away. London finally seemed to have grown on me.


Leaving behind the razzmatazz of London, an hour train ride from Paddington station takes you to the university city of Oxford. Erudite, studious were words forming in my mind as I watched students basking in the sun on the roadsides, reading books in nooks of the huge windows of the famed Radcliffe Camera — the domed Baroque rotunda library, funded by Yorkshire physician Dr John Radcliffe.

Completed in 1748 in the English Palladian style, the Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodelian library and is regarded as a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture. One of the oldest libraries of Europe, it is one of the six copyright deposit libraries in the country — and is entitled to receive a copy of every book published in Britain. Only Oxford students and academicians are allowed into this hallowed library, leaving many wannabes disappointed.

As I crossed the Hythe bridge over the Cherwell river, the City of Dreaming Spires came into its own. Its stunning architecture, ancient cloisters, churches, historic university halls and the imposing Sheldonian Theatre, built in 1669 as a location for university degree ceremonies, overwhelmed me with intricate work. The theatre’s painted ceiling is exquisite, showing the triumph of religion, art and science over envy, hatred and malice.

The Bridge of Sighs, just opposite to entrance of Bodelian library, is a covered skyway link between the old and the new quadrangles of the historical Hertford College over New College Lane. An architectural wonder, it was supposed to be a replica of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice but instead bears closer resemblance to Venice’s Rialto Bridge.

The grand colleges are mostly out of purview of visitors but looking through their imposing gates is sufficient enough to make anyone want to study there, at least once in their lifetime!

Not to be missed is the Blackwell’s book shop, one of the largest bookshops in the world. They have 3.5km of bookshelves in their basement, the Norrington Room!


While the reading tradition in Oxford fascinates, so does the healing traditions in England’s first spa resort town — Bath.

A little over one hour train ride from Paddington station takes you to the historic city of Bath — set amongst the rolling green hills of the Avon Valley. Tapping into the city’s thermal heritage, the Romans transformed Bath into a spa town in the 18th century. In this modern age, the long queue at the spa, however, is a deterrent. Either you have to be ticket-ready or you must have tons of patience if you want to plunge into the hot springs.

Turned away from the spa, however the breathtaking beauty of the Bath Abbey and the small town, in general, assuaged my feelings. According to legend, God dictated the form of the church to Bishop Oliver King in a dream. And this story has been immortalised in the eccentric carvings on its west front.

As I walked forth deep into the old city, I found Bath a bit crowded (holiday season) yet spectacular. Many others were walking too.

Captivated by the beauty of a small, quaint chapel on the hilly landscape and the green valleys at a distance, I stood back awed as Bath’s most enduring images — the Pulteney Bridge, came into view. It is unusual, different from any other bridge I had ever seen. Especially its sweeping horseshoe-shaped weir. The bridge incorporates shops and was built in 1769. The bridge, originally a toll bridge and boundary between parishes, was built on condition that fresh water could be piped across it from the hills to the town houses.

Picturesque Bath surprised me at every turn. And the last knockout was the Royal Crescent, said to be Britain’s most majestic street. Designed by John Wood the Younger, the Royal Crescent with its arc of 30 houses for lodging of the gentry on their visits to Bath, was completed in 1767. Bath has eight crescents but the Royal Crescent is the most magnificent one.

As the fading sunlight fell on the Crescent, I took one last look at this amazingly beautiful town which we almost did not reach because of the train strike. And I wondered how Britain, which wielded power over a vast empire, is now threatened with an economic crisis. But my love for London (UK) has just begun.

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