Posts Tagged ‘London

08
Jul
10

Aldgate, London

[For over three centuries, one company defined the fortunes, the miseries and the destinies of millions of people around the world ! Through a combination of raw ambition, exploration, ruthless diplomacy and technology……coupled with greed, deceit and military conquests, this company established itself as one of the largest, the most profitable and the most influential enterprises that the world has ever seen, or will ever see. This company was the East India Company and its headquarters once stood at Leadenhall Street in Aldgate, London]

Aldgate today is located within the central financial district of London, referred to as simply ‘the City’. However, centuries ago this area had marked the eastern-most entry-point into London and a gateway, from which Aldgate gets its name, stood here along the ancient Roman city walls. Since the past couple of centuries, ‘the City’ has been one of the leading centres of commerce and finance in the world, with millions of pounds worth of transactions passing through its square mile area every day. Aldgate has been at the forefront of this action and some of the leading Insurance Corporations of the world are located here. But what distinguishes Aldgate is perhaps its undeniable role in shaping the history and destiny of not just London or Britain, but of lands far and wide. For it was here that the East India Company was headquartered and from where, for over two centuries, much of its global ventures were governed.

The East India Company:

Contrary to popular belief, the East India Company was not owned or governed by the English/British government, but was a private enterprise subscribed by a few thousand shareholders in London and governed by 24 elected Directors. It was established in the year 1600, when a group of London merchants was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I, providing them with complete monopoly over trade with the far east. Over the next centuries, the Company went on to grow beyond every shareholder’s wildest dreams. It maintained its own armed forces, merchant fleet and factories, and enjoyed adminstrative and legislative powers in the colonies that it controlled. It was not until after the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, that the British government took control of the Company, and Queen Victoria, then Queen of Great Britain, assumed the title of ‘Empress of India’.

Needless to say, in its aggressive quest for profits and power, the company had employed many grossly unethical means. Ultimately, the impact it had on the world was unprecedented. The company dominated world trade for a few centuries and was instrumental in introducing new products and lifestyles into the society and establishing new mega-cities – from Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai to Singapore and Hong Kong. The legacies left behind by the company – its legal and administrative codes, language, educational systems, transport infrastructure etc. continue to be used to this day in the erstwhile colonies.

Interestingly, earlier this year, there were reports in the media that the East India Company has been acquired by an Indian businessman. According to the reports, Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta bought the company from the 30 or 40 people who had still owned it…… and has now opened his flagship ‘East India Company’ store – trading in fine foods and luxury goods, in London’s upmarket Mayfair area.  No doubt the Company’s journey has come full-circle, but the way I see it, what Mr.Mehta claims to be an act of redemption is perhaps, more of a calculated business gimmick.

For one, the company had been dissolved following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, and had completely ceased to exist since 1874, when the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act was passed in the British Parliament. So what Mr.Mehta bought was perhaps the rights to the name and the Coat of Arms of the erstwhile East India Company. It makes perfect business sense, as the name automatically comes with a 400 year-old history and a brand that can be recognised across the globe, thanks to the fact that much of the world was once controlled by the former company.

Until the original East India Company was dissolved, its impressive headquarters – the East India House had stood  at Leadenhall Street in Aldgate. Early illustrations of the building show how imposing and magnificent a structure it used to be.

East India House in the early 1800's (courtesy: Wikimedia)

But unlike the headquarters of the Company’s early rival – the Dutch East India Company, which still stand in Amsterdam […and I had the fortune of visiting two years ago as part of the New Amsterdam Walking Tour], the East India House survived for just over  a decade after the Company was dissovled, and was demolished in 1869 – the same year Gandhi was born. Today, the exact site is occupied by the Lloyd’s Building – home to Lloyd’s of London, one of the leading Insurance societies in the world.  Interestingly, some of the paintings, artefacts and furniture from the East India House now sit in the India House – the seat of the Indian High Commission in London.

Lloyd’s building:

The main factor that attracted me to Aldgate and the Lloyd’s building was that it where the East India Company’s headquarters used to stand. Nevertheless, the Lloyd’s building is an attraction in its own right, thanks to its bizarre ‘Inside-Out’ architecture, which makes it unlike any other in Britain. I had heard a lot about this peculiar design and wanted to check it out myself……and it didn’t disappoint. Turns out that the Lloyd’s building is perhaps the ‘Superman’ of all buildings ! Not that it was built using stones from Krypton, but like Superman, who wears his underpants over his tights, this building has all its internal essentials – namely water pipes, electrical power conduits, cables, elevators, air-conditioning ducts….all exposed on the outside 🙂 Frankly, I must admit that it does not make the prettiest of sights !

The 'Inside-Out' architecture

Lloyd’s of London itself has an interesting history behind it. The society had its origins in 1688, in a coffe-shop run by Edward Lloyd’s in London. This coffee-shop was frequented by sailors and ship-owners, who used the location to discuss insurance deals among themselves, in order to spread their risks. The society grew exponentially in the next century, insuring ships involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today it is one of the leading insurance societies in the world.

Aldgate also houses the offices of the Lloyd’s Register – the  reputed maritime classification society, which like Lloyd’s of London, had its origins in Edward Lloyd’s coffee-shop. Edward used to help the sailors exchange information by passing around a sheet of paper containing all the shipping-related news he had heard. Today, the Lloyd’s Register is the most respected source for shipping information and maritime classification in the world !

30 St.Mary’s Axe (the Gherkin) –

Situated just a stone’s throw away [depending on how strong your arms are ;)] from the Lloyd’s building is 30, St.Mary’s Axe, otherwise known as ‘the Gherkin’, due to its peculiar shape. [St Mary’s Axe is the name of the street and 30 is the building number] Completed just 7 years ago in 2003, this building is already among the most recognisable landmarks in London’s skyline. It is one of the most prestigious office addresses in London’s financial district and has even featured in many Hollywood and Bollywood movies.

30 St.Mary's Axe - The Gherkin

As I walked along the narrow streets and arrived at the base of the building, my initial thought was that up-close, it was not as larger-than-life as it had seemed otherwise [But then, I had felt the same about the Great Pyramid at Giza as well]. Standing at the circular base of the Gherkin and looking up, one cannot fully appreciate the shape of the structure as its apex is hidden from view. As with any masterpiece, one has to step-back a few feet [or in the case of the Gherkin, a few 100 metres] to fully admire the beauty of its design.

Close-up of the Gherkin

The Gherkin stands on the site where the former Baltic Exchange building used to be located. In 1992, an IRA bomb ripped the building apart, and the area was left undeveloped until the Gherkin took its place.

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30
Dec
09

Statue of Boudicca, London

[Long before the British went on to establish one of the largest empires that mankind had ever seen, Britain, or Britannia as it was called then, had itself been a colony of the Roman Empire – the greatest super-power of its time ! Successive legions of Romans had crossed the English Channel and forayed deep into the heart of Britain, subduing its people and laying the foundations to many of its important cities. However, around the year 61 AD, one lady, fuelled by the thirst for revenge, had set out to stop the Romans in their tracks and wipe every single one of them off the face of Britannia …..and she very nearly succeeded !]

Along the Thames and at the corner of Westminster Bridge in London, stands an impressive bronze sculpture featuring one of the fiercest and most iconic queens Britain had ever seen. Charging ahead in her chariot with her arms up in the air and her eyes filled with rage, she cuts an imposing figure over the two young daughters she has in tow. Known to the world as Boudicca, she was the warrior queen of the Iceni tribe, who nearly 2000 years ago, had dared to stand up to the might of the Roman conquerors. Such was the terror that she had unleashed upon them that for centuries to come, they were tormented by the fear of her rage and the bitter curse that she had hurled at them with her dying breaths!

Sadly though, not many people today know who she was or what she had done….and her sculpture, located right under the shadow of London’s most recognisable landmark – the Big Ben, is often overlooked by tourists and passers-by. Nevertheless, I believe that she holds one of the most prominent places in the turbulent and bloody history of London. In fact, her legacy lies buried deep below the surface of the city….for, the last time she rode into London nearly two millennia ago, she had brutally massacred the entire ruling Roman population and razed the city to the ground! It is said that even to this day, when builders dig deep foundations in old parts of the city, they encounter a thick layer of reddish ash – a result of Boudicca’s burning!

The assault:

As early as in the year 55 BC, the Romans had started venturing into Britannia. Julius Caesar himself had led two expeditions into the island, however, though he came and he saw, he hadn’t quite conquered it [….which by the way, was not what he claimed at the Roman senate]. The actual invasion took place only in 43 AD, when four legions loyal to Emperor Claudius marched into Britannia and took control of the mystical land and its many Celtic tribes.

One of those tribes was the Iceni, who lived around the area of what is now Norfolk, in eastern England. Their ruler, King Prasutagus had managed to secure his autonomy by forming an alliance with the Romans. As a result, whilst most of southern England came under direct Roman rule, Prasutagus was allowed to keep his kingdom. However, under Roman tradition, it was customary for such client kings to bequeath their lands to Rome upon their deaths. But in 61 AD, when Prasutagus died, his will left just half of his kingdom to Rome, while the other half went to his wife Boudicca and their two young daughters.

Understandably, the Romans weren’t pleased. Furthermore, according to their laws, succession could happen only through male heirs and Prasutagus had none. Under this pretext, the Romans charged in and annexed the whole Iceni kingdom, capturing the royal family in the process. To add insult to injury, they had Boudicca flogged in public, while her young daughters were brutally raped!

Little did the Romans know that these dastardly acts would soon nearly bring about their annihilation !!!

The Revenge:

Boudicca’s rage knew no bounds and her heart longed for revenge. She refused to subject herself or her kingdom to the tyranny of Rome and instead, vowed to hunt down and slaughter every single Roman she could lay her hands on. With the help of her loyal subjects and support from some of the neighbouring tribes, Queen Boudicca put together a formidable Iceni army.

When the Roman Governor – Paulinus was away leading a campaign in North Wales, Boudicca seized the opportunity and led her army into the very capital of Roman Britain – the city of Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester). The city was poorly defended, and Boudicca’s assault on it was bloody and relentless. Not a soul was spared and after two days of bitter bloodbath, the last Roman defenders holed up in the temple to the former emperor Claudius, were brought down.

Given the circumstances, there was just one thing that the Romans could do – send in their most powerful weapon – the elite Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana)! These were the guys who had an almost immaculate track-record of victories right from the shores of Iberia (Spain) to the eastern extremes of Macedonia. They were considered to be the meanest, strongest and most disciplined fighting machine of the time….and Julius Caesar himself, had once been their commander!

But when they met up with Boudicca’s warriors, they were outnumbered and outflanked. The Roman infantry was completely routed and only a small section of the legion managed to escape. Boudicca was merciless in her quest and didn’t stop until the entire city of Camulodunum was burnt to the ground!

Next up was Londinium (London) – the new town that the Romans had established on the banks of the river Thames. Upon hearing the news of Boudicca’s pounding on Camulodunum, Governor Paulinus rushed back to Londinium, reaching there well before Boudicca. However, sensing his inability to defend the town against the imminent Iceni attack, he abandoned it and fled north, evacuating many of its residents. When Boudicca arrived at Londinium, she was met with little or no resistance. But that didn’t stop her from having all of the town’s residents slaughtered, in the most brutal and inhumane ways possible! Londinium too, was razed to the ground and the burning clay and mud left such a thick layer of red ash that it can apparently be traced to this day!

With Colchester and London wiped off the Roman map, Boudicca charged into the town of Verulamium(modern-day St.Albans) and subjected it to exactly the same sort of treatment. Roman estimates quote that between the three towns, some 70,000 people were brutally killed!

The downfall:

As meteoric and sensational as Boudicca’s success, was her ultimate demise. Having destroyed Colchester, London and St.Albans, Boudicca headed north along the Roman road now known as Watling Street, to finish off the job that she had set out for. Somewhere in the midlands, the Iceni army met up with the regrouped Roman army. Roman accounts […..though they may have been heavily skewed] suggest that the Romans had just 10,000 soldiers to face Boudicca’s supposed 200,000. However, the Romans knew that battles are won not merely by sheer numbers and that they had to their advantage some very crucial factors that Boudicca’s army didn’t – discipline, sophisticated weapons and military training !

Making full use of these strengths, the Romans very tactically positioned themselves in a narrow valley flanked by woods on both sides. This meant that in spite of the huge numbers that Boudicca had, she could only feed in as many Iceni warriors at a time, as the Romans could comfortably take on. This proved disastrous to the Iceni and after a bloody and violent battle, they suffered a debilitating defeat. It is said that as many as 80000 Britons perished, as against 400 Romans […. history is always written by the victors, so one can never be too sure]! Boudicca herself committed suicide by taking poison, and the location of her grave is still a subject of conspiracy theories.

Boudicca’s life was a unique conflation of power, tragedy, revenge, glory and defeat……in short – perfect Hollywood blockbuster material! Its not surprising then, that she has been portrayed many times over the course of modern cinema and television. In fact, there is a big-budget movie about her, coming up in 2010 and I honestly, can’t wait to watch it!

26
Oct
09

Greenwich Hill, London

[Setting off to write about London has always been a tough task….not merely because the essence of the city is too hard to describe in words, but for the simple dilemma of deciding where to begin ! The city is so vast and immense that there’s something for everyone ….Which is why perhaps, it is a good idea to start from square one, or rather in the case of London, from longitude 0.0000 :)]

Anyone who has ever used a watch or a clock would probably have heard of the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). However, not many know that it represents the mean solar time at a particular point on a small but historic hillock in Greenwich, London. Greenwich Hill as it is called, is situated in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich, around 6 miles downstream from Central London along the river Thames. Pronounced as ‘Grenich’ [yea, the English have strange ways of gobbling certain consonants in the middle of words], Greenwich had traditionally been a maritime town just outside of London. However, over the centuries, London has expanded far beyond its original city walls and today Greenwich lies within Zone 2 of the city. Steeped in history and blessed with some stunning architectural marvels, Greenwich is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

Greenwich Hill:
Nestled amidst the massive green expanses of Greenwich is Greenwich Hill. Once home to the medieval Greenwich Castle [where it is said King Henry VIII lodged his mistresses, while he stayed at the nearby Palace of Placentia] , the hillock has been home to the Royal Observatory since 1675, when King Charles II commissioned it. Astronomers used the Royal Observatory as a reference for their calculations and Greenwich’s mariners used it as the basis of navigational measurement. Out of this concept, arose the Greenwich Meridian, which later went on to become the Prime Meridian of the world, thus forging Greenwich’s association with time-keeping forever ! Today, unlike any other historic/tourist spot in London, Greenwich Hill’s claim to fame is its unique longitudinal co-ordinate – 0° 0′ 0″ E [Frankly, I’m not sure how 0 degrees can be treated as being East :O].

Greenwich Town:
Greenwich had started out as a small fishing village but over time, grew into an important sea-faring town from where ships sailed to all corners of the British Empire […which pretty much covered the whole world !]. During the Tudor era, the monarchy set up base here at the Palace of Placentia, and some of England’s most famous and notorious kings and queens were born here. More importantly, the Royals made impressive contributions to the skyline of Greenwich, including the Royal Observatory at Greenwich Hill.
Today, Greenwich is a buzzing and colourful district of London, dotted with restaurants and having a high concentration of pubs, some of which may very well have been in existence since the time they served medieval sailors few centuries ago. Greenwich market, which dates back from the 1700’s, is located in the heart of town.

Getting to Greenwich Hill:
One can get to Greenwich from Central London by road, rail or the river. I personally prefer taking the ferry on the way up and the Tube/DLR to get back:

1) Ferry – The ferry is hassle free and offers fantastic views of the city’s skyline as seen from the Thames. They start at the piers alongside the London Eye and passengers can also get on them further downstream near the Tower of London. The journey to Greenwich takes about 45 minutes and the ferry sails past landmarks such as the Westminster Parliament, Big Ben, London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, St.Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and Tower Bridge. There’s running commentary as well, to fill-in on all the gyan.

2) Tube + DLR – This is a much faster option. From central London, one has to take the Tube to Canary Wharf and switch over to the DLR towards Greenwich. The Tube journey, being underground, has nothing great to offer in terms of sights, however, the DLR is pretty interesting, as the train passes through and alongside some of most futuristic and gleaming sky-scrapers of Canary Wharf.

Disembark at Cutty Sark station, which is just before Greenwich station. [Do not be misled by the station names ….as I’ve been a couple of times, as the latter is much farther away from the main tourist attractions.]

From the boat pier or from Cutty Sark DLR station, follow the sign boards towards the Royal Observatory and in 5 – 10 minutes, you arrive at the gates to the massive Greenwich Park. Cut diagonally across the park and Greenwich hill appears right in front of you, with the Royal Observatory perched on top.

Royal Observatory:
The short climb up Greenwich hill to the Royal Observatory can appear daunting to the feeble. But take it slow, and once up there, the spectacular view that it offers makes up for the effort. The Royal Observatory stands on the foundations of the erstwhile Greenwich castle and today, is a museum housing a vast collection of astronomical and navigational devices, and various kinds of historic precision clocks. Like most museums in London, entrance is free, and the first thing that you notice as you enter the compound is a silver line marked on the ground – yes, the Greenwich Meridian !

Facts: For centuries, the Paris Meridian a.k.a the ‘Rose Line’ [popularized by ‘The Da Vinci Code’] had been considered the Prime Meridian of the world with the Greenwich Meridian merely being a formidable rival. But in 1884, the British earned an astounding victory over the French, when the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC, adopted the Greenwich Mean Line as the Prime Meridian. Understandably, the French weren’t too happy and abstained from accepting it officially until 27 years later in 1911.

The panorama:

One of the highlights of Greenwich Hill is the stunning panoramic view of Greenwich, the Thames and the city of London that it offers.

Here’s a description of some of the major landmarks that can be spotted from Greenwich Hill:

1) Greenwich Park – Surrounding the hill, is the massive expanse of green comprising Greenwich Park. The park had originally served as hunting grounds to the royals based at the adjacent Palace of Placentia, and even today is a Royal Park. However, her Majesty has been kind enough to open the park to the public, and on a sunny summer day, one would find the place dotted with scores of sun-bathing Londoners.

2) The Old Royal Naval College – One of the most striking views from the top of Greenwich hill is that of the magnificent, symmetrical lay-outs of the Old Royal Naval College. Up until 17th Century, this had been the location of the Palace of Placentia (Greenwich Palace) – a major Tudor Palace. King Henry VIII was born here, and so were his daughters Queen Mary I [a.k.a ‘Bloody Mary’] and Queen Elizabeth I [a.k.a the ‘Virgin Queen’].

[We love Henry VIII not for the fact that he married 6 times and had 2 of his queens beheaded, but for his flamboyant, scandalous and extravagant life-style, that perhaps redefined the term ‘living life King size’ ! If not for him and his offsprings, medieval English history may have been as boring as an account of growing grass ……Besides, the Church of England may not have existed, the Royal Navy may not have been created, a popular cocktail of vodka and tomoto juice may not have had a name, Cate Blanchet may not have won a Golden Globe and my favourite TV series – ‘The Tudors’ may not even have been made 😉 …….. Needless to say, his contributions to English religion, society and history have been legendary!]

After having played host to several key royal weddings, births, scandals and deaths, the Palace of Placentia finally fell into disrepair during the English Civil War. Later in 1694, it was demolished and the Greenwich Hospital built in its place. The ‘Queen’s House’ originally an adjunct to the Palace of Placentia remained, and the distinctive symmetrical design of Greenwich Hospital with the open avenue in the middle was formulated so that the river-side view of Queen’s House and Greenwich Hill would not be obstructed.

Greenwich Hospital had served as a residential home for injured sailors for nearly two centuries, until it got converted into the Royal Naval College. The college served as a training establishment to the Royal Navy until 1998, and today, houses the Greenwich University and the Trinity College of Music.

3) Canary Wharf – Beyond the Old Royal Naval College and across the Thames, are the massive sky-scrapers of Canary Wharf. This futuristic development represents the ultra-modern side of London and is home to some of the largest banking corporations in the world.

4) Greenwich Power Station – The gigantic chimneys of the hundred-year old Greenwich Power Station are a distinctive sight towards the right. Once coal-powered, the power station now runs on oil and gas. It is still in operation and serves as a back-up electricity source for the London Underground.

5) O2 Arena (formely the Milleninum Dome) – Further to the right, is the O2 Arena – one of the largest indoor arenas in Europe. It is a popular venue for concerts and sporting events. Michael Jackson’s well-publicized come-back tour was supposed to have taken place here.

6) London City Airport – Towards the extreme right is the London City Airport – the 5th major international airport of London [after Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton] and the one closest to the city.

7) City of London – To the far left, lies the endless expanse of the city of London ! The sky-scrapers of the city, including the oddly-shaped Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), stand out in the horizon. On a clear day, one can see as far as the Tower Bridge and St.Paul’s Cathedral.




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