London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Eight Questions That Travelers Ask About London - First Four

25/12/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 14339 votes

You’ve just decided to make your next vacation one in London. Congratulations, for my money you have just picked the most exciting city in the world, bar none. But you have some questions; getting around, what’s the food like, what are the locals like? That sort of thing. In hopes of making sure your trip to England is a pleasant and enjoyable one, let’s spend the next few moments dealing with some of the questions you might have regarding things in 'the olde countrie'. Let’s get started.

1. I’m flying into London and I know it has two airports. Which one is the best choice for travelers arriving from the United States?

Well, to be exact, London has five airports serving it. While Heathrow and Gatwick are the big two, there is also Stansted, Luton and London City Airport, but for folks flying in from international points of origination there’s a good chance that they’ll arrive at either Heathrow and Gatwick, so let’s concern ourselves with those two, since those are the major international airports serving London. Of the two Heathrow is the bigger; in fact it’s one of the world’s busiest airports and a major hub for airlines flying passengers from around Europe and the rest of the globe. Gatwick is not as big, although it was London’s first airport - built in the 1930s - and still a major destination for airlines flying European and trans-Atlantic routes.

Whether you begin your trip to London by flying into Heathrow or Gatwick depends very much on your airline and what routes they fly. British Airways as well as two of the major flag carriers of the United States, American and United, go into Heathrow. Other American carriers, such as U.S. Air and Delta, and flights from a number of smaller cities in the U.S., fly into Gatwick. A lot of politics and jockeying for position between the airlines is involved. The big airlines like British, American and United have most of the landing slots at Heathrow and are loath to make room for competitors thus forcing them to use Gatwick. British Airways also uses Gatwick for a number of its domestic and European routes.

As far as convenience, Heathrow is closer to central London - it’s only a 30 or so minutes, while Gatwick is about an hour and a half out, by car, depending on traffic. The terminals at Heathrow have underground stops so after you’ve de-planed and made it through customs you can take the tube into town, if you like. Gatwick has a National Rail station, so after collecting your bags and clearing customs you can take the train.

(Note to HM Government - take down those annoying signs at customs that say “Welcome to the European Union. Folks are coming to visit the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not some homogenized Euro-land. Thank you.)

2. I know the British monetary unit is the pound but I’ve also heard about quid, shillings, pence and bob. Will I get confused?

In the 1970s the United Kingdom decimalized its monetary system. A hundred pence or pennies now make up a pound. That’s it. Simple, huh? Before that things could get pretty confusing with so many pence, twelve if I remember right, making up a shilling and so many shillings (twenty) going into a pound and people referring to something called a guinea, which was not represented by any coin or bill but was something it was assumed everyone understood (it was actually twenty one shillings). Visitors would find it all very confusing. These days though prices are quoted as “so-many pounds, so-many pence.” People will refer to a pound as a ‘quid’ , so ten pounds may come out as 'ten quid'. Oh, by the way you’ll sometimes hear Britons refer to ‘sterling'. That’s because officially the pound is the pound sterling - the term comes from the days when currencies were backed by metal, such as gold or silver and someone bearing a Bank of England note could redeem it for a set amount of sterling silver.

After you’ve exchanged your own currency for a pocket full of pounds and pence, take just a moment to examine the coin and currency of the realm. You’ll probably agree that most attractive media of exchange to be found anywhere. All bills and coins feature a picture of the Queen and the quality of engraving is a work of art in itself. One only hopes that Britain will ultimately resist the urge to drop the pound and take up the Euro with its bland notes that eschew famous people or leaders and instead feature bridges and other such post-modern tripe (though in the case of some countries on the continent it is understandable since they lack any famous personages- or at least any they’d want to brag about).

3. I’ve heard about the ‘bobbies’ or policemen in London. Why are they called that?

The London or Metropolitan Police, as they are officially known, were founded in the 19th century by Sir Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary at the time. Originally they were called 'peelers', a term of derision but later on people started referring to the policeman walking a beat as a 'bobby'. Today the term is no longer one of ridicule but one of affection, or at least respect.

Since, we assume (and hope), you don’t intend to break the law during your visit to the realm, your dealings with a bobby will probably amount to asking for directions from one you come across while he (or she) is walking their beat. You will find them knowledgeable, courteous and businesslike.

4. London is a big city and there’s so much to see. I guess the best way to get around is the subway.

First off, let’s get some terms straight, it’s called the underground or tube. In Britain when you refer to a subway you’re talking about an underground passage such as a walkway beneath the street. Ask for directions to the nearest subway station and you’ll be politely reminded that what you’re looking for is the closest tube stop.

Now, on to metropolitan mass transit matters. Remember back in the 19th century London was the world’s largest city and thus was forced to grapple with the problems of moving large numbers of people efficiently. Construction of the underground railway system (that’s where the name underground comes from) started in the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century many of the innovations in mass transit originated in London; from a system map that had been copied worldwide to developing a network that moves multitudes daily, London’s underground has always been one of the world’s great mass transit systems.

Finding your way around on the underground is easy. There are a number of different lines; on the tube map the lines, such as Bakerloo, Jubilee, Northern and District, are represented by different colors. All you need to know is your starting point on a particular line and the station where you’ll be getting off. If you need to change lines to reach your final destination consult the tube map, see which station intersects with a different line and change trains at that station. All trains are local- in other words they stop at every station on the line.

If you’re familiar with the subway system in New York City which has both express and local trains and the possibility of taking the wrong train and ending up somewhere other than you had intended or the Paris Metro (which can be confusing just because that’s the way the French are), you’ll find the London Underground simplicity in itself. One other note: the underground stops running around midnight, so if you’re making a late evening of it remember to keep an eye on the clock or you’ll have to make other arrangements for getting back to your hotel.

David McIntosh

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Re: Eight Questions That Travelers Ask About London - First Four

By Rob 02/01/2004, (Rating: 2.9 from 13515 votes)

A quick correction/expansion on what was said about money. The original currency had twelve pennies to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound. A guinea was 'A pound and a shilling'. I have no idea why.
A Bob was not a pound it was a Shilling. So there were twenty bob to a quid :) You wont hear it mentioned much any more (apart from old musicals etc) but a 'tanner' was six pennies or half a shilling.

There was also a coin called a Crown which was Five Shillings though I am not sure it was still in circulation by the 1970s. I am a bit hazy here but there might have been a coin for 'Half a Crown' or two and a half shillings. Either that or the Two Shilling coin were once called a Florin.

When decimalisation arrived all the coins changed and people never felt comfortable enough with them to give them nicknames.

Editor: Thanks, it just shows that I should read things more carefully over Christmas, but it is all correct now.

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Re: Eight Questions That Travelers Ask About London - First Four

By Georgina 07/01/2004, (Rating: 2.9 from 13333 votes)

There was something called a "Threepennybit" when I was a girl in the 1950's. My nana alway gave me one for sweeties. It looked like an octaganol sided goldish coin, and was thick and chuncky, bigger than a sixpence, but smaller than Half-a-crown (2/6 pence) as I recall.


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Re: Eight Questions That Travelers Ask About London - First Four

By Judy Sweet 07/01/2004, (Rating: 2.9 from 13404 votes)

The train from Gatwick Airport into London is called the Gatwick Express, and takes only 30 minutes. It arrives in Victoria Station. The train runs every 15 minutes until midnight, and then hourly in the wee hours of the morning. It is definitely a better choice for travelers, as most of us don't want to take a 1 hour 30 minute car/bus ride after 6-plus hours in a plane and going through customs.

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