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London (England), city, capital of the United Kingdom. It is situated in south-eastern England at the head of the River Thames estuary. Settled by the Romans as an important shipping point for crops and minerals, it gradually developed into the wealthy capital of a thriving industrial and agricultural nation. The expansion in the 19th century of the British Empire increased London’s influence still further. Since World War II the city’s prominence on the international stage has diminished, but it remains a flourishing financial centre and home to one of the world’s most important stock exchanges., Havering, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Redbridge, Richmond upon Thames, Sutton, and Waltham Forest.
Transport is essential to the operation of a city such as London. Its very development was significantly affected by the advent of the railways, and more recently the construction of roads (particularly the orbital M25 motorway) has influenced patterns of settlement and economic activity. London has one of the most extensive urban railway systems in the world; in addition to the Underground railway, there is a network of suburban railways covering London and the surrounding region. Most of the passenger-carrying Underground lines in central London were built before 1914. Suburban extensions were added before and after World War II. The most recent line, the Jubilee, opened in 1979 and in the 1990s was extended eastward to Stratford. The Docklands Light Railway connects the City of London with Docklands and other east London destinations. Most travel is done by rail and Underground, although there is also considerable commuting by car, particularly in the outer boroughs. London has about 18,000 licensed taxis.
Railway services from London to Paris or Brussels through the Channel Tunnel run from the terminal at Waterloo station.
London has three main airports. Heathrow, about 25 km (15 mi) west of London, is the world’s busiest airport for international passengers and is Britain’s most important airport for passengers and air freight (handling about 55 million passengers and over 1 million tonnes of freight in 1996). Gatwick (south of London) is Britain’s second-busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic, and Stansted (to the north-east, in Essex) is the sixth-busiest. London City Airport, based in the rejuvenated Docklands area, links Docklands and the City to continental Europe.
The Port of London, covering about 150 km (93 mi) of waterway along the Thames to the east coast, is the largest port in Britain in terms of total tonnage of cargo handled and in terms of non-fuel traffic. The total tonnage handled in 1995 was about 52 million tonnes.
Museums and Art Galleries
London’s museums and art galleries contain some of the most comprehensive collections of objects of artistic, archaeological, scientific, historical, and general interest. The British Museum in Bloomsbury is one of the biggest and most famous museums in the world. Its collections range from Egyptian and Classical antiquities through Saxon treasures to more recent artefacts.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington is an assembly of fine and decorative art collections from all over the world. There are magnificent examples of porcelain, glass, sculpture, fabrics and costume, furniture, and musical instruments, all set in a building of Victorian grandeur. Nearby are the Museum of Natural History and the Science Museum. On the other side of London, in the City itself, is the Museum of London, which has exhibits dealing with the development of the capital from its origins to the present day.
The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square contains one of the finest mixed collections of paintings in the world. Next door is the National Portrait Gallery, whose collection includes more than 9,000 portraits. The Tate Gallery, situated on the Embankment between Chelsea and Westminster, houses the largest collection of British painting from the 16th century to the present day. In 1987 an extension opened to house the paintings bequeathed to the nation by J. M. W. Turner. There are plans to establish a new Tate Gallery of Modern Art in Southwark, near the reconstructed Shakespearean theatre, the Globe.
Other important collections in the capital include the Imperial War Museum, the National Army Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Wallace Collection (of paintings, furniture, arms and armour, and objets d’art), Sir John Soane’s Museum (founded by the architect of the Bank of England in the City), and the London Transport Museum. The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace has exhibitions of pictures from the extensive royal collection. The Theatre Museum displays the history of the performing arts, while the Museum of the Moving Image traces the history of film and television.
The British Library, the national library of Britain, has a collection of more than 150 million separate items. Publishers must deposit in the Library a copy of everything they publish.
London is one of the world’s leading centres for theatre, and there are about 100 theatres in the capital. These include the three auditoriums of the Royal National Theatre in the South Bank Centre; the two auditoriums in the London base of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the City’s Barbican Centre; and the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, home of the English Stage Company, which stages work by new playwrights. The largest concentration of commercial theatres is in the West End, around Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, and the Strand.
In 1989 the partial remains of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare acted, and the Rose Theatre, where his plays were performed during his lifetime, were excavated on the south bank of the Thames in central London: a modern reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, near its original site, was unveiled in 1996.
The principal concert halls in central London are the Royal Festival Hall in the South Bank Centre (next to which are the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, which accommodate smaller-scale performances), the Barbican Hall, the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, the Wigmore Hall, (behind Oxford Street); and St John’s Church in Smith Square, Westminster.
The leading symphony orchestras in London include the London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and the BBC Symphony. There are also several London chamber orchestras and choirs. The Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, which rank among the world’s finest companies, perform at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Seasons of opera in English are given by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum. English Festival Ballet (founded as London Festival Ballet) performs at the Royal Festival Hall, and the Rambert Dance Company provides regular seasons of modern dance in the capital.
There is a wide range of cinemas throughout London. The National Film Theatre on the South Bank, administered by the British Film Institute, annually mounts the London Film Festival.
Highly respected music, dance, and drama colleges in London include the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Ballet School, and the London Contemporary Dance School.
Two thirds of London is intensively built up, yet the capital is well endowed with parks and open spaces. Hyde Park, adjoining Kensington Gardens, was formerly known as the “lung of London”. Regent’s Park, to the north of the West End, is surrounded by elegant buildings designed by John Nash for the Prince Regent (hence its name) and contains the Zoological Gardens (the London Zoo). Other important open spaces in London, some of them royal parks, include Green Park, St James’s Park, Hampstead Heath, Holland Park, Battersea Park, Parliament Hill Fields, and Primrose Hill. In outer London there are some extended green areas such as Richmond Park, Bushey Park, Kew Gardens (incorporating the famous Royal Botanic Gardens), and Greenwich Park.P