I was born in London and by the age of ten I was traveling around the city by bus on my own. Thus exploring the places beyond my neighbourhood, I came to realise that the metropolis was far larger and more diverse than anything I could imagine. From the top deck of that Routemaster, London became the definition of the world itself. Later when I returned back to the city after my studies I started out in earnest to explore once more, hoping to find a place called home.
I began walking in order to find out more about the nearby neighbourhoods where I had now moved; and then later, as my confidence grew, I ventured further afield into all quarters or the city. Walking offers particular joys, and a uniquely human scale, and pace, to one’s understanding. Crossing from East to West, I would spend the weekend uncovering the stories of the past, first weaving together the historical narratives found in the monuments and architectural wonders; then finding others stories, less well known, that offered new perspectives. Finally, I could make my own stories as I made my way through streets and neighbourhoods that were now familiar yet still able to reveal themselves in unexpected ways.
We all create maps of our own city. In recent weeks there has been publicity surrounding a novel tube map created by James Wannerton, a fifty-four year old systems analyst from Blackpool who has charted the the underground system of city as a record of his synesthesia. For him, each word tastes different, and each tube stations has it own flavour. Thus, my own daily commute starts at Peppermint Cream (Golders Green) and I often get off at Curly Wurly (Leicester Square). I sometimes take an alternative route home; getting on at Picnic Bar (Piccadilly Circus) or Oxtail Soup (Oxford Circus) change lines at Burnt Jam Roly Poly (Baker St) and get off at Spam and Chocolate (West Hampstead).
There has been a struggle almost since the city’s origins between measuring the city accurately, portioning out properties, defining streetscapes and highways, and the more intimate, personal encounter with the urban spaces. The city walls have always marked the limits of the city: the annual pageant of charting the Parish boundaries of St Hallows by the Tower, the Beating of the Bounds, every May is a reminder that the demarcation of space within the confines of the metropolis has always been an essential part of urban life.
It is easy to look at a map and consider London’s civic space as defined by its markings, reduced to figure and number. This is true since 1667, when the scientist Robert Hooke painstakingly measured out the burned streets and thoroughfares of the city destroyed in the Great Fire of the previous year. This was the first time that the dimensions were transformed into mathematics, and subsequently into law. But at the same time there has been a realisation that London was a city that could not be held within the limitations of cartography alone. As the first modern city emerged from the ashes, it had become encyclopaedic: a book without end, beyond narrative.
From this moment there was the official map that laid out the bare metropolitan skeleton, and then there were the myriads of charts, trees, graphs, notes, schema that relate to our individual encounters, and memories, of the city. It is these scraps that allow us to find our own place here, to map a sense of home, an emotional urban landscape. This is why James Wannerston is able to taste his way through the city, and we can glimpse his experience through a transformed version of the official tube map, which is itself famously only a representation of the city.
This personal cartography is so easy to overlook and forget as we go about our busy lives. Yet it is this deep, idiosyncratic connection to the city that encapsulates our emotional experience of the metropolis, interweaving place, time, and memory. This is the kind of revelation that I hope we will explore and rediscover on 26 October as we take a history of London through ten bus stops.
Aboard a classic Routemaster time machine, we can allow ourselves to experience the city as if for the first time, just like my younger self on the number 22. We will explore the ways that technology and history both cause us to form unexpected narratives that bring the city closer. We will also see how former generations have coped with the enormity of the city and attempted to make it local. We will also look at how spaces within the city gain their own personalities and histories.
We are at a tipping point in the history of the city. In 2007 the UN announced the world had become 50% urban and that this metropolitan population was to rise to 75% by 2050. How are we to face the coming perils of climate change, scarcity of resources and inequality ? Can we find ways that we think about the city, and go about our everyday lives that have impact on the future of the planet? As we travel through the city on our Routemaster, I will also look at the global state of the city, and we will travel far afield to look at some of the ways that other world cities are addressing the future. For I believe that cities are good for us, and that they could be our ark rather than a concrete coffin. Cities make us richer, more productive, fitter, more polite, greener, more creative and perhaps even, happier . . .but you will have to take the trip to find out why.
Leo Hollis is the author of three books on the history of London: 'Cities are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis', 'The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London', and 'The Stones of London: A History Through Twelve Buildings'.
Join him on Saturday 26 October for a very special tour of London’s history aboard a classic 1963 Routemaster Coach. Together we'll map the city through time and space, from Roman Londinium to the twenty-first-century world city. We’ll cover en route activities on emotional mapping, Google Earth Urbanism, and the potential of the Intelligent City. We’ll play a spy game to help us comprehend surveillance. We’ll plunder the past for overlooked ideas for a better future. And we’ll map our own place in the metropolis, gaining strategies to become more deeply part of it and read it better. For more information and to book click here.