Bear baiting, jousts, plague, Victorian porn, bombs and coffeehouses? What do these things have in common? They’re pivotal pieces of London’s history. Dr. Matthew Green, historian, consummate tour guide, and Londoner, has neatly compiled a time traveller’s guide that brings over six hundred years of London’s history to life in the pages of his book, London: A Travel Guide Through Time.
The book is a comprehensive, clever, and enjoyable ride through London’s colourful history; definitely not your tired, staid, run-of-the mill travel guide. Part guidebook, part history text, and part spectacular fiction, the writing is evocative and witty. The book hops back and forth through several of the most important periods in London’s storied past: Medieval, Shakespearean/Stuart, Georgian, Victorian, and post-War, all narrated by a light-hearted, omnipresent tour guide, giving us a first hand account of daily life from the eyes of London’s inhabitants. Green is a superb storyteller. He is able to bring the spirit of each age alive and truly transport the reader back in time. You can easily picture yourself leaving the chaotic confines of bustling modern London, touching a post, and suddenly and landing beside a plague pit in 1665.
“Almost immediately, the city feels still. In front of you is a garish five-storey orange-and-beige new build…At thigh-level, a gleaming horizontal pole spews from a shabby looking shed to bar your way… Put your hands on the cold bar. Now close your eyes. The wind is blowing in your face. You hear a shovel slicing the earth. Torches hiss. People sob gently… You open your eyes. In front of you, where the car park was, is a vast, wide hole, gouged into open fields…The air is laden with the stink of death. You take a few steps forwards and peer into the pit. It is a mass grave.” (pp.161-162, 1665: A Walk Through Plague Struck London)
One of the things I liked about the book was the fact that it was not set in chronological order, Green jumps back and forth through time. You don’t know what period you will land in next, and it really does’t matter; it makes it far more interesting not going century by century, and more like a time travelling trip than a history textbook.
Favourite periods? I of course loved the medieval chapter, that goes without saying. Anchorites, curfews, criminals seeking sanctuary in churches, and seedy brothels in Cheapside. However, I also loved Stuart London with it’s plague, fire, and chocolate drinking, and Georgian London because I’m a coffee lover and fascinated by this history of how the drink came to be so popular. It’s difficult to pick a favourite because each chapter is equally good.
London: A Travel Guide Through Time makes urban history fun, learning memorable, and filled me with a new found respect for the city I now call home. If you’re an ex-pat, like me, London holds so many wondrous things that you don’t realize are there; you hurry along and bypass them every day without thinking twice. This book made me stop and take notice of the little things around me in the city that I didn’t see before. Green pulls fascinating tidbits out of the shadows and shows readers a side to London that’s more than the just Big Ben and Buckingham Palace of so many typical tours.
Green also challenges readers to rethink their perception of history, but in reverse. Knowing what we learned of the past, how does it shape how we see ourselves and the London of today?
“Is it something of a commonplace to accuse historians of allowing present-day experiences and concerns to shape their perceptions of the past. But in your case, it’s the other way around: your time in the past may well affect how you perceive the present-day city…Lament the dreary anonymity of Starbucks compared with the conviviality and companionship of an eighteenth-century coffeehouse…Savour London’s nightlife even as the memory of the strict medieval curfew hangs over you…Buy yourself a hawk. Start a jelly house. Think of reality television as modern day Bedlam…” (p.448)
It’s the small, intimate details of the city he knows so well that make this such an enchanting read. Green is able to connect our present with the past in meaningful and captivating ways. It was such an engaging book, that I was loathe to put down at night.
Whether you are new to London, a born-and-bred Londoner looking to to rekindle your connection with your city, or a visitor planning to enjoy a trip here, this book is for you. It gave me a new appreciation of this wondrous city, and I’m sure it will do the same for you. Happy Time Travels!
In town? Want to learn more about London? Take one of Dr. Green’s fantastic London Tours: Unreal City Audio: London Walking Tours
Follow Dr. Matthew Green on Twitter: @drmatthewgreen