National Character Area 112

Inner London - Description

The Inner London today

Inner London lies on the banks of the Thames where the river valley widens out into a broad flood plain. Alluvial gravels overlie the heavy London Clay, and rise in gentle steps to form river terraces to the north and south. In places, the river terraces are overlain by sand and gravel glacial deposits to form more noticeable low hills, as at Hampstead. The gently terraced landform is almost completely obscured by the dense urban development.

The waterfront along the banks of the River Thames is particularly striking, with glass and steel office blocks juxtaposed with fine stone buildings from many periods, and the skyline is dramatically punctuated by features such as the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye and office skyscrapers in the city. Long views are also glimpsed of the new development at Canary Wharf and the O2 Arena (formerly known as the Millennium Dome). The Thames forms a connecting and unifying thread running through this historic capital city. Much of the character of the urban area arises from the mosaic of layouts and buildings from many different historic periods. The capital city contains the highest density of World Heritage Sites in England including Maritime Greenwich and its buffer zone, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church, and the Tower of London.

The whole NCA is classified as dense urban settlement. The varied habitats in green spaces, gardens, cemeteries and allotments all provide important resources for wildlife including wild insect pollinators, bats, house sparrows, hedgehogs, sand martins and stag beetles. Breeding peregrines are well established in the capital. The Thames is important as a migratory corridor for both fish and birds. Aquatic species such as eel, smelt and salmon can be also found. The Thames is considerably narrower in Central London owing to a process of encroachment and reclamation, and this impacts on tidal range and tidal velocities and has a significant effect on ecology.

The NCA has 9 km of public rights of way, which includes the Thames Path National Trail and sections of seven regionally strategic walking routes. Parks, green spaces, woodlands, rivers, and waterbodies provide recreational services to residents and visitors throughout the NCA. A small portion of Richmond Park National Nature Reserve falls within the NCA. Accessible green space, close to residential areas, is particularly valued for recreation and for physical and mental wellbeing. The extensive network of parks and green spaces throughout the NCA allows for active and passive outdoor recreation close to people’s homes and places of work. Reservoirs and wetlands in the east provide opportunities for birdwatching and fishing, as well as walking, cycling and boating. Water-based activities are provided along the Thames and its tributary rivers, the Grand Union Canal and Docklands. Due to the predominant urban nature of the NCA, parks and green spaces scattered among the built environment provide highly valued pockets of perceived tranquillity. However, although London is well provided with green space, this does not necessarily lie close to where people live; for instance, Westminster has several Royal Parks including Hyde Park, St James’s Park and Kensington Gardens, but many residential areas in the borough lack accessible green space (City of Westminster Open Space Strategy, Westminster City Council, 2007).

The low, wooded ridges to the north and south form a low-key backdrop to the internationally significant buildings and cityscape in the wide valley bottom. Sense of identity is very strong across Inner London, particularly along the River Thames, in the designed landscapes of the Royal Parks, and in the streets and garden squares in the west. Some of the large central parks were previously Royal hunting grounds and have inspired many paintings and works of art. Other parts of London’s natural landscape have literary connotations, such as the River Thames which is vividly portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, home to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Shard, which as of 2013, is the tallest building in Western Europe and transforms the London skyline, provide modern infrastructure in the capital.

The landscape through time

London is underlain by a diverse geology. The oldest bedrocks in the Thames region are Precambrian volcanic deposits overlain by shallow marine deposits (the London Platform). Subsequent uplift and erosion during the Early Cretaceous were followed by a marine transgression forming the Chalk which now functions as a major aquifer. This sequence can be viewed at Gilbert’s Pit Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – a site that is still studied today. By 50 million years ago, intense sedimentation and subsidence formed the London Basin which was gradually infilled by various marine deposits including the fossiliferous London Clay which was deposited under semi-tropical conditions. Around 40 million years ago, falling sea levels resulted in the development of an ancestral Thames river system which, 2 million years ago, was a tributary to the ancestor of the modern Rhine. During this period, the Thames would have followed a course to the north of its current one through the Vale of St Albans, and also created a ‘staircase’ of river terraces owing to a combination of climate change, uplift and downcutting.

The earliest evidence of settlement alongside the River Thames dates from several thousand years ago. Before this time, the valley was densely wooded and people moved along the river banks creating open spaces for hunting and rearing cattle, with the river providing fish, plants and freshwater. Around 1,500 BC rising water levels drowned much of the Thames flood plain, and alder woodlands replaced the mixed forests of oak, lime and yew. On the drier gravel terraces farmsteads were established, and the best land was highly prized and exploited for clay and timber.

The origins of Roman London began at the point where the Thames could first be crossed, by Ludgate Hill and Cornhill in the City of London. Here the river and the alluvial flood plain narrow, and gravel islands on the south side produced a ford. The river comes closest to the edge of the gravel terrace on the north bank and so it is here, rather than on the south bank, that the City of London developed.

London had become the main city and commercial centre of England during the Anglo-Saxon period but Winchester remained the political capital, although Edward the Confessor built a palace by Westminster Abbey. Under the Normans, Westminster increased in importance and the magnificent 11th-century Westminster Hall still survives from their palace. Westminster also housed the Royal Courts of Justice and of the Exchequer. Later, Parliaments sat regularly in the Chapter House of the Abbey and then in St Stephen’s Chapel at the palace.

From the Middle Ages, London grew as a port. Industrial development began in the east where land was unsuitable for building or agriculture. The wide flood plain of the Thames allowed the excavation of large docks and their progressive extension east along the river in line with the expansion in trade and shipping. Surrounding areas initially remained rural, providing food and timber for the capital. The large-scale development of London drew extensively from its own substructure, with bricks made from locally quarried brickearths.

Trade flourished in medieval London. The city’s population was far greater than any rival in England. This led to London becoming a major centre for importing and distributing goods to elsewhere in the country. To improve their industries, trades and craftsmen of the city organised themselves into a complex system of guilds. These were a major influence in the Middle Ages. By the 15th century, cloth production was England’s biggest industry and large amounts were being exported from London.

At the start of Henry VIII’s reign, London was filled with splendid religious buildings. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, vast numbers of these were destroyed or adapted to secular use. The core of the city was built around the lands seized from the church.

Prosperity increased during the Elizabethan period and the population of London grew accordingly. Restrictions in the city meant that secular entertainment was banished south of the river, particularly to the flourishing area of Southwark with its great theatres, such as the Globe, now associated with William Shakespeare.

The 1666 fire changed the medieval city of London forever. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 stated that houses must be built only of brick and stone. The new city gradually grew with wider streets and regular brick houses. Following the fire, the City became a more marked commercial centre under the Lord Mayor. The gentry chose to make their homes to the west, in Covent Garden and Lincoln’s Inn Fields and further out over time.

During the 17th century the first green spaces, including St James’s and Hyde Parks, were opened to the public. The Royal Parks were former Royal hunting grounds that had been located in areas of low agricultural value. These ‘forests’ had been managed to create good hunting conditions – a combination of woodland and open grassland. By the end of the 19th century, a further six Royal Parks had been made accessible and provided greatly valued breathing spaces.

London continued to expand through the Georgian and Regency periods, driven by its importance as a port at the centre of an expanding empire. During this period the terraces and mansions of the West End were built and famous London squares such as those in Mayfair and Bloomsbury were laid out.

From the opening of London Bridge station in 1836, a rapid phase of expansion mirrored the spread of the railway as it became possible to live some distance from the workplace. The absorption of neighbouring towns and villages accelerated. Concerns for public health meant that these newly urban areas were often provided with a park. Additionally, some commons, such as Clapham, which had been used for grazing animals, survived to provide green oases within the city.

London lost many historic buildings during the Second World War bombing raids. The result is a mixture of old and new where a medieval church can sit in the centre of a modern urban office development. The post-war period saw considerable change in the built environment with tower blocks appearing for the first time.

Despite its role in defining the development of London, the natural landscape was not widely perceived as integral to London’s character and has been valued more for its amenity. This has led to a gradual erosion of London’s natural character through the culverting and canalising of rivers, felling of native woodlands and neglect of some remnant features which appear to have no amenity value. However, recent improvements are evident with supplementary planning guidance produced along with Mayoral and other funding programmes, which are helping to restore rivers, add to tree cover across London and increase the inclusion of urban greening measures in new developments.

The Greater London Authority has issued All London Green Grid Supplementary Planning Guidance, which aims to link the green spaces within London as well as to encourage the provision of further green infrastructure. As a legacy of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in the Lea Valley, has been designated Metropolitan Open Land.