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London: Overlooked perhaps, but still a great city

© By Hans Tammemagi

From the start London had rotten luck ... or did it? Picked by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe as the capital of Upper Canada, its position was quickly usurped by Toronto. Ever since, London has been overshadowed by the Big Smoke just down the big highway. So when I came to visit recently, the slate was clean, after all, who knows anything about London?
     As the taxi trundled toward the hotel, it struck me that cars could drive at normal speed in the downtown core ... and find parking! I checked in and went for an exploratory stroll in the fresh, crisp air that contained not a hint of smog.
     Every now and again a mural, a little park or an historic building would appear amongst the modern office structures like wildflowers brightening a meadow. I came upon Covent Garden Market, a reminder that London is the hub of southwestern Ontario and is surrounded by the best farm land in the province. Lured in by aromas of spicy soaps and candles, I sought tidbits amongst stalls laden with organic fruits and vegetables, creamy chocolates, fleshy meats, and flowers ablaze with reds, pinks and deep vermilions.
     London, happily, is not a typical urban centre. Instead, the concrete cityscape is softened and made livable by the two meandering branches of the Thames River that - as Simcoe envisioned - bring numerous parks, green spaces and pathways into the city. Furthermore, the community has, for over a century, planted at least 1,000 trees annually, earning it the nickname "Forest City." A quiet message was seeping in: London has a lot going for it.
     Hiking and biking paths abound, so I mounted up. Puffing, I dismounted at Fanshawe Pioneer Village. Wandering amongst 30 period buildings, gardens and an orchard, I thought I saw Simcoe amongst the guides in period costumes, who re-enact life as it was in the late 1800s. Then I strolled one of the many trails at the neighbouring Fanshawe Conservation Area, a 1200-hectare nature area that includes a large reservoir created by Fanshawe Dam, and is typical of the many nature areas that border the Thames. I promised to return in winter when the trails transform into groomed cross-country ski tracks.


     A lover of history, I was delighted to learn that London is infused with museums of every ilk. The centrepiece, Museum London, sits on the banks of the Thames at the edge of the downtown core. With large arched windows, it houses not only a treasure trove of history but also a vibrant art gallery.
     I particularly enjoyed a fascinating peek into yesteryear at the Museum's Eldon House. Built in 1834, it is the oldest surviving residence in London and housed four generations of the wealthy Harris family. Ghosts walk among the furnishings that include many treasures collected from far-away places. The tittering laughter of schoolchildren led me to the centre of their attention: a hollowed-out elephant's foot filled with umbrellas. Closing my eyes, I imagined the click-clack of croquet balls and ladies and gentlemen in white sipping tea in the garden.
     My next stop was Banting House National Historic Site. A flame kindled by the late Queen Mother in 1989 - not to be extinguished until diabetes is cured - burns outside a modest house where Sir Frederick Banting practised medicine and in 1920 conceived the idea for insulin. There was nary a dry eye in our group as the curator described this remarkable and generous man - truly a giant - and read letters from thankful people whose lives were changed by his discovery.
     Then I found another national historic site: the Royal Canadian Regiment Military Museum, the oldest - and one of the best - military museums in the country. Located in historic Wolseley Barracks, it tells the story of the Royal Canadian Regiment, which parallels the story of Canada. Formed in 1883, this regiment has earned an astounding 57 battle honours while participating in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, two World Wars, the Korean War and numerous peacekeeping missions. Paintings, weapons and life-size dioramas of fighting scenes bring the Regiment's history alive and poignantly show the heavy price that freedom demands.
     Next day, I discovered that London is very much a family city. On a scouting mission for my grandchildren (honest), I wandered through the Children's Museum, one of the first in Canada. Whenever no one was watching, I searched for dinosaur bones in the sand and pushed the controls of a rocket ship so it blasted off on a TV screen. How I wished that "adult" museums would take this hands-on approach! Next, my odyssey took me to Storybook Gardens, where I again re-lived my youth cavorting in the splash pad, Pirates Island, the Frog Pond, and Old MacDonald's Farm.
     The end of day found me in Richmond Row, the "in" place to hang. Sounds of music and laughter bubbled onto the street from the numerous bars and restaurants as I jostled with university students and a cheerful evening crowd. Dinner downed, I entered the Grand Theatre, a treasure that has operated since 1901 with a galaxy of stars such as W.C. Fields, Sarah Bernhardt, and Sir John Gielgud strutting the stage.
     Too soon it was over. En route to the station, the taxi driver leaned over the seat. "I've travelled throughout Ontario," he jabbed with his thick finger, "and this is the best place to live. It's got everything." He confirmed what I had learned: Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe was a wise man.

Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.

Photo credits
Hans Tammemagi: Covent Garden Market
London Tourism: Bicycling, Richmond Row outdoor cafeacute;

If You Go
This Destination
as seen on
General Information and Accommodation: www.londontourism.ca
Wikipedia: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/London,_Ontario
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/London_(Ontario)

Activities and Sights
Museum London: www.museumlondon.ca
Banting House: www.diabetes.ca
Royal Canadian Regiment Military Museum: www.rcrmuseum.ca
Fanshawe Pioneer Village : www.fanshawepioneervillage.ca
Grand Theatre: www.grandtheatre.com
London Children's Museum : www.londonchildrensmuseum
Storybook Gardens: www.storybook.london.ca
Tourism London

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Maps (Mapquest) U.S. & Canada: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp
Maps (Mapquest) World: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp?country=GB
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/

When travelling to London Ontario, you may wish to investigate the following links:

Other Destinations
Travel Tips
Travel News Readers' Forum London Tourism


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