25 Things You Should Know About London

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Buckingham Palace, Wimbledon, Notting Hill, Westminster Abbey, and the West End—none of these sights are in the City of London. Before you call us mad, consider this: While they are all in what we call London, which is technically Greater London, the City of London is actually a small city-within-a-city, squeezing 7400 residents [PDF] (plus some 300,000 commuters) into an area slightly larger than a square mile. The larger London area has 8.6 million residents living in its 32 boroughs (the City of London is considered the 33rd). Within its former walls, the City of London is home to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Leadenhall Market, and the cucumber-shaped Gherkin Tower. It also has its own mayor, whose official title is “Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of the City of London.” Read on for more facts about England's capital city.

1. The original settlement of the City of London was formed when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 ACE and established Londinium, where the Thames River was narrow enough to build a bridge. Londinium replaced Colchester as capital of Britannia in the 2nd century, but was completely abandoned in the 5th century.

2. Many versions of bridges have spanned the River Thames connecting the City of London and Southwark, but an early medieval version of London Bridge, which lasted 600 years, really did fall down—in 1281, 1309, 1425 and 1437. Although the rhyme has roots in a Nordic saga, “my fair lady” was added during this time, attacking Queen Eleanor for taking the tolls for her personal use instead of spending it on the necessary bridge repairs.

3. The site where the 828,821-square-foot Buckingham Palace stands today used to be a mulberry garden, meant to rear silkworms for King James I in the 1600s. (Unfortunately for him, his staff planted the wrong kind of mulberry bushes.) Now the Queen’s official London residence has 775 rooms, including 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms, 514 doors and 760 windows. 

4. Every single morning—even Christmas Day—gravel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace is “dragged” in order to clean and comb it. Two more inspections happen every day “just in case there is any rubbish.” The purpose? “To ensure the forecourt always looks spick and span.”

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5. Hidden underneath the city are dozens of lost rivers and canals. As the population grew, many were converted into sewers, including River Fleet in Smithfield, into which butchers had tossed the remains of dead animal. The banks of the former River Effra, however, turned into the The Oval, home of the Surrey County Cricket Club

6. The London Beer Flood took place on October 17, 1814, after a three-story high wooden vat of beer exploded at Henry Meux and Co. brewery. The tidal wave ended up killing eight people

7. The nickname Big Ben is actually for the Great Bell at the Palace of Westminster, not the tower or clock. The 13.7-ton bell chimes at the musical note E. Also in the belfry are four quarter bells, which ring at G sharp, F sharp, E and B. None of the bells swing—they’re all struck with hammers.

8. So what is the name of the tower? Victorian journalists called it St. Stephen’s Tower and most refer to it as the Clock Tower, but in 2012, the 315-feet tall structure was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee.

9. Harrods department store in Knightsbridge has 330 departments—including a “Perfumery Hall,” “Toy Kingdom,” and “Great Writing Room”—and hosts 15 million customers a year on its seven floors spread over 4.5 acres. 

10. Forget the GPS: For more than 150 years, in order to get a license to drive a traditional black taxi (also called a Hackney carriage) in London, cab drivers must pass The Knowledge, a test requiring them to memorize every route within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross [PDF], which includes 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. Typically, it takes cabbies two to four years to cruise through it.

11. The largest catering operation for any annual sporting event in Europe? Tennis’ grass Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon. During the two-week event in 2015, 28,000 bottles of champagne were supplied—only to be topped by the 150,000 bottles of water, 235,000 glasses of British Pimm’s, and 350,000 cups of tea and coffee. Also on hand were 190,000 sandwiches, 32,000 fish and chips portions, 142,000 servings of English strawberries, and 6,000 stone-baked pizzas. 

12. Charles Dickens’ “house in town,” which he called it, was at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury and is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum, housing more than 100,000 items related to the 19th century author. Special events include candlelight tours to experience the home the way Dickens wrote in—as well as taxidermy workshops which are, per a warning on the museum's site, “not for the faint hearted.”

13. All the world’s a stage, but William Shakespeare's favorite performance space was London’s Globe Theater. (His first play performed there was likely Julius Caesar, in 1599 [PDF].) But on June 29, 1613, a stage cannon misfired during a Henry VIII performance and the theater burned down in less than two hours. It was quickly rebuilt, but shut down by the Puritans in 1642. The current Globe Theater, also known as the Third Globe, opened in 1993, thanks to the persistence of American actor/director Sam Wanamaker [PDF].

14. The only fully independent market in London is Borough Market, with a history that dates back to the 11th century. A blue plaque hangs there, calling it “London’s oldest fruit and veg market” as “voted by the people” of the borough of Southwark.

15. Arguably the world’s most famous crosswalk, Abbey Road—where The Beatles posed for their iconic 1969 album cover—crosses an actual (busy!) street, where cars often have to wait for tourists to snap their photos mid-walk. Abbey Road Studios now has a live cam pointed at the intersection.

16. The London Eye on the south bank of the Thames isn't a Ferris wheel—according to a London Eye press release [PDF], it’s actually “the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel.” Still, at 443 feet high, it would have been the tallest Ferris wheel when it opened on the last day before the new millennium (thus its nickname, the Millennium Wheel). Since then, taller Ferris wheels have gone up in China, Singapore, and Las Vegas. The Eye has been used as a filming location for movies like Wimbledon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and for $552 you can get a private ride in a Cupid’s Capsule, which includes a bottle of Pommery Brut Royal Champagne and a box of Hotel Chocolat Pink Champagne truffles.   

17. London plays an important role in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (after all, it's home to both the British Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley). Rowling herself, however, was born 110 miles away in Yate. A very different double-initialed female author hails from the British capital: 50 Shades of Grey scribe EL James.

18. In southeast London’s Shooters Hill district of Woolwich, there’s a street called Ha-Ha Road, so named, some say, because locals would laugh at people falling into the ditch that used to run alongside it. But the joke was on the locals when the road was closed from July 7 to September 19 in 2012 while the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks hosted the Olympics and Paralympics shooting events. 

19. Despite its name, only 45 percent of the London Underground, which opened in 1863 and carries 1.3 billion riders a year, is in tunnels. 

20. Teen genius 13-year-old Joseph Malin is credited for inventing fish and chips on the East End around 1860. He came from a rug weaving family who started making fries in their basement to supplement their income—until little Joseph decided to combine them with fried fish from a nearby shop. The business continued until 1970s. Now the longest running chippie (Brit speak for fish-and-chip shop) is Rock and Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, which opened in 1871, and where a regular-sized order costs $21.80.

21. Another young man who broke from his family’s weaving business: Thomas Twining, founded the Twining of London tea business more than 300 years ago. The shop he bought in 1706, Tom’s Coffee Shop, which stood apart from the competition by also serving tea, is still open at 216 Strand. 

22. Crime pays: Among the many dark attractions in London are The Clink Prison Museum, The London Dungeon and the Crime Museum exhibit at the Museum of London.

23. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who was born in London, sometimes pays the rent of struggling students in the city. “I get letters from people trying to go to drama school and needing to pay their rent,” he told GQ. “And so that's something I occasionally do. It's impossibly expensive to live in London." 

24. London was named 2016’s best city for volunteering in Europe, thanks in great part to Team London — Mayor Boris Johnson’s program, which has 120,000 active volunteers, half of them being children and youth. 

25. The famous blue door Hugh Grant invited Julia Roberts through in the 1999 film Notting Hill is at 280 Westbourne Park Road. But the original chipped one from the film was sold at a Christie’s auction for about $8000 in 1999. For a while, the door was painted black to deter tourists, but the current owners have painted it blue again—nearby shops even sell tote bags featuring “The Blue Door.”

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11 Fun Facts About Dolly Parton

Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.


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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.


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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born on January 19, 1809.

1. Edgar Allan Poe was the original Balloon Boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later for Edgar Allan Poe.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. Edgar Allan Poe had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. Edgar Allan Poe's death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

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