Several years ago I stayed at a stately house-turned-hotel in Pennsylvania. Every inch of the house looked to be a grand Georgian villa, so you can imagine my astonishment when the proprietor proudly told me that the house was nearly 80 years old. Unfortunately, my surprised response that my ordinary late Victorian house in London was several decades older than her replica 18th-century manor instantly deflated her pride, creating one of those very awkward moments of silence that seem to go on and on.
What this exchange made crystal clear to me was that what is considered “old” in the United States is nothing out of the ordinary in the United Kingdom. In fact, residential property in London that is less than 20 years old is much more of a novelty than something built in the 19th century.
What is considered “old” in the United States is nothing out of the ordinary in the United Kingdom.America is still a very young country by European standards. Whenever British friends of mine visit the United States, they always remark on the wide streets and grid-like layout of the cities—both of which make driving around town so easy. By contrast London can be a confusing maze of small medieval streets, whose names seem to change every few blocks. Many of the roads that remain in London were designed for walking, a horse and cart, or a carriage—not cars. A house with a garage (or even a driveway) is unusual in a central location in London, as car ownership didn’t really become affordable to the average UK family until the 1950s and ’60s. They were very much a luxury item before then.
Of course, London has had to give way to the modern world, leveling a few areas to make way for large thoroughfares and main roads. Yet it tends to cling to its ancient origins, preferring to preserve that past as much as possible. Although many of its oldest buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, those that remain are cherished. These days, older buildings are subject to historic preservation controls or are in a historic conservation area so that the character of London’s older architecture is retained. As you wander around London’s residential streets, you will see rows of brick terraced houses, most of which are either Victorian (1837-1901) or Edwardian (1901-1910), and in certain areas of town there are still many buildings that are Georgian (1714-1830).
Given their age, these properties would have had gas, electricity, and indoor plumbing added as part of their modernization. This means that sometimes the layout of a house may be less than ideal by modern standards. For example, it may be difficult to find an older house with an en-suite master bedroom, though improvements in plumbing equipment and updated building regulations are making this easier.
While many visitors to this city may be conscious of London’s age, they often fail to realize just how much London’s roads and homes continue to be shaped by the past. I certainly believe that one of London’s most charming aspects is that it does value the past and tries hard to preserve its history . . . even if I do secretly long for a garage.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad London.