Why Is London So Confusing?


If the Tokyo experience is lost in translation, then London’s is lost in confusion. Nothing functions as it should or is where you think it is.

Let’s start with the Thames, which meanders so much that in places the North side is further South than the South side. Then there are the hospitals, which aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Hammersmith’s is in White City, Charing Cross’s is in Hammersmith and the Chelsea is nowhere near – you get the idea.

So what about tubes? Hmm. To go South into the West End from King’s Cross you have to go North to Euston, except that Euston is actually West. Blackfriars is the only station that’s on both sides of the river, and as it’s also a main line you could end up at the coast if you’re not careful. Oh, and its trains are only half the length of the station platform so you could miss it even when you’re on time to catch it because you’re at the wrong end.

Try Baker Street underground instead; to exit the station you have to go downward to another platform going in a different direction, then back up and along yet another tunnel – and it’s really badly signposted, so you’ll probably end up somewhere else. Until recently you could drive right onto the platform at Paddington station, but now there’s no parking anywhere and they’ve separated rail and tube lines so that connections are a nightmare. Try getting out of Waterloo Station at the right exit, or escaping from Liverpool Street, which is signposted by street names. The former is a once elegant terminus now ruined with clutter, the latter is a sensitive restoration with so many exits that you might as well roll a dice.

Some tube stations are so close together that it’s faster to walk. Others, like the one in Westminster, are ten minutes from the next station – if you believe Churchill’s tube trip in ‘Darkest Hour’. You’d think the war orders that turned street signs around to fool Nazi invasions and confuse everyone was still in place.

Tourists get very confused by London; apparently the most common mistakes are not standing on the right, mixing London Bridge with Tower Bridge and the Museum of London with the British Museum, and public drinking. Many laws are casually broken and the police don’t seem to mind (this is from an American survey, mind you they also complained about the lack of guns). We love Indian food and have things like pop-up urinals and Belisha beacons.



We also confuse just by being ourselves, it seems. We place tags on our sentences; ‘isn’t it?’, ‘didn’t we?’ etc., and ask each other if they’re all right. We’re cool to strangers until they prove themselves pro-actively friendly, we laugh a lot and often have an elaborate way of speaking. Plus, we mispronounce all our place names. No Londoner has ever eaten in an Angus Steak House or anywhere around Leicester Square.

Did I mention the culs-de-sac, canals and railway lines that isolate whole neighbourhoods? Try getting to Primrose Hill, Broadway Market, Stoke Newington, Muswell Hill, Ally Pally or Crouch End by public transport, or even on foot. Trying crossing Tuffnell Park without hitting endless dead ends.

How about Green Lanes, which isn’t named after a green lane and is only spoken of in the plural, even though it’s just one very long road, or the two Finsburys which are in different places, or the streets that continue across their ends and the house names that alternate except when new buildings have changed the numbering systems?

I once took a meeting with a group of power-suited Americans who arrived over an hour later because they had gone to two other streets with the same names. The best way to navigate is to use the names of pubs – although of course they’re not all still there, even though the names are still used.

London roads follow the lines of the original hedgerows and streams, and all efforts to change that system have ended in failure.

So come here and – in the nicest possible way – get lost.


17 comments on “Why Is London So Confusing?”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    This is why the Met’s computer stores pub names and locations, including what the pub used to be called in 1948 just in case a 90 year old is the one using it as a geographical marker.

  2. SteveB says:

    Hmmm surely to go to the West End from King’s X one takes the soutbound Victoria line to Oxford Circus or southbound Piccadilly line to Piccadilly Circus.
    Paddington was changed for Crossrail I think, and will make more sense when it starts running. (though the shortcut over the bridge to the Heathrow Express is well hidden unless you know it’s there)
    I love Blackfriars station with its view down the river; the trains vary from 4 to 12 carriages. If you got carried down to Brighton there are worse fates!
    Interesting about the Met’s computer!

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    At least, the London Underground uses compass directions. Paris gives the name of the station where the line terminates, which is not helpful for those not familiar with the distant suburbs.

  4. Trace Turner says:

    The year I lived in London in the late 1980’s was a time of frequent public transport strikes so I bought an A-Z and started walking. I spent many Sunday afternoons just exploring and felt a little proud when I was able to get from Clerkenwell to Kensington without the map.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    There is as much going on beneath London’s streets as there is on top. Read “Underground London” by Stephen Smith.

    Extract from back cover blurb: “Exploding corpses in catacombs, the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, the culverts of Hampton Court and the miniature Mail Rail that once distributed 12 million letter a day….” Not to mention the 25 miles of cold war bunkers and 12th Century water main. And then there are the miles of sewers.

    The Mail Rail is now open as a tourist attraction.

  6. Roger says:

    A mild puzzle at Euston underground is changing between the Victoria and Northern (Bank Branch of course) lines. The two Southbound platforms are next to each other, which is handy, but the trains are going in opposite directions. Same with Northbound. The most Southerly station on the underground is on the Northern Line at Morden. The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is in Chelsea; it’s a long way from Westminster, though. Green Lanes – just to confuse you further – turns into the High Road, Wood Green, before becoming Green Lanes again.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Roger-I always get confused at Camden Town underground station.

  8. Jo W says:

    I shall be journeying into the London hinterland tomorrow on a quest to buy Chris’s latest offering. I will leave a travel plan with my nearest and dearest in case of total ‘London’ confusion and instructions for the settling of my estate,in case I never make it back to base camp.
    No,of course I won’t get lost – I’m a Londoner,born and bred! 😉

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Why aren’t Edgeware, and Edgeware Road on the same tube line? Always find Euston a nightmare, and St Panc’s lovely place, but I always end up walking a marathon there, the place is clearly bigger underneath than on top; or do they just keep looping you about for the fun of it so they can watch you on CCTV? And who on earth thought that 12 (or is it more?) entrances to Bank was a sensible idea?

  10. C Falconer says:

    I love going on the Northern line (branch bank) northwards via Kings X to Euston, change to Victoria line going northwards back through Kings X
    Its like Alice in Wonderland, believing in 6 impossible things before breakfast…

  11. C Falconer says:

    (branch bank)??? that comes of drinking at lunchtime!

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I’ll admit my husband was a Geography major but the two visits we made to London & environs did not result in our ever being lost. We did discover that the bus we got on was a different company than the one on which we started once, but the very kind driver accepted our (incorrect) tickets anyway. I definitely ignored compass directions and determined what the routing (and that is “rooting”, thank you) should be and everything was fine. Of course King’s Cross was the starting point and that might have made it easier but the signage was usually accurate.
    Why do people refer to “rowters” on their computer systems as if you were cutting grooves in them?

  13. Denise Treadwell says:

    I always got to where I wanted to go. Plotted my journey first. Never got lost nor disoriented.

  14. John Griffin says:

    Walk unless you know better! It’s often quicker. Sad that the Circle Line is no longer a haven for the homeless, dispossessed, lovelorn and drunk, thanks to having to change now. In the 70s I used to use the buses as well, and at one time had 3 ladies on the go, all on the Central Line – happy, louche days!

  15. Peter Dixon says:

    Mornington Crescent!

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Peter: blown to smithereens!

  17. JeffreyP says:

    It’s not really that difficult to get to Stoke Newington or or Muswell Hill by public transport is it? Maybe it is if you don’t want to use the overground in case you are forced to sit next to a Brexiteer or football supporter from the outer suburbs.

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