March 2004 issue

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London's lure

London is without doubt one of the most popular cities for language travellers keen to study English in Europe. Jane Vernon Smith finds out some of the reasons for its popularity.

From St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London in the east to Parliament and the London Eye - the giant ferris wheel - in the west, London's skyline is well-known. Each year, students are attracted in their thousands to London because of its size, its history and by the huge variety of things to do.

Spreading north, south, east and west around the curves of the river Thames, London covers an area of 1,580 square kilometres, and within that area, there is much on offer. Sightseeing, shopping, history, culture and entertainment, London can serve it up in huge helpings. And because of its vast size, visitors need to be well organised to take advantage. 'Once here, it takes the students three to four weeks to exhaust all the obvious attractions,' says Pete Bulmer, Principal of St John's Wood School of English. 'This means that short-stay students never get to see it all, and longer-stay students have the chance to explore in-depth, and develop their interests.'

The city is at the cutting-edge of developments in the music, fashion, sport and theatre scenes, adds Bulmer, who says this is a key attraction for students. Steve Phillips, Director of Internexus Regent's College, agrees that theatre is one of the most popular attractions for students. In addition to the well known shows in London's Theatreland, there is also a wide choice of fringe productions at smaller venues.

Other night time entertainment is also easy to seek out. London boasts a thriving club scene, while restaurants of all types and prices abound, ranging from Thai and Chinese to authentic Moroccan souks. For a less costly night out, huge numbers of late-night bars have sprung up in recent years, while not to be forgotten is the traditional British pub. According to Phillips, weekly 'excursions' to local pubs enjoy a massive uptake. 'This is popular,' he explains, 'as all the teachers go, [the students] can practise their English and alcohol is involved.'

In a city the size of London, shopping has to be a major draw. Oxford Street and Regent Street host a large number of department stores. Liberty (Regent Street) and Selfridges (Oxford Street) retain their highly impressive facades. To the west, there is another retail cluster around the twin stars of Harrods and Harvey Nichols. In all of these shops can be found an array of the latest designer fashion and accessories. 'Some of our Far Eastern students buy designer clothes to take back home and re-sell for a tidy profit,' says Bulmer. 'We often take them to Burberry's secret warehouse, where bargains are to be had.' For those who are counting their pennies, there are also interesting markets to explore, including Camden Market, Spitalfields Market and Petticoat Lane.

The fact that London has so many open, green areas is also a big plus. Students can enjoy walking in the many parks, including the centrally positioned Green Park and Hyde Park, while Richmond Park is a popular venue for cycling, as Rob Howley, Principal of English Language Training in Clapham, south-west London, confirms.

Apart from London's traditional attractions, there are also a number of popular newcomers. The London skyline has been enhanced by the new buildings at Canary Wharf - a futuristic business park - and the now seemingly-permanent feature, the London Eye. These have become virtually compulsory on every itinerary.

Professional football is also currently a major draw. 'Up until a few years ago, it was deeply unfashionable, but now that there are so many foreign stars, and the violence is a thing of the past,' says Bulmer, 'it has become a mainstay of our social programme - especially as clubs such as Fulham let us have cheap tickets.' With 13 professional clubs to choose from in London, there is no need to travel too far.

Another growing attraction is greyhound racing. 'Maybe [this is] because it's different and new for [students]', guesses Phillips at Internexus. Whatever the reason, it has caught on to such an extent that '‘going to the dogs' is far and away the most popular [excursion]!' says Bulmer. Alternative sporting options are also available; for cricket-lovers, there is a choice of Lords or the Oval cricket grounds, while rugby fans can visit the Twickenham rugby union stadium, and Wimbledon hosts the famous annual lawn tennis championships.

Schools confirm that bus and underground networks make it easy to get around London, although the underground, also known as the tube, in particular, should be avoided during the morning and evening rush hours. River buses are a well-kept secret and offer a cheap and convenient opportunity to see major landmarks, such as the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

London's good rail connections mean that it is easy to take day trips outside the city. Many schools organise trips to places such as Canterbury, Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton. 'All [of these] are very popular,' says Professor Tim Connell, Director of Language Studies at City University, 'as they are in total contrast to London'.

Because of London's sheer size, regardless of which school a student attends, there is likely to be a range of attractions close at hand. Based in the northwest of London, the St John's Wood Language School is close to the EMI recording studio in Abbey Road, made famous in the 1960s by the Beatles. 'The Japanese especially like to be photographed using the famous zebra crossing!' reports Bulmer. City University, in the heart of the city, also boasts a wide range of sights on its doorstep. These include the 'Square Mile' (home to the Bank of England and other financial institutions); the Inns of Court; the trendy Old Street area with many advertising agencies and design studios; and the home of Dr Johnson, creator of the first dictionary. Meanwhile, students studying at English Language Training, based in Clapham, south-west London, are within easy reach of the much-vaunted new cinema, Imax, showing films in both 2D and 3D, and the South Bank cultural complex, which offers theatre, film, music and art.

While students are generally aware of London's tourist attractions, what many may not appreciate are some of its less tangible attributes. Howley speaks of London's 'vibrancy [and] an increasingly 24-7 culture' and also highlights the city's tolerant atmosphere. 'Many students greatly appreciate the fact that you can wear what you like in London, and no-one will look twice!' he says.

Agent viewpoint

'London is a very attractive option for people coming from our area in that it's a big, cosmopolitan city with the opportunity to meet people from a wide variety of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds, both at school and outside. Getting around is not a problem. London is easy to get to, and now that Ryanair and Easyjet offer low-cost flights from Trieste, Treviso and Venice to Stansted, it's even more attractive. And it's a great base if students fancy a day out in another town, like Oxford and Cambridge.'
Kip Kelland, Keep Talking, Italy

'To paraphrase past students, as a first-time visitor to England, you usually want to see the capital, London. It has good transport connections, so you can travel easily. Students like to visit the famous museums, the interesting art galleries, green parks and typical English pubs. They say that London is the paradise of culture, art and music. There is always something to do, to see, to hear.'
Agnes Gonczi, Katedra Nyelviskola, Hungary

'Students choose London because they are interested in European rather than North American culture. They want to learn the Queen's English and they like the image of living in a big international city like London, with accessibility to other European cities and towns in England. They also want to keep up-to-date with the latest fashion and music trends. In their free time, students go out with their classmates and go sightseeing. A general impression of a stay in London is that students had a ‘once in a lifetime' experience, and got to know more about other countries in Europe through the friends that they made.'
M Kawazoe, Ryugaku Journal Inc., Japan

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