5 ways a trip to London can boost cultural capital

There's no place like London for cultural capital, says Lauran Hampshire-Dell, with its rich mix of history and hi-tech

Lauran Hampshire-Dell

London eye thames

Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. 

So where better to inspire a group of high-energy students than in a city that never stops?

London’s iconic skyline is steeped in history, with countless opportunities to maximise students’ cultural capital. 

Background: Want children to remember what you teach? Book a school trip

Read more: How to avoid a deficit approach to cultural capital

Related: What the world of celebrity can teach students about fake news

But the huge variety on offer means that it can be hard to know where to start.

Cultural capital in London

Here are five locations in the big smoke where students can access big ideas: 

Westminster Abbey

What do Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens and Isaac Newton all have in common? They’re all buried in the incredible setting of Westminster Abbey.

In fact, there are more than 3,000 notable commemorations or burials in the building, including many that students will have encountered through the curriculum, such as Thomas Hardy and Stephen Hawking.

The abbey has existed since 960AD. Its striking gothic architecture has been added to over the past millennium, offering an opportunity to discuss the importance of abbeys throughout British history. 

Originally home to Benedictine monks, the abbey has evolved into the centre of monarchic life: it has overseen every coronation since William the Conqueror and 16 royal weddings, beginning with Henry I in 1100 and, most recently, Prince William and Kate Middleton.

St Paul’s Cathedral

The instantly recognisable dome is one of the best-known elements of the London skyline. With its unique perspective – which is protected by new-build restrictions – and its incredible history, St Paul’s Cathedral is the perfect place to boost cultural capital. 

The building has remained on the same site for more than 1,400 years and faced every challenge that the city has thrown at it; the cathedral was the first to be built after Henry VIII’s reformation; it was quickly rebuilt after the 1666 Great Fire; the current structure survived the bombings of Second World War; Martin Luther King read a sermon there; and, more recently, scenes for the Harry Potter series were filmed on its spiral staircases.

St Paul’s provides the perfect opportunity for students to discuss the changing nature of religion and religious buildings in Britain, as well as to make links to the wider world around them.

The London Eye

What better way to see these landmarks and many, many more – including the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the Tower of London – than from the London Eye? 

Like London itself, the Eye represents change: it began life 20 years ago as the Millennium Wheel, but has since become a fixture in some of the country’s biggest celebrations: it takes centre stage during the Southbank New Year’s Eve fireworks and its evening lights change to symbolise national moments, including Pride month, the Rugby World Cup final and the birth of Prince Archie. 

Despite being located on the bustling Southbank, the peace and stillness of the pods means students can look at London through an unrivalled 360-degree vista. 

This offers an incredible cultural capital opportunity with palaces and spires emphasising the city’s vast history, and the cranes and shimmering glass representing what is to come. With so much to see and talk about, your only struggle might be convincing students that they can’t keep going round.  

Buckingham Palace

Back on the ground, it’s just a short walk over Westminster Bridge and up the Mall to visit Buckingham Palace, which offers the chance to marry popular culture (boosted by The King’s Speech and Netflix’s The Crown) with history, politics, art and technology.

The palace originally belonged to Queen Victoria – the first monarch to step out on the famous balcony for public viewing – and has been the centre of the Royal family ever since. With more than 800 pieces of art inside, including works by Van Dyck, Rubens and Vermeer, it has only experienced light changes from each monarch since.

The palace remains at the centre of politics. Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested at the gates after trying to deliver a suffrage petition. The chapel was bombed during the Second World War, and thousands of people congregated at the front gates on VE Day to hear George VI’s speech. The Queen continues to meet the prime minister weekly there to give her views on all things governmental.

The palace has been always been a place to bring the monarchy closer to the public, and this has developed along with technology. King George VI and Elizabeth II have given their Christmas messages from the palace, where these were initially broadcast live and later pre-recorded; in 2012 it was broadcast in 3D.

Buckingham Palace gives an opportunity to discuss the enduring relevance but changing nature of the Royal family in British and world politics, while building students’ understanding of national and cultural history.

Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery

Fountains, lions, Nelson, the Fourth Plinth… it’s no wonder that Trafalgar Square is one of London’s most loved landmarks. It has a largely unremarked upon history, but it’s one that promotes both social and cultural capital for students.

The area has been a place of protests, marches and the right to exercise free speech about democratic processes both at home and abroad. It was where the Queen, aged 19, spent VE night.

Originally the site of the King’s Mews before their move to Buckingham Palace, the area has been significant since the 13th century. Repurposed and renamed, today’s Trafalgar Square pairs the old remnants of empire and victory in the Napoleonic Wars with modern takes on art and political expression, and is now a place where diversity is actively celebrated

Watching over Nelson and his lions is the National Gallery. Art is one of the ultimate cultural capital boosters and this is a world-leading collection, where students can encounter works from Turner, Caravaggio and Da Vinci. And the outside is interesting, too.

The architecture of the building, inspired by the Parthenon in Greece, was intended to represent a temple to art, thus encouraging discussion of the importance of the Classical world and how it often underpins the modern world.

Of course, these are just five of the capital’s best spots, but having had such a varied past and heading into a vibrant future, it’s likely that whatever cultural capital boosters you’re after for your students, London can deliver.

Lauran Hampshire-Dell is an English teacher from Surrey. She tweets at @LauranTeaches

Lauran Hampshire-Dell

Latest stories