Where is London?

When I was at school, I lived a long way up north. My geography of the much of the rest of the U.K. was limited to the AA road atlas my parents had in the car, which I used to look at compulsively during long journeys. I was fascinated by the schematic diagrams showing the layout of road junctions on each of the motorways. The motorways were represented on the diagrams themselves by dead straight lines – with one exception: the M25. This motorway was shown as a square, apparently enclosing all of London. So, for many years, I assumed that the London boundary was the M25 itself. I was a little disappointed when I moved down to the city and discovered this was not the case. Several large areas – Epsom, Loughton, Watford – are comfortably inside the M25 ring but not within the administrative boundary of Greater London. Similarly, the boundary pushes out beyond the M25 in a few, generally rural, places.

It turns out there are a lot of official and unofficial ways to define London’s extent.

  • Greater London – the administrative extent, made up of the 32 London boroughs and the City of London at its centre. It is the area that is administered by the boroughs and also forms the area of the six concentric Transport for London travelcard zones – although there are some “special” additional zones which go beyond the boundary. Greater London is shown above.
  • Greater London Urban Area (aka Greater London Built-up Area) – the Office of National Statistics defines this as the conurbation area of London (i.e. the continuous urban environment) which is roughly equivalent to Greater London but excludes the large rural areas within the latter boundary, such as Biggin Hill, and includes some towns which “spill over” the Greater London boundary, such as Staines and Dartford.
  • London Travel to Work Area (TTWA) – Travel to Work Areas are contiguous regions within which 75% of people who live there also work there, and vice versa. London is such a region, its TTWA extends slightly beyond Greater London to include places with sufficiently good transport links that, as far as employment is concerned, are “local”, and that don’t themselves have a considerable industrial or commercial base. The map here is the London TTWA from the 2001 census, the areas were defined in 2007 and the map is an extract of one produced by the ONS in 2013: london_2001ttwa
  • The extent of the “020” telephone number prefix – the dialling code for “London”.
  • The London postal district – the extent of the SW, W, NW, N, E and SE postcodes. These miss out a surprisingly large part of the London urban area, except in the north, where they even extend beyond the Greater London boundary.
  • The County of London – this approximately represented inner London and ceased to exist in 1965 with the creation of Greater London. However many older people continue to refer to the counties that were lost or redrawn to accommodate Greater London, such as Middlesex, which is now subsumed by the northern part of Greater London.
  • The City of London – this still exists but only covers the Square Mile – the financial and historic centre of London. It is surrounded by the 32 London boroughs. One of the other boroughs – Westminster – is also a city. Hence the electoral constituency which currently covers both being called “Cities of London and Westminster”.
  • Mayor’s Wider London Boundary – “This is the area within which the Mayor has the right to make increments or decrements to National Rail franchises” according to this document. It appears to be made up of the Greater London administrative boundary plus nearby commuter towns that have direct routes to central London, e.g. Sevenoaks, Dartford, Hertford, Broxbourne. I haven’t been able to find a complete map of it though.

Personally, I still prefer the M25 as the boundary. If I’m heading on a long cycle ride from the centre of London to (say) Brighton, then its when I pass underneath the M25 – a very tangible, physical feature – that I feel I have finally left the city. None of the other borders described above are represented on the ground, other than by road signs. But you can’t miss a huge 6+ lane orbital highway.

The bottom set of pictures are, clockwise from the top right: The London postal district in red, the London Travel To Work Area in dark blue, the former County of London in green, the City of London in bright red, aerial imagery of London’s built up areas, and the London 020 dialling code area in red. Apart from the top picture, which is from OpenStreetMap, all pictures are sourced from Wikipedia. All the picture here are are subject to Creative Commons copyrights of their respective authors. The middle picture shows Greater London, with the boroughs (and the City of London) numbered.

Updated June 2013 to add the Mayor’s Wider London boundary, and in December 2013 to add the ONS TTWA 2001 map.

Visit the new oobrien.com Shop
High quality lithographic prints of London data, designed by Oliver O'Brien

9 thoughts on “Where is London?

  1. Good post! It’s also worth thinking about how the influence of London stretches much further over the wider region of the South East and the UK as a whole. This was, of course, discussed recently at the enthralling and enlightening Defining the Region seminar at CASA.

  2. I have spent many frustrating hours arguing with people (including Land Surveying lecturers at university!) about the true status of Greater London, and other metropolitan (post-1974) counties – having spent many years living in Stockport (Cheshire/Greater Manchester) and then Ilford (Essex/Greater London). The trouble is that most people use the postal address to ascertain the county of their location. This is quickly countered on my part with the reminder that postal addresses have not been updated since the 1950s and the question “well where is Middlesex County Council located then?”. There are also anomalies such as the postal addresses for some isolated rural areas being attributed to the nearest main town, which may well be in a different county! Examples include ‘Sibson [Leicestershire], Nuneaton, Warwickshire’ and ‘East Bergholt [Suffolk], near Colchester, Essex’.

    To convince people that they are wrong is not easy. My dad, being a staunch Chestrian, insists that Stockport is in Cheshire and views Greater Manchester as an anathema. He often refers to the ‘physical’ or ‘geographical’ county (what exactly is that?) which I think is a mask for nostalgia and the refusal to accept metropolotan counties as being genuine. The argument then shifts towards ‘ceremonial’ counties, which have little or no purpose in the modern world (it is worth noting that the metro counties are also ceremonial counties). Then there is the further complication of Unitary Authorities (an entity encompassing the duties of both a county and borough council). So, if the truth be told, certain counties (including Cheshire and Bedfordshire) no longer exist, Huntingdonshire is a district within Cambridgeshire and Nottingham city does NOT lie within Nottinghamshire.

    The fact is that a county is and has only ever been a man-made political entity designed to unite a particular ‘common’ area for civic, fiscal and other official purposes, and that its definition is subject to many personal interpretaions. It is true to say that today’s methods of altering and defining county boundaries (via the Boundaries Commission) are far more formal and accurate than at any time in history, so it is fair to say that today’s boundaries are more ‘genuine’ than their historical counterparts.

    So, with regret, it’s goodbye Cheshire and welcome back Rutland!

  3. Similarly to Stu above, I’ve often had discussions about whether certain places count as “London” or not. For instance, I live in Beckenham which I consider to be in London, my wife considers it to be in Kent. Additionally, one of my managers at my Islington workplace lives in Bloomsbury and considers anything north of Kings Cross as “not-London”.

    1. Bloomsbury born, Somers Town raised. Odds on that your manager isn’t even from Bloomsbury.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve this * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.