London (but not the one you’re thinking of)

The pleasant eastern Kentucky city of London, proud of its flourishing main street...

Last month on vacation (UK: holiday) I visited London—but probably not the London you’re thinking of, and definitely not the London I normally write about.

London is a town of some 8000 people in Laurel County, Kentucky.  The founders named their new settlement after the famous British capital, but it seems they didn’t record the reason for their choice; maybe they came from the larger London over here and found themselves homesick, maybe they hoped their town would one day be a major player on the global stage.  More likely, they wanted a name that would attract new residents so the town would thrive.

...and proud enough to embed their name in every neatly stamped metal park bench.

I say that London, Kentucky, is a town, and I don’t think any Kentucky Londoners would quibble, but as you can see from its official website, it is a city.  In the US, the term city is used pretty loosely, but in the UK, the designation city is controlled by law; you can’t just decide your town is a city.

Long ago, to call a population center in England a city meant that there was a cathedral there; nowadays the monarch confers the status of city on towns, usually to mark a big occasion—so you’re not a city unless the queen says you are.  For the millennium, she conferred city status on Inverness in Scotland, Wolverhampton in the English Midlands, and Brighton and Hove on the south coast. (Brighton and Hove is one city, despite the name; the two original towns grew together, the way coastal towns often do, until they just joined forces.)  For her diamond jubilee (60th anniversary of her reign) this year, the queen has just elevated three more towns, the new cities being Chelmsford in England, Perth in Scotland and St Asaph in Wales.

City of London (KY) Police Department and 911 call center

In the US, cities tend to be centers of government administration so, if for no other reason, London KY qualifies as a city by virtue of being the county seat (UK: county town). The Laurel County Courthouse seems to be the center of town, with London’s own city hall and police department nearby—though after 12 years in England, I did a double take when I saw signs for these places.  London City Police?  Isn’t that Scotland Yard?

The Metropolitan police headquarters in London (UK)

(Actually, England does have an organization called the City of London Police, but its jurisdiction is only the Square Mile, what locals call “the City”–that is, the financial district, the British equivalent of Wall Street in the US.  Scotland Yard, officially named the Metropolitan Police Service, polices the rest of London UK.)

London KY may not have a cathedral, but it offers worshippers a choice of some 30 churches, plus civic groups from Scouts to Masons (two lodges), and women’s groups of all sorts from groups promoting republican politics to Bass ‘N Gals (women who fish for bass).  The county historical society has a library there, and enterprising Londoners are working to open a museum of local history and genealogy.

Historical marker showing where Boone's Trace forked from the Wilderness Road

There’s plenty of history here—by US standards, anyway.  London is sited, as a marker near the courthouse will tell you, at the junction of the Wilderness Road and Boone’s Trace.  These trails blazed in the later 1700s by Daniel Boone (sometimes by following existing Native American paths, or making use of buffalo traces),  eventually allowed thousands of people from the original British colonies to travel through the Cumberland Gap (a pass in the Appalachian mountains), and into Kentucky; parts of them exist today as part of Kentucky State Highway 229.

The Laurel County courthouse. The marker in the foreground commemorates the civil war Battle of London, in which the Confederates routed Union forces.

But while all that was happening in the new world, the London of the old world was already seventeen centuries old, the capital of the world’s major naval power , and soon to eclipse Beijing as the largest city in the world, (a title it held until about 1925).  Maybe it was that impressive power and history that moved settlers to give their towns the same names; at least eight American states have Londons.  There’s also a London in the Republic of Kiribati (a small Pacific island nation) and one in Ontario, Canada. In fact, some Kentucky Londoners are hoping to establish a sister city (UK: twin town) relationship with London, Ontario, and tell me they’d certainly be open to such a relationship with London, England, too—and why not?

A map of dry counties in the US: the darker the purple, the dryer the counties, green being wet counties. (Gray indicates counties for which there was no data.) Here you can clearly see Texas colored blue, and pretty much see the shape of Kentucky in blue and purple as well, the purple stripe continuing on into southern Virginia.

In addition to churches, clubs, and history, London KY can offer you a drink (at least, if you have it in a restaurant that seats at least 100 people and makes at least 70% of its money from food, not liquor) unlike the rest of Laurel County, which is dry.  My sister used to live in a dry county in eastern Kentucky; the liquor stores just over the border in the next wet county, some of them with drive-through windows, did a thriving trade, and in election seasons cars carried bumper stickers reading “GO WET” or “VOTE DRY”.  (Her county is now classed as moist, meaning there is a wet city within the dry county.)

London (KY) City Hall

It’s difficult to explain dry counties to my British neighbors.  There’s certainly no UK equivalent;  here drinking is considered a part of everyday life and a downright requirement at Christmas.  British people are so shocked at the thought of a place in which you can’t buy liquor that some feel the need to sit down with a brandy or two to get over the shock and get used to the idea.

London (KY) Community Center

London also advertises itself as a place with a moderate climate, though we scooted through the area just hours ahead of a rather immoderate tornado.  If that’s what the locals call moderate, then Kentucky Londoners are sturdy folks!  The wind pushed us on to the place where I grew up; that was only a drive of an hour and a half, but I don’t think I’d ever visited London before.  I’d always thought of it as the site of the famous Mountain Laurel Festival (was probably confused by London being in Laurel County), but I was wrong; the local festival here is the World Chicken Festival, held each September.

And yes, this does have to do with the fact that Colonel Sanders’s original restaurant is less than 15 minutes away, but that’s a subject for next time.

Metropolitan police sign photo and dry county map from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.  All other photos mine.



Filed under Culture, History, Travel

5 responses to “London (but not the one you’re thinking of)

  1. Malcolm

    Finding the historic size of preplanned American cities can be tricky. I recall that in 1976, when I went to the library of the New York Historical Society to discover how much of Manhattan had been developed around 1860, they were unable to tell me–because all maps of Manhattan, from very early on, showed the complete street plan, even when most of it was still farmland and truck farms (UK:market gardens). I had to sit down with trade directories that showed businesses, avenue-by-avenue, and see where the numbers petered out, because the city grew from Battery Park northward. I think they had reached solidly about a third of the way up Central Park at that time, with a scattering of more northerly outliers.

    • Impressive commitment to research there!

      I guess any town with a rectangular grid of streets could be called preplanned; they surveyed the streets before they built the houses. I once read about a place in Florida where they laid out the streets and paved them and put up the street signs, but no one ever bought the houses, so nature went wild, and there were these cracked, once-paved roads in the middle of nowhere

      Anyway, nobody can accuse London (UK) of being preplanned!

  2. Hi Mary Ellen- you have been busy recently! Just a note, my son is on a work-term in London Ontario Canada right now. It has a pop of over 300,000 and is located in the county of Middlesex on the Thames river. I kid you not!

    Unfortunately, London ON was in the news recently as the site of a student riot on St. Patrick’s Day. I guess that makes it even more like it’s namesake?

    I loved your conjecture about how a Brit would react to a “dry county”. Brandy indeed. Great post!

    • Oh — I didn’t hear about the riots at all. Will Google for info.

      I suppose London, Ontario, couldn’t be too terribly far from Stratford, Ontario — I visited there once, for the Shakespeare festival, and had a great time.

      • Actually it is quite close to Stratford by Canadian standards. They are about an hour’s drive apart. And Stratford Ontario not only has the wonderful Shakespeare festival, but it is situated on the Avon River! We Canadians are a funny bunch of Anglophiles longing for the home country aren’t we? Glad you liked your visit to Stratford!

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