Welcome to London, Ontario
Nestled in southwestern Ontario on the Québec City-Windsor Corridor, London is known as ‘The Forest City’. Equidistant from Toronto and Detroit, the population of 457,720 supposedly embodies myriad demographics of a prototypical Canadian city. However, I assure you: London is far from average!
Inside the ornate Grand Theatre, one of Canada oldest dating back to 1901 with a unique proscenium arch and Victorian architecture, be captivated by Québec contemporary dramatist Michel Tremblay. Intently, you can watch ‘For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again’, his latest oeuvre dedicated to his mother. Openly gay, Tremblay invites controversy by challenging Québec traditions. London theatre seems avant-garde, certainly not average.
Similarly, at Museum London on Ridout St., Brian Meehan, the Executive Director, intrigues with “Los Carpenteros,” the Havana-based Cuban collective that has created significant art in the past decade, represented in far-flung major urban collections in Madrid, Los Angeles and New York City’s prominent MOMA. Transfixed, you will stare at a huge wooden hand grenade equipped with a giant elliptical pin and a body composed of six layers of compartments, each a unique Pandora’s Box. Not so average here either.
Downtown, you can stroll by the new 10,000-seat $50 million Budweiser Gardens which draws the likes of Cher, Natalie Cole, David Copperfield, Sting, Sarah McLachlan and, for the sports minded, junior hockey’s Memorial Cup. The JLC, as natives call it, is also home to London’s successful junior hockey team, the Knights.
Speaking of suds, Labatt’s Brewery operates 24 hours a day, five days a week, and produces over 1 billion bottles of beer per year which might cause drinkers to revise the lyrics to “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall…” A two-hour instructive tour permits one to examine the brewing process firsthand, run raw ingredients including rice, malt and hops through one’s fingers, inhale the sweet aroma and finally savour the taste. In 1977, Labbat’s was first to introduce low calorie beer, Labatt Special Lite; in 1988, first to develop the twist-off cap on a refillable bottle; and in 1995, it launched the first non-alcoholic beer, Labatt .5% Nordic. An astute businessman, John Labatt capitalized on London’s strategic location in the 1850’s by capitalizing on the railway network to broaden sales in Canada and the United States.
Business success stories followed: 3M Canada Inc., TD Canada Trust, London Life Insurance Co. and Ellis-Don (construction) to name a few. London, never a boom or bust city, became Canada’s first municipality to garner an AAA credit rating. Blessed with steady employment and a large medical and professional community, it enjoys affordable housing with the average cost of an executive home pegged at $300,000. Newsweek magazine ranks London the most economical destination in the world for business travel. Its downtown Convention Centre boasts a second floor ballroom that occupies the combined area of 16 tennis courts, enough space in which to seat 2500 dinner guests. Not surprisingly, UWO is recognized as one of the world’s preeminent business schools.
At Covent Garden Market next door to the JLC, the square is filled with local farmers and eclectic buskers. You can examine temptingly fresh sushi and bento-box treats, sweet and savory bureks, pies or pastries found in many former Ottoman Empire countries. They are made of phyllo pastry or yufka pastry dough and filled with feta cheese, ground meat or vegetables. There are also spicy Lebanese treats and Indian favourites creating an appealing, multinational, not-so-average market.
Tourists are fascinated by the British nomenclature – on streets, the River Thames, buildings such as the Middlesex County Court House (1824-1825 in Gothic Revival style) and the traditional red, double-decker sightseeing buses operated by Tourism London. There’s a Blackfriars Bridge, circa1875, London’s first iron bridge, a rare example of a bowstring through truss which remains open today. Not so average for durability.
The Thames and its creeks meander through the city, the western forks dictating the downtown core where a series of parks along the river host popular summer events. Harris Park, in the flats north of Museum London, celebrates an annual Hot Air Balloon Festival. Anchored serenely on the grass by gravity, tourists trace the gaily coloured massive orbs – yellow, orange, red and purple – silently punctuating the cerulean sky. Harris Park also hosts the Labatt 24-hour Relay which supports London’s world renowned teaching hospitals.
Indeed, if sick, London is the place to be. After Sir Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin, London attracted attention as an important medical center. At its hub lies the University of Western Ontario’s Schulich School of Medicine, a world-class teaching hospital and research facility that garners millions of dollars in funding for reproductive medicine, prenatal care, cancer, cardiovascular science, immunology and transplantation, neuroscience and advanced medical imaging.
Nonetheless, let’s consider healthier pastimes. The Thames is a water playground for boating, canoeing and rowing, a scenic backdrop for several golf courses, parks and trails and home to scads of wildlife as it picturesquely winds its way northward to the Western campus where one may attend top notch athletic events featuring the home team ‘Stangs. On a hot summer day, Londoners are within a convenient hour’s drive of beaches at two Great Lakes – Huron to the northwest and Erie to the south. The 1994 Commonwealth rowing championships were celebrated here, a training venue for the Canadian team. There are three active rowing clubs, so venture like me to the shores of Fanshawe Lake in the morning or early evening to glimpse skiffs silently skimming across the rippling water.
Slightly north of downtown, bordered by Richmond, Central, Wellington and Dufferin, resides Victoria Park, my personal favourite. It was originally the practice grounds for British garrisons that conducted military exercises at the turn of the century. With chic shops and cafés lining Richmond Row on one side and Centennial Hall, home of London’s acclaimed Symphony Orchestra framing the other, Victoria Park celebrates festivals year round. Close to nearby fraternities, it inspires romantic walks, especially when the fall foliage blazes in radiant colours. London is nicknamed the Forest City, not because of its impressive planting program, but due to its early inaccessibility which required visitors literally to clamber through the woods to arrive.
Londoners are modest and do not like to name drop, but “boomers” affectionately recall legendary Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians who perennially welcomed in New Year’s on TV from New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They named a bridge after him and built the Guy Lombardo Music Center. In visual arts, 19th century London painter Paul Peel depicted family life and local landmarks, his family image of a bathed child drying before the hearth, a Canadian icon. Stage and screen actor Hume Cronyn is a hometown success story as well as former Winnipeg Ballet prima ballerina Evelyn Hart, Oscar nominee, Kate Nelligan and Dr. David Suzuki, Canada’s environmental champion.
For accommodations there’s ample choice; like The Delta London Armouries Hotel on Dundas St. and the Best Western Lamplighter Inn and Conference Center on Wellington Road. The latter, with an incredible indoor pool complex, appeals to kids both young and old.