The London Eye, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Tower of London…those are the places that a first-time visitor to London seeks out, and rightly so. But what if you’ve already seen all the obvious stuff? Or just want to check out something that is off most London things-to-do travel radars? Here’s an introduction to some of the things I recommend that are a little more off the beaten track.
Strawberry Hill House – Photo courtesy of Phil Trease
- The Wellcome Collection. Billing itself as a museum for the ‘incurably curious’, this quirky and unusual place masterfully fuses art and science in such a lively – not to mention slightly disturbing – way that it is sure to satisfy even the most inquisitive of visitor. Temporary exhibits on the ground floor provide a beguiling appetiser to the permanent exhibits upstairs where, among other things, you can have your face scanned and stretched in to the statistical national average and examine a cross section of an actual human body.
- Strawberry Hill House. Horace Walpole, author of what is widely accepted to be the first Gothic novel in The Castle of Otranto, didn’t just want to write horror romances. He wanted to live in one too, and this whitewashed, Gothic-turreted, fairytale castle in the Twickenham area of London is the rather dandy result. The majestic interiors – including a grand hallway and a broodingly well-realised library – are enlivened further by the exceptionally knowledgeable guides. If you can, catch one of the twilight tours: there’s nothing quite like roaming the darkened corridors of a spooky villa, backlit by the moon, for a bit of atmosphere! N.B. The house is closed during the winter.
- Camden Lock Market. Trendy Camden town is where all the achingly cool Bohemian hipsters hang out, swaggering through streets sound-tracked by the left-field music scene as they move from one live music bar to another. The outdoor markets will provide you with more interesting mementos of your London visit than the tacky, tourist-trap places found in the city centre, and it’s this market that is probably the standout. Intoxicating food stalls are a tasty – if somewhat greasy – accompaniment to the markets plying their idiosyncratic wares, and the fact there is the canal nearby is an added bonus.
- New London Architecture. If the Museum of London provides the perfect introduction to the history of the UK capital, then this is the place to go if you want an idea of where London is today and where it might go in the near future. It’s just off Tottenham Court Road, but is rarely ever busy, and the displays provide fascinating facts and figures about all you might want to know about London’s current urban development. It’s not exclusively about London either – check out the supplementary exhibits on architectural innovations in places from Swansea to Singapore. But the undoubted highlight is the 1:1500 scale model of the Greater London area, which gets the juices flowing of both locals and tourists alike.
- Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Simultaneously lump-in-your-throat melancholic and morbidly fascinating, this memorial commemorates ‘everyday heroes’ who sacrificed their own lives to save others. Located in the pleasant surroundings of Postman’s Park, the tablets certainly evoke Victorian ideals of chivalry, and each one tells a noble and desperately sad tale. G.F. Watts (hence the name) had hoped that more examples of heroic self-sacrifice would be enshrined in Londoners’ collective consciousness after he himself had gone. Alas, the spaces for more glazed tiles he and his wife had left remain unfilled.
- Twinings Strand Shop Museum. The British obsession with tea is well-documented, and this cosy little place on the Strand will explain just why and how this came about. Twinings are one of the countries’ leading tea manufacturers, and also one of the oldest too: this store has been here since 1717. The quaint museum at the back of the shop traces the history and features such assorted curiosities as Victorian tea caddies and the wooden ‘T.I.P.’ box (boxes like it are the originator of the modern practice of tipping). Best of all are the jars in the shop area with free samples of various tea flavours, with everything from vanilla to forest fruits to poke your nose in to; and yes, you can taste test the teas as well!
- Ragged School Museum. East London has cultivated a reputation as being the working class heart of the capital, and this easy-to-miss place tucked on a street corner off Regent Canal covers both the past and present of an area of London not especially visited by most. It’s on the site of a Victorian ‘ragged school’ (so-called because of the state of the clothing of the children attending them), set up for children who would otherwise never have been able to afford an education. The star attraction is the fully restored, original classroom, complete with writing slates, dunce hats and – on certain days – a terrifying Victorian teacher to put you through your paces! But a reconstructed kitchen, local history exhibition, and very friendly and passionate volunteer staff are also excellent reasons to visit.
- Camley Street Natural Park. Of all of London’s green spaces, this little oasis of calm in the hustle-bustle of the Kings Cross area is probably the best-kept secret of them all, at the time of writing. Despite its urban setting, the thicket of trees that overhang the leafy woodland trails are so effective at muffling the noise of the traffic that you just might even temporarily forget you’re in London. There is much to see and do – kids have the chance to go ‘pond dipping’ for underwater creatures, there’s a log-pile home for beetles and lots of different types of birds fly around you and crowd the pond. With the St Pancras International transport hub less than a 10 minute walk away, you could even check out this place to kill time when you’re waiting to catch a Eurostar train to Paris!
- The Hunterian Museum. It may be in the Royal College of Surgeons, but you certainly don’t need to have a working knowledge of human and animal biology to enjoy this exhibit. What you will need is a strong stomach, as the rows and rows of jars of everything from dissected animal bodies through to human foetuses at various stages of development (the toughest to view of them all for me) are not for the faint-hearted. But if you can handle it then it’s an endlessly fascinating anatomical study, and as well as the jars you also get some interesting tidbits on the life of John Hunter – owner of the gruesome collection – and a 7ft 7ins skeleton of one Charles O’Brien, the ‘Irish Giant’.
- The British Library. Admittedly not as obscure as the rest of the items on this list, this place still really should get more coverage than it does; and given my involvement in a Tanzanian library project and my current profession, I can’t think of a more apt way to finish. It can’t compete with the British Museum in terms of the amount of priceless artefacts, but the original Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s first folio and original handwritten Beatles lyrics tells you that it does have more than its fair share. Listening stations allow you to not only hear songs by the Fab Four but such curiosities as Thomas Edison making the first ever recording of sound. And a crowded event calendar ensures there’s very often something on for the erudite, with distinguished luminaries such as Neil Gaiman, Noam Chomsky and Germaine Greer all having given talks here.
Camley Street Park