When I started this blog back in early 2016, my second ever post was ‘Ten Alternative London Highlights‘, detailing places in London that are off the radar for most visitors to the British capital. Now, as I approach the second anniversary of this blog, it seems fitting to talk about ten other alternative highlights of this great city that those of you who are seeking something a little different to the norm might want to check out.
There are still plenty more out there; a reminder, if any were needed, that London absolutely is one of the greatest cities in the world, and I count myself very lucky to live here.
One of the few remaining medieval churches in the city – most others were destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 – St Bart’s is tucked away on a quiet little street near its namesake Hospital. Most of what you see dates from the Norman era, with later additions enhancing the visual impact. The architecture of both the exterior and the interior are as impressive as any place of worship you’ll find in London – whilst it can’t compete with St Paul’s scale, it certainly can with some of the intricate details. Also nearby are monuments to William Wallace and Protestant martyrs burned during the reign of Mary I – this place has quite a grisly history! – and the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, a statue that marks the limits of the Great Fire of London, which shows you just how perilously close the church came to being lost during that disaster.
It’s a part of this city’s troubled identity (and for many big cities around the world, I expect) that the persistent image of London being full of well-to-do, posh-accented types is in many ways distorted by the prism of tourism. The reality is that there are at least as many living in poverty, deprivation and squalor as there are enjoying the high life. This museum is a case in point, which is essentially about a hospital that was the by product of moral baseness and extreme destitution. The ‘foundling hospital’ was set up by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to tackle this problem, and this excellent museum details the fascinating story.
Those of a particularly musical inclination may be aware of the Longplayer project, a one thousand year long musical composition that began on January 1, 2000 and is set to continue right through until December 31 2999, at which point it is due to reset and start all over again. Longplayer operates by selecting and combining sections from six different pieces of music in such a way that no particular musical notation is ever repeated during the 1000 years of its playing. It is controlled by a suitably complex computer program, and the output can be heard on the musical instruments the music was written for – namely, Tibetan singing bowls. Longplayer is in the prominent Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf on City Island in the Docklands area of London. The lighthouse itself – the only one in London, and once used as a place to train lighthouse keepers – has some historical interest in its own right.
Not many of us aren’t at least a teensy little bit interested by the Dinosaurs. What makes the ones that reside in the pretty park at Crystal Palace unique and different is that the collection here is a historical monument in its own right, dating from 1853. And the depiction of the dinosaurs here are very different from how we know (or think we know…) they looked now: making this a site of historical significance in the field of science, as well as a curious insight in to early palaeontology. When they opened to the public they were a major, if controversial – this was shortly before Darwinism took full effect, and outraged the establishment and the religious sectors of the time – attraction, but they did fall in to neglect for a while, and became overgrown by the surrounding vegetation. Now they’re on full view again, with the visually striking Iguanadon model being the star attraction.
Tucked away in the attic of the 18th century St Thomas’ Church at the foot of the Shard, The Old Operating Theatre and Museum is a curious throwback to the earliest days of surgery, when anaesthetics and antiseptics were still some decades in to the future. This place was lost to the public until 1956, when it was discovered by chance by builders carrying out repairs in the church. Small – but not too cramped – the exhibits are essentially in two parts, and the only way in and out is through a narrow, 32-step spiral staircase. The operating table that takes centre stage in the theatre area of this exhibit is lovingly authentic-looking, and the theatre itself – with its tiered, standing room only viewing platforms – gives you some idea of how surgery ‘operated’ (sorry…) in those days.
6. Daunt Books
Daunt Books has got several branches dotted across London. But it is its Marylebone flagship store that comes recommended to the traveller for the rather simple reason that it has travel-themed books as its principal (though not exclusive) focus. Even putting that aside, its elegant, Edwardian façade and interior arguably makes it the most aesthetically appealing bookshop in London. Nowhere, not even in outlets that exclusively stock travel books (such as one I came across in Zurich), have I seen so many travel books housed under one roof. Such is the sheer number of books here that whole bookcases are given over to countries! Hands down the best place in London for those looking for books related to travel.
This museum, situated just round the corner from Ladbroke Grove tube station, chronicles the history of Britain from the Victorian age to the present day via exhibiting the dominant trends in everyday culture and lifestyle through the ages. To help the visitor form proper context, the main exhibition area is a ‘Time Tunnel’, in which the hundreds upon hundreds of exhibits are divided up by decade. It’s sure to appeal to anyone with an interest in consumer culture – which, let’s face it, is all of us – as well as the social history of the United Kingdom as it hurtled ever forward through the major developments and advances of the twentieth century.
8. Bushy Park
Located a stone’s throw away from Hampton Court Palace – undoubtedly the star attraction in the Richmond/Kingston area of London – this royal park is the second biggest in London after Richmond. The park is a sprawling canvas of wide open spaces flanked by wild woodland, broken up stretches of rippling ponds and topped off with a couple of baroque-influenced gardens. Throw in roaming deer – wild, but so used to people that you can get reasonably close to them as long as you tread softly – and you get the perfect ingredients for a pleasant, greenspace getaway.
The Order of St John today is a major international charity dedicated to providing First Aid and health care, with a worldwide body of staff and volunteers that numbers upwards of 250,000 people. Despite its prolific standing today, many people are unaware of the history of this venerable order, which dates back some 900 years. This museum, tucked away on a side street in Clerkenwell in East London, serves as an excellent (and free) introduction to the highly eventful history of the order, from its roots as a hospital set up to care for sick pilgrims during the Crusades right through to the present day. Highlights among the exhibits include manuscripts dating from the middle ages, a bronze cannon donated by Henry VIII, and suits of armour worn and weapons wielded by Knights of Rhodes/Malta.
This snappily-titled place, riffing on the “God’s Own Country” phrase as a means of suggesting the Almighty may not look so favourably on this particular spot, is a bohemian, alternative, cheekily subversive space. Walls aglow with seemingly hundreds of neon lights, the kitsch conversion of what is essentially a shabby warehouse on a rundown industrial estate harks back to the Soho days of yore. The vintage neon signs on show at God’s Own Junkyard have not just been salvaged from Soho, but have featured in movies from Blade Runner to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s so much more than just neon signs and objects on display, though, as other quirky touches supplement the technicolour fun, such as the Jesus figure in a converted shed who is packing a pair of neon pistols in his hands!