John's guide to London
Visiting London? Many of the sights on the usual tourist itinerary are positively yawn-worthy, while many places that are worth seeing are rarely visited. I lived in London for 50 years, so here are my suggestions of some lesser-known places to see. I’ll add to this list as others float into my memory.
I’ve been to both St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey once and have never felt the need to return. So much more interesting is Southwark Cathedral. This is close to the centre, being just across the street from London Bridge station. Better though is to take the tube to Monument (the monument being that to mark the place where the Great Fire started in 1666) then walk across London Bridge.
When you’ve seen the cathedral, keep walking down that street, away from the river. On your left you will see a series of courtyards. In one of these you will find the George Inn. This half-timbered, balconied, building was opened in 1676, but is the closest thing to olde worlde that you’ll find in London. The Tabard, from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set out, would have looked much like this, and was situated in one of these courtyards. And yes, the inn is fully functioning, so you can get a drink and something to eat.
When you come off London Bridge, walking south, take a short detour to your left to admire the art-deco architecture of the entrance to Hays Wharf. On that subject, if you’re entering London from the west on the A40 you will pass another art-deco masterpiece that is one of the architectural highlights of the city, the Hoover Building.
You will, I’m sure, be visiting the marvellous collections of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. The top-floor restaurant in the Portrait Gallery serves good food, reasonably priced. Even if only for a coffee, treat yourself to spending a while there to admire the views. Just steps away from these galleries is the one that nobody visits, the Princes Gate Collection. This is in the Courtauld Institute in Somerset House, which is in the Strand, a few doors down from Charing Cross station. Rubens, Bruegel, Manet, Degas, Tiepolo, Parmigianino and much more – wonderful stuff! My favourite is Rubens’ drawing of Mrs R dressed for church. Apart from the beauty of the drawing, her hat is worth a look: even Madonna might have had second thoughts about that one!
Carry on down the Strand, away from Charing Cross, keeping on that same side of the road. You’ll soon see the blue plaque on a wall, marking the site of William Lilly’s house. Not that there is anything else there to see. The ‘Cross’ in Charing Cross refers to the Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross that stands in the forecourt of the station. The original was destroyed by parliament during the Civil War. Edward I was rather more fond of Eleanor of Castile than have been most English monarchs of their spouses. When she died near Lincoln he marked each place that her body rested on its way back to burial in London with one of these crosses, to encourage prayers for her soul.
Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn (pron: Ho-bern) houses the private collection of Soane, who was the architect of the Bank of England. It contains a wide miscellany of bits and pieces, from an Egyptian sarcophagus to Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ – whatever took Soane’s fancy. Both in what it contains and how it is displayed this is very much the private collection of a (very well-heeled) gentleman. As such it has a coherence and sense of the personal that most museums lack.
A short excursion from the centre of London will take you to Greenwich. The observatory, through which runs the Greenwich meridian, stands on top of a hill. I’ve always preferred looking through telescopes to looking at telescopes, but if your preference differs you will find the collection there worth exploring. But stand outside and enjoy the glorious view down through the park to Wren’s palace nestled by the river at your feet. The palace now houses the National Maritime Museum, whose collection is rather more interesting than perhaps it sounds, both for paintings and artefacts.
On Hampstead Heath it’s easy to imagine oneself walking in the footsteps of Keats, Shelley, and their chums (though Keats couldn’t stand Shelley – an attitude that is not entirely incomprehensible). Keats’ House stands close by the heath, at the foot of Hampstead hill. Visit in late summer and you can gorge yourself from the mulberry bushes in the garden. Living in this house some years after Keats’ death was Henry Selous, who provided the copious illustrations for Cassell’s edition of Shakespeare. And wonderful they are! Had Keats been alive I’m sure he would have loved them. John Constable lived at the top of the heath. The views, even of streets such as Admiral’s Walk, have not changed that much since he sat there painting them. He’s buried in the little churchyard at the top of Hampstead hill, a few steps from the tube station – worth a visit, not only to pay respects to one of England’s finest, but to enjoy the peaceful surroundings and beautiful views over London.
Mulberry trees seem standard issue for the English poets. Milton has one in his cottage near Amersham, Shakespeare another in his in Stratford-upon-Avon. Be careful not to confuse that Stratford with the one in east London: the tourist trail there is a very short one! Mulberries were introduced to England during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, in hope of establishing silk production. The bushes imported were all of the purple variety. Unfortunately, nobody told the entrepreneurs that silk-worms live only on the white ones. Still, the purple ones taste so much better. It was intended to use prisoners as cheap labour for processing the silk, so bushes were planted in prison yards – hence the nursery-rhyme ‘Here we go round the mulberry-bush’, which originated with prisoners trudging round the bushes for exercise.
Not worth a visit specially, but if you find yourself in Highgate, stick your nose into the gated community in Swain’s Lane, at the foot of the Holly Lodge Estate. The houses on the hill behind you are an early 20th-century development. Before that, this was open landscape with the manor house at the top of the hill. The lady of the manor had this enclave of a dozen or so detached, Victorian Gothic, houses built for the workers on her estate. Lucky workers! Best seen by moonlight, with the bats flitting around: it could be the setting for any classic horror film.