In a city that never stops moving it’s easy to miss the non-signposted things, especially when all your energy is taken up with battling the commuter crowds on the way to the office. It wasn’t until recently, when I took an extended break away from the Capital and returned feeling refreshed that I started to look at London in a new way. That is, I actually began to take the time to look and was amazed at the things I hadn’t noticed before on streets I must have walked along a hundred times or more. For example, I had never noticed the stone cattle trough near the Barbican properly, despite leaning against it one summer waiting for a friend; I had never wondered why so many bollards were topped with metal balls – if I had, I would have found out that these are in fact cannon balls and the bollards themselves are made from old cannons (reportedly from the Napoleonic war) – see Wapping, Deptford and Southwark Bridge for examples – and if this has captured your interest see http://www.bollardsoflondon.co.uk/; the blue police lamp along the Victoria Embankment had passed me by, as had the Millbank buttresse near Pimlico (from where convicts were transported to Australia) and then there are the old sand bins (which I mistook for pompously dressed post boxes) but were actually used to keep the streets clean of manure, or deaden the sounds of iron-shod cart-wheels outside the home of the sickly.
Inspired by these finds, I even went on a local history walk for the first time ever and I discovered that the site of my old office (St Cross Street EC1), the car park opposite it on Saffron Hill and nearby Leather Lane had all previously housed Rookeries or slums which were more than likely the inspiration behind local resident Charles Dicken’s depiction of the den of crooks in Oliver Twist. The streets were no longer grey and boring, they had started to come alive – even the Saffron Hill carpark had new interest for me. I went to Soho and instead of seeing the usual trendy cafes and clubs, I noticed its seven noses and one ear (hint: start at Meard Street, then try D’Arblay Street and Admirality Arch and look up); that funny bit of paving I had previously glided over near Old Street (on Chequer Street to be exact) is actually the last surviving wood block paving in London (introduced in Victorian times because it was cheaper than stone and safer for horses); and those concrete slabs outside the National Army Museum near Sloane Square that I often passed on my way home are actually three sections of the Berlin Wall. If there was one thing I’ve learned over the past year, it’s that the city only gives back as much as you put in, so why not take some time out at lunch or at the weekend to slow things down a little and discover some of London’s Secret treasures. Marks of London’s often dark and murky past are everywhere if you know what to look for…
To get you started there is a fantastic site called Secret London – which if you’re like me, you ‘liked’ on facebook a while back and haven’t given another look since - but it’s more than worth a proper peruse, just to see what you’re missing down the road from your office or home, if nothing else. You’ll be amazed at what you can discover – from ‘odd’ buildings (A Turkish Baths in Liverpool street and a Cabman’s shelter in Temple to the smallest house in London, 101 Hyde Park Place); fancy coal holes; statues and ‘street furniture’ (from a Dr Who style Police call box in Picadilly to a Porter’s rest on Hyde Park Corner) to the sites of London’s lost rivers (the Effra, the Fleet, the Walbrook stream); abandoned stations (Strand, Down Street and Hyde Park Corner which I recently ate at without even realising it was a station converted into a Pizza on the Park restaurant); and derelict railway lines (such as The Northern Heights – Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace (which you can now walk the length of); the Woolwich abandoned line in Silvertown; and the infamous coffin-ticketed London Necropolis railway which used to transport the dead to outer city burial sites). See also http://www.derelictlondon.com/london-transport.html for more information.
On the app front, I’d recommed Hidden London and its accompanying website. In their own words: “the aim of Hidden London: The Guide is to introduce the more adventurous London explorer to a selection of interesting places to visit and attractive or curious sights to see, all of which avoid the well-worn paths to tourist hotspots like the world-famous galleries, the great cathedrals, the London Eye, Big Ben and Madame Tussauds.” With a large directory to select from, you can either choose a location or pick from their ‘best of’ lists which includes the likes of Walthamstow Village; the Caledonian market; the Gothic splendour of the Nunhead Cemetry in Linden Grove; Kensington’s Leighton House (an Arabic palace of Victorian art); the abode of forgotten Victorian celebrities at Caryle’s House in Chelsea; and the answer to why the Kink’s were so inspired by Denmark Street…
For some free and truly excellent pamphlets on the radical history of various areas of London see Past Tense guides which feature a wide range of London districts. Some of the best are: A Short Tour of Clerkenwell Radicalism (Reds on the Green); an account of The Burning of the Albion Mills (near Blackfriars); stories of Battles Against Enclosures in South London (Down with the Fences); a very interesting Manouvere around Elephant and Castle (Nine Things that Aren’t There) and a fascinating story of the looting and scoffing of a huge pie by the slum dwellers of the Mint (The Southwark Pudding Wonder is Over) among many many others.
They are connected with the Radical history group who run talks, walks and tours which are full of fascinating information (and usually end in a historic pub for some good conversation). If you prefer the self-guided option, they have some online walks and maps documenting the ‘Big Smoke’s Subversive Past and Present’ which you can download for free from their site.
In the Book department, Iain Sinclair’s collection of London-themed stories and recollections (London: City of Disappearances) comes highly recommended and vivedly reccounts ‘the real, unauthorized London: the disappeared, the unapproved, the unvoiced, the mythical, and the all but forgotten’ , taking us through its bookshops, terminals, tube lines, built-over history and secret passages along the way.
For something with more of a guidebook feel, try Eccentric London by Benedict le Vay (Bradt guides) which is pretty thorough on London’s hidden quirks and is packed with engaging stories and a plethora of bizarre facts which have been known to be of use in pub quizzes from time to time… From London’s nichest book shops, surviving swimming lidos, strangest churches, quirkiest pubs and hidden undergrounds to the history behind its most notorious addresses and eccentric place/road names. For example:
Battersea – was once an island in the marshes
Herne Hill – named for the Herons of its lost river Effra
Ha Ha Road – after a ditch which you can’t see from a distance that tricks people who then fall in
Little Britain – not after the TV series but for the rather more French Bretons
Portobello Road – sadly, a celebration of British colonialism – named after the British captured Portobello in the Gulf of Mexico
Spitalfields – after a mental hospital, the ‘spital – (interestingly there’s also an old horse hospital nearby too which now hosts some excellent theatrical evenings)…
The book also includes some very detailed maps and walking routes, covering everything from the bizarre bits of inner london to its ‘villages’ (such as Dulwich, Hammersmith, Wimbledon etc.)
If it’s more up-to-date ‘secret’/pop-up shopping , eating spots, galleries and markets you’re after then try the site London Pop-ups or Time Out which runs a decent enough guide – http://www.timeout.com/london/feature/1336/secret-london