Five Hidden Gems in London
Everyone knows about the major sites in London -- The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and all the wonderful museums. I highly encourage everyone to visit those places during their first visit to London, because they are world treasures and not to be missed. But if you have a little free time with nothing planned, or if you've visited London before and have visited the major sites, these are some often-overlooked or unknown places that I love.
Planning Your Trip
Postman's Park is a short distance north of St. Paul's Cathedral, tucked away behind St. Botolph's Church on St. Martin le Grand, and also has an entrance on Edward Street. This is a fascinating area of London, full of history and unexpected surprises, and Postman's Park is one of the most intriguing.
Although at first it looks like just another small park suitable for a pleasant break, this park has a surprise. Under the little shelter shown in the picture above are plaques detailing the stories of every-day heroes, who lost their lives while saving the lives of others.
The origin of this unusual memorial was an attempt by artist George Frederic Watts to commemorate the acts of average people who had done extraordinary things. He made an appeal to Queen Victoria in 1887 for a national effort in that regard, but his idea was ignored. Undeterred, he paid for the construction and installation of the first 13 plaques, and his wife continued his mission after his death in 1904, installing an additional 34 plaques. Five final plaques were installed in 1930.
The park gained its name because it was near the old General Post Office, which is no longer standing. In those days, the postmen who worked there often took their lunch breaks in the park. Now, it's one of my favorite places to go when I get a take-away meal or just need to rest my feet in a tranquil setting.
The park gained some recognition as the location for a scene in the film "Closer," with Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman. Early in the film, the characters played by Law and Portman are standing under the shelter and Ms. Portman is looking at the plaques, while Law only has eyes for her. He asks her name, and she says, "Alice Ayres." Actually, Alice is one of the heroes commemorated in a plaque, and it is only at the end of his complex, tortured relationship with Portman that Law returns to the park to reminisce, sees Alice's plaque, and realizes he has never known Portman's real name.
There is a wonderful article from the Washington Post about the reporter's accidental discovery of the park, which perfectly describes the wonder and joy of finding something special when you least expect it. The location of the park makes it a perfect stop between visiting St. Paul's Cathedral and the Museum of London (see below).
Alice Ayres' Plaque
THE MUSEUM OF LONDON
The Musem of London is probably the least-visited and most interesting of the major museums in London. Spanning the history of London from prehistoric times to the present, it would take an entire day to explore it all. I have visited twice, and still plan to go back for more. Everything from a reproduced Roman villa interior to the Lord Mayor's golden coach are on display.
At this time, the lower galleries are closed for renovation, and only the period up to 1666 is available for viewing. However, the 20 million pound restoration will be complete in the spring of 2010, and promises to be spectacular.
The area of London in which the museum is located was devastated by the Blitz, and the architecture in the immediate area is somewhat grim, the typical post-war "modern" architecture of concrete and steel. However, once you enter the museum, the past comes to life, including a portion of the old Roman wall that was spared by the bombing. Nearby is the Smithfield area (see below), another relatively unvisited yet fascinating area in London, which was largely untouched by the devastation of World War II.
Admission to the museum is free, and there is a wonderful gift shop and lovely cafe. The museum is within easy walking distance of the Barbican or St. Paul tube stations.
West Smithfield is actually an area in London, rather than a specific site. But it is chock full of history, and there is an amazing amount to see within this roughly three square block area. It is easily reached from Farringdon tube station, from the north side of St. Paul's, or from Barbican tube station.
West Smithfield itself is a circular area bound by the Smithfield Market, St. Bartholomew's Hospital and St. Bartholomew the Great Church. There is now a park in the middle of West Smithfield, but at one time, this was where jousts took place, with knights traveling from the Tower of London down Knightrider Street and up Giltspur Lane to the middle of what was then known as "Smoothfield," a flat grassy area just outside the city walls. Lords and ladies, kings and queens, and hordes of common folk watched the knights swing their swords and lances, gallop on their chargers, and impress all with their prowess and gallantry. Some of the legendary jousts held here included a seven-day extravaganza held by Edward III in 1374 in honor of his mistress, Alice Perrers, and one held in 1390 by Richard II that was renowned throughout Europe.
While this romantic vision of Smithfield is lovely to think about, the area was also synonymous with death for centuries. Victims ranging from common criminals to Scottish patriot William "Braveheart" Wallace in 1305 to Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants' Revolt, in 1381 were put to death here by various imaginative and cruel methods. The tradition continued for centuries, with many religious dissenters, particularly under Queen Mary I, meeting their ends here. It is said that the screams of burning heretics and the smell of cooking flesh sometimes permeate the area even today. A memorial to William Wallace is mounted on the wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and tributes of thistle (the symbol of Scotland), Scottish flags, and notes are always in evidence there.
The Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great
St. Bart's is my favorite church in London, and is its oldest parish church. It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Zeppelin raids of World War I, and the Blitz, each of which destroyed dozens of other historic churches in the city. While it lacks the grandeur of St. Paul's or Westminister Abbey, its history and beauty render it unique and well worth a visit. It has been used as a location for filming many movies and television shows, including "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Shakespeare in Love," and "The Other Boleyn Girl."
The entrance gate on West Smithfield had been covered centuries ago by later construction, but when a Zeppelin bomb landed in the area during World War I, the facade was blown away, and the medieval gate was again revealed. The churchyard can also be entered from Cloth Fair, the street running along the left side of the church, which is so named because of the annual cloth fair held in the area for centuries.
The church was founded in 1123 by Rahere, variously described as a court jester or courtier of Henry I, son of William the Conqueror. Rahere is buried in the church, and is said to haunt it, after having been awakened in Victorian times when his tomb was opened and a workman stole one of his sandles. Those who have sighted him say he walks throughout the chapel with one bare foot, searching for his other sandle, or silently preaches from the pulpit.
Whether haunted or not, the church is lovely, and the best way to see it is to attend a service. There is normally an admission charge of four pounds to enter the church, but entrance is free during the first hour after opening or if one attends a service. Whether or not you are normally a churchgoer, the beauty of the service, the soaring voices of the choir, and the knowledge that you are experiencing something that Londoners have participated in for centuries is a moving experience.
On the occasions when I have attended, the church verger has conducted a tour of the church after the service. I don't know if this is done every Sunday, but one can also arrange for individual or group tours by appointment. A cafe/bar has recently opened in the 15th Century cloister of the church, which is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 to 4:30, and on Sundays before and after each of the three services.
One caveat: The church is often used for weddings, filming, and other activities. Check the church calendar online or give them a call to be sure you can visit when you wish.
St. Bartholomew's Hospital
St. Bart's was also founded by Rahere, the founder of the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great. The hospital's future became uncertain during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, but after citizens of the city became concerned about the loss of the hospital, he refounded the hospital in 1546 and designated it as one of four royal hospitals. The only public statue of Henry VIII appears on the wall outside the hospital.
The hospital also contains an interesting museum and two huge and spectacular murals painted by Hogarth in the 1730s, which are visible from the museum. The museum can be entered through the Henry VIII Gate and admission is free. There is also a museum shop.
A tour of St. Bart's, which includes a tour of the Priory Church and Cloth Fair, takes place at 2:00 p.m. every Friday, and starts at the Henry VIII gate. The charge is 5 pounds, and you must also pay the admission charge to tour the Church.
There has been a meat market in West Smithfield since at least 1174. The present Smithfield Market building was constructed during the 1860s, and is a beautiful example of Victorian industrial architecture. Although animals are no longer slaughtered at the site, butchers, fishmongers, and other tenants provide supplies primarily to restaurants, groceries, and wholesalers. The building was damaged and lives were lost there during the Blitz, but the building has been restored to its former glory.
The streets around the market attest to its history -- Cowcross Street, Cock Lane, and others such as Duck Lane, Pheasant Court, and Goose Alley, which have been swallowed up and erased as the city developed. The market figures in many of Dickens' works, as well as those of other authors spanning the centuries.
Because the workers at the market work primarily at night, several pubs and cafes in the area open at 4:00 a.m. to serve the workers during their "lunch hour," and they are also popular with revelers who are ending their evening, rather than starting their day.
Roaming the streets around West Smithfield brings many surprises and delights. The London Walks conducts several walking tours that cover the area, the most enjoyable probably being the "Ghosts of the Old City" walk, which acquaints you with the rich history of the area and the many hauntings that are said to occur there. So far, I have not met a ghost, but I hope one crosses my path someday.
The Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great
Memorial to William "Braveheart" Wallace
Historic Hand and Shears Pub on Cloth Fair
DENNIS SEVERS' HOUSE
Dennis Severs' House is more than a museum or work of art, although it has elements of both. The late Mr. Severs called it a "still-life drama," but that doesn't describe the depth of this experience.
Mr. Severs was an artist who over a period of many years turned the rooms of his home into time capsules invoking periods from 1197 to 1914. As one moves through the house in silence (talking is forbidden), the smells, sounds, and surroundings of those eras envelop you. It is somewhat like walking through a living painting, and the motto of the house is, "You either see it or you don't." It is such a difficult experience to describe, but I found it very profound, and have thought back on my visits many times.
The experience is a strangely solitary one, even though there are other people roaming about the house at the same time you are. Since you must be silent, you find yourself minutely examining your surroundings, noticing the smells, the textures, and the sounds around you. The top floor, which evokes a Victorian-era slum, is particularly evocative, and I found myself almost running down the stairs to escape it.
The best time to visit the house is during Christmas, when the various rooms are decorated for the holiday in the manner of each period. There are postcards and copies of Severs' book available for purchase, but there is no gift shop, cafe, or anything like that. The guides are very serious about the experience, and it is not a place to take children.
The house is located in Spitalfields, very near Liverpool Street Station, and is housed in an early 18th Century home. Opening hours are rather complex, and you must book in advance. The price of admission varies depending upon the time of day, the time of year, and the day of the week, and ranges from 8 to 15 pounds. Visit the excellent website for full details.
CHRIST CHURCH GREYFRIARS
The history of Christ Church Greyfriars began in the early 14th Century, when an order of monks established the church as an adjunct to their monastery. The monastery was supported by the royal family, and the church was the burial place of many of them, such as Marguerite of France, second wife of Edward I, and Isabella, "the She-Wolf of France," widow and alleged murderer of Edward II.
The massive church, second in size only to St. Paul's Cathedral, fell into decline after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. It was finally destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The rebuilding of the church by Christopher Wren was completed in 1687, although the tower was not fully completed until 1704. Even though it was rebuilt on a much smaller scale than the original, it was still enormous and was the most expensive of Wren's churches. It contained elaborate decorations by his master wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, and extra galleries to house the students of Christ Church during services. The church incorporated Wren's trademark design elements, such as huge clear-paned windows through which the sun could pour, although the east and west sides of the church contained buttresses, which are unique in any of Wren's churches. It is possible that this was a tribute to the significance of the original Gothic building.
Unfortunately, the church was almost completely destroyed in the Blitz on the night of December 29, 1940, a night which saw the destruction of eight Wren churches. As the church blazed, two postmen from the nearby post office raced into the inferno and rescued the intricately carved font cover, which had been created by Grinling Gibbons. It can now be seen inside the nearby city church of St Sepulchre’s.
By the time of its destruction, the entire congregation of the church had dwindled to 77 people, so it was decided not to rebuild the church. The site, which consisted of rubble and partially-standing walls, was abandoned until the spire was rebuilt in 1960. In 1981, office space modeled after the 1760 vestry house was constructed on the west side. In 2002, the site was renovated, an archaeological survey was performed, and the former interior of the church was turned into a memorial rose garden. In 2006, the tower and spire were converted into a 12-level private residence.
It is said that the ghost of Isabella of France continues to haunt the nave. When she was buried here, the heart of her assassinated husband was buried with her, and she roams the churchyard, clutching the still-beating heart of her husband before her.