The Off-Beat Guide To London
Perhaps more than any major world city, London is a paradise for the amateur history buff. Having been around, in one form or another, for about 2,000 years, London brims with historical sites detailing the rise and fall of the world’s great civilisations.
The big attractions are known the world over—Big Ben, the houses of Parliament, the tower of London, Buckingham Palace.
But the thousands of daily tourists who visit them make it difficult to appreciate the history that the buildings convey. And plus, when everyone knows the stories behind these attractions, how much can really be learnt by diving into the throngs of people jostling for the best view?
Instead, history buffs are now looking from London’s best-kept secrets—the sites that illustrate the city’s millennia-old culture, without asking visitors to fight their way through unending crowds to appreciate it.
It should be noted, however, that many of London’s off-the-beaten-track attractions do connect rather well with the more gruesome parts of its history. The southwark needle by London Bridge, for example, is a svelte spike like monument made of Portland stone.
But it marks the approximate spot where, for around 400 years, the heads of traitors were impaled on wooden spears—the first of whom was said to be William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace in 1305.
Likewise, the Crossbones Garden in Southwark, while beautiful, has an equally bleak story behind it. A wild and stunning oasis of green in the middle of the city, was once a pauper’s burial ground. The dead who were buried here are now commemorated with colourful ribbons twined around rusty railings.
That said, one doesn’t always have to enjoy the darker side of history to appreciate London’s off-beat sites. For example, anyone keen on their cigar history would do well to pay a visit to James J. Fox Cigar Merchant, which purports to be the oldest cigar merchant in the world. Nestled on Picking Place (the smallest public square in London), the rustic shop displays old ledgers alluding to the high calibre of its historical customers.
Among them are Oscar Wilde (who reportedly failed to pay off his bill) and Winston Churchill.
For a peek into the architectural history of London, you could do worse than Sir John Soane’s Museum, the former residence of the architect of the Bank of England. Now a public museum, the attraction features more than 20,000 architectural drawings and antiquities, including the Egyptian Sarcophagus of Seti.
These stunning exhibits sit alongside works by the likes of Turner, Canaletto and Piranesi, which are reportedly arranged just the way that Sir John Soane himself left them.
If the weather’s right, it’s worth taking a tour down the 40-mile-long Thames Path. The best way to enjoy the path is by renting a bike, and meandering down in a leisurely fashion. On the way, you’ll find quiet public beaches, one of Charles Dickens’ favourite pubs, the Prospect of Whitby, and the quaint village of Rotherhithe, among other highlights.
Finally, for a night out on the town combined with some historical insight, pay a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall, the world’s oldest and last surviving grand music hall. A guided tour reveals the history and heritage of the hall itself, as well as the idea behind the great music halls of yesteryear and London’s East End.
The hall has recently been fully restored, with tickets available for a variety of performances, and for a nightcap, the beautiful Mahogany Bar is a wonderful place to end up.