Monday, 6 July 2015

Unearthing London's hidden gems

When visiting London the tendency is to flock to the iconic sights of Tower of London, Wesminster, Buckingham Palace etc. and admittedly if it's your first time in the city they shouldn't be missed (apart from the London Eye which in my opinion is a ridiculously overpriced ferris wheel). 
However as I wander through crowds of tourists taking selfies of themselves with the Queen's Guard, postboxes, subway signs etc, I often smile at the thought that if they wandered a little off the beaten track they would find some gorgeous hidden treasures which give a real sense of London and its inhabitants/history, without having to brave the 2hr queues or face the risk of being conned into buying a union jack hat or a decorative plate with the face of David Cameron printed on it which are inevitably only going to lead to regret, shame, or in the latter case indigestion.

Below are are two such hidden treasures that I unearthed recently and which I thought I would share.

Strawberry Hill House
Confession; you have to go outside of zone 1 & 2 for this - all the way to Twickenham in zone 5 in fact. But fear not there are direct trains from London Waterloo which get you there in half an hour, and it is absolutely worth the trip. Strawberry Hill House is a fabulous gothic style castle which was the birthplace of the very first gothic novel (The Castle Of Otranto - the inspiration for one of my favourite books, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein). Very few people I have talked to have been or even heard of this place, so it's the very definition of a hidden gem. Designed in the 18th century by Horace Wimpole, son of England's first Prime Minister, it is a perfect example of what comes from combining eccentricity with boundless wealth.

During Wimpole's day the house was filled to the brim with a vast, idiosyncratic collection of objects. While that's long gone the house itself is worth visiting in itself, as the fireplaces and gilded ceilings like medieval tombs and vaults and stained glass give the place an otherwordly feel. At the moment the house is filled with brilliantly strange sculptures by Laura Ford as part of a temporary exhibition - the one in the garden below reminded me of the girl from the Japanese horror film, The Ring (that film where the ghost girl climbs out of the TV to kill her victims).

 So what are you waiting for? Get yourself down before the secret gets out, and soak up the atmosphere yourself by entering the magical world of Strawberry Hill.

Highgate Cemetry
I appreciate a visit to a cemetry isn't most people's cup of tea but if you give this place a go I think you will find it a lovely, relaxing way to spend an afternoon. The cemetry is separated into two parts - the East side is the one that most people visit as it is famed for being the resting place for Karl Marx, whose giant head on top of his tomb peers down at all that pass by, and Douglas Adams the writer of 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy', whose grave you could almost miss if you didn't notice the little pot filled with pens, instead of flowers

However my personal preference is the West Cemetry just across the way which is only accessible by guided tour, because of saftey issues as some of the tombs are collapsing in on themselves. This side of the cemetry highlights the Victorian's attitude that death was an event to be marked with as much ceremony as possible. The result is a labyrinth of Egyptian sepulchres, the Circle of Lebanon (a ring of vaults and catacombs that surround a massive Lebanon cedar tree) and a wealth of Gothic tombs and buildings.

The guides are all volunteers but are really knowledgeable and enthusiastic and are happy to share stories about some of the cemetry's curious inhabitants. My favourite story was about George Wombwell, owner of Wombwell's Travelling Circus, whose tomb is marked by a lion perched on top. His menagerine started in the 1800s with two snakes in a box which he would take from pub to pub in London and charge people for a peek. At one point it was thought that a vampire might at loose in the cemetry though obviously no evidence was ever found of Robert Pattinson or any of his friends. Nevertheless Bram Stoker was so inspired by the eerie atmosphere of Highgate that he susequently wrote Dracula.

If you want to go and see what all the fuss is about I suggest going on a weekend afternoon when you can just turn up and buy tickets for the next tour of the West Cemetry (as opposed to booking in advance during weekdays). Tickets cost around £11 but that includes the guided tour of the West Cemetry and entry into the East Cemetry (which is £4 on its own). To get there take the undeground to Archway or Highgate, then its a 10 minute walk up Highgate Hill through Waterlow Park.

So that's it for now folks. I hope you enjoyed the round up of just a few hidden gems in London. More to follow in the coming months so stay posted. In the meantime, get exploring!



  1. These are truly hidden gems. I've been to London a million times and never heard of these amazing places. Will surely do these tours on my next visit. Thanks for sharing Marie.

    1. Glad you enjoyed them. Most people I know haven't seen them either but they are both really worth visiting as they are so pretty. Enjoy!

  2. great post dear ! I am so going to Strawberry hills this weekend :)

  3. Fab. Would love to hear your opinion.

  4. Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, definitely make a trip - you're sure to love it as there is something here for everyone.


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