Ten of London's Best Least-known Attractions!
Professor John Webster
What's next in London after you’ve “done” the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Houses of Parliament, The Tower, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, Westminster Abbey, St Pauls Cathedral and the Changing of the Guard?! Here are ten-plus ideas with a note about each…..
1. The Wallace Collection. A fabulously undervalued museum in a Mayfair town house. Wonderful collections of art—including miniatures and 18th century painting. The Fragonards are especially wonderful. Perhaps, too, the best museum café in London—perhaps the world!
2. John Soanes Museum. Tucked away in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a tiny jewel of a museum in the house architect and collector John Soane built in the early 19th century. Highlights of this collection are too numerous to mention—but the best part is the brilliant spatial experience of surprise and wonder one takes in passing from one house doorway after another into the rooms beyond.
3. Kenwood House. Atop the immense expanse of Hampstead Heath, like the crown upon the head of one of the world's most extensive urban parks, sits Kenwood House, completely rebuilt in the eighteenth century by Robert Adam. In room after room hang paintings by Hals, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and, yes, Rembrandt. Indeed, the Rembrandt may be the single best piece by this artist in all of London.
4. Greenwich Park and Observatory. Whether approached by boat down the Thames or by the Docklands Railway through the extraordinary architecture of the new East End, Greenwich offers a day out to remember. Either spent in the National Maritime Museum, or on top of the hill visiting “0° Longitude” at the Royal Observatory, or simply wandering the huge park in which both are sited, Greenwich is first rate touring!
5. The Abbey of Les Nez. Almost no one finds this little jewel, but south of the Thames in East London lie the ruins of Les Nez. Fabulously evocative of the medieval world in which they prospered, in early spring the stone foundations of Les Nez also offer access to a pathway up through wild narcissus and bluebells that bring Wordsworth’s lyric poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud” to life:
6. Chiswick House. Set in close-in suburb Richmond, Chiswick House was the party pad of the 18th century’s Lord Burlington. Constructed on Palladian principles, this is a perfect accomplishment of the English neo-classic.
7. Smithfield Market and St Bartholomew the Great. One of the most historic sites in all of London, Smithfield (originally “smooth field”) was host to massacres, treachery, fairs and football. It now offers a walk through London’s central meat market, but all within the stunning steel cathedral of the 1837-built Central Market buildings. And tucked off to one side, via a gatehouse that had been lost for three hundred years until uncovered by war damage in 1918, St Bart’s, the oldest parish church in all of London offers one of the great stone monuments to the city’s Norman past.
8. Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. Set just south of London Bridge, Southwark Cathedral maintains an active and surprisingly “local” community of churchgoers amidst the surviving stones of the Cathedral. No would-be competitor to the upscale and tourist-filled reaches of Westminster Abbey or St Pauls, this cathedral offers peace and openness—as well as a fine choir screen and Shakespeare’s brother’s grave. And on Friday and Saturday it offers access as well to the food-filled Borough Market, crammed smack dab against the Globe—the pub, not the theatre, and my own candidate for best London local! (And the apartment scenes for Bridget Jones’ Diary were set in the rooms above….)
9. The Cast Courts. Though located in the Victorian and Albert Museum, one of the most visited places in London, these two immense rooms are missed by almost everyone. They are filled with full-sized plaster castings of dozens and dozens of Europe's finest architechtural monuments. One's first question upon entering the first of these two chambers--after the REAL first question which generally takes the form of, "What the heck is all this?!"--is Who would ever have done all this amazing work? For amazing the work is: porches from famous Italian villas, Ghiberti's doors from Florence, ALL of Trajan's Column (!!!). The answer lies in when they were made--an era when travel to Italy wasn't a matter of a few hours on a relatively cheap air flight, but was rather an enterprise out of the reach of almost everybody. And you, too, can thus see up close and very personal indeed Michaelangelo's David, along with the "other" David by Donatello. (For more, click here)
10. Potpourri: Temple Church (the only round church in London—a left-over from the late 12th century); Highgate Cemetery (burial place of George Eliot as well as Karl Marx—and over-grown with twisty bramble and Queen Anne’s Lace); The Geffrye Museum (a stunningly restored eighteenth-century almshouse filled with furniture from six centuries of London life, and, for the hardy walker, starting point of an East London trek to and down exotic Brick Lane to the Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed Christchurch Spitalfields).