Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Steeples and staples

I enjoyed Steeples and Staples by Carrie Kablean. Just in case this link gets removed, here are her suggestions for London's hidden gems:
  1. St Bride's Church and Roman remains: Accessed by a lane off Fleet Street, St Bride's is the church with the spire that inspired the traditional three-tiered wedding cake; it used to be visible to the baker at nearby Ludgate Hill who first made such cakes. But it also offers a glimpse of a 2000-year-old Roman road. The Christopher Wren-designed church suffered bomb damage in World War II, revealing Saxon foundations and a necropolis plus the fragments of a Roman road. That road is there for all to see and is part of an underground museum housing Roman coins and other finds.
  2. The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square: Shopping in Oxford Street can be intense, what with all those jostling crowds and red doubledeckers. Should consumerism give way to an impulse for culture (or the desire to sit down and have a quiet lunch), wander two blocks north (on Duke Street, between Selfridges and Bond Street Tube) to Manchester Square and the Wallace Collection. Hertford House, the townhouse of earls of Hertford long since gone, contains the most amazing collection of artwork, princely armour, furniture, ceramics and whatnots. This is where you can see Frans Hals's The Laughing Cavalier and various Gainsboroughs, Rubens and Rembrandts. Plus it's a great place for a good lunch or a spot of afternoon tea. Admission free.
  3. Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea: Similarly, this modern art gallery, situated just off Kings Road near Sloane Square in Chelsea, is a fine place to stop and take stock. The Saatchi collection is not exactly secret but its location is relatively new. The gallery has occupied the entire 6970sq m of the Duke of York's headquarters since October 2008 and its huge, light-filled rooms are perfect for displaying contemporary art and installations. The beautifully proportioned Gallery Mess, with its exposed brickwork and vaulted ceilings, overlooks Duke of York's Square and is just the spot for a glass of champagne or afternoon tea (or combine the two: the menu offers "champagne and elderflower glazed berries with caramel ice cream"). Free admission.
  4. Hogarth's House, Chiswick: The excesses and miseries of 18th-century Britain are represented in this collection of Hogarth's engravings at his former home in Chiswick, west London. It is a pretty secret place at the moment as a fire in 2009 delayed its refurbishment, but it is due to reopen middle of next year. Built around 1700, when Chiswick was a small village and a retreat from the city, two floors of the house will soon be open to the public and home to an extensive collection, including Gin Lane and Beer Street, illustrating aspects and principles of the satirist and artist's life and oeuvre. Closest Tube is Turnham Green; if you have your own transport, nearby attractions include historic Chiswick House, Kew Gardens and Syon Park. More: www.hounslow.info/arts.
  5. Prince Henry's Room, Fleet Street: One of the few structures to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 is a half-timbered house over the gateway to the Temple at 17 Fleet St. You could easily walk past and not notice the windows on the first floor, which belong to Prince Henry's Room. Various stories link the room, which is decorated with the Prince of Wales's feathers and boasts one of the finest Jacobean carved ceilings in London, with Henry, son of James I. What is certain is that the building is indicative of the architecture that once lined Fleet Street. It belongs to the Corporation of London now, and has been undergoing refurbishment; it is scheduled to reopen this year but just checking out the exterior is worthwhile. More: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk.
  6. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Dr Johnson's House: Rebuilt after the Great Fire, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is accessed by a lane off 145 Fleet St. A labyrinthine of dark rooms on various floors, this drinking establishment oozes history and has hosted such luminaries as Oliver Goldsmith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Tennyson and (in all probability as his house is still just around the corner) Dr Samuel Johnson. Sawdust used to be the preferred floor covering but there are just token amounts now, scattered on the well-worn stone steps at the entrance and used decoratively elsewhere. When journalists were still employed in Fleet Street and used "the Cheese" as a watering-hole, the sawdust layer was significantly thicker. The pub is still bursting with character and a good ploughman's lunch can be had, along with the ale of your choice. Dr Johnson's House, at 17 Gough Square, is worth a look. This redbrick home and workplace is where he compiled most of the first English Dictionary (from 1746 to 1751) and a first edition is in the house.
  7. Kensington Roof Gardens and pretty flamingos: You can see flamingos and get a view over London all the way to the Richmond Deer Park if you go to a doorway marked 99 Kensington High St (which is actually on Derry Street) and make your way up to the largest roof garden in Europe, which was laid out between 1936 and 1938. There is a Spanish garden in Moorish style based on the Alhambra in Granada; a Tudor garden, characterised by its archways, secret corners and hanging wisteria and perfumed with roses, lilies and lavender; and an English woodland garden, with more than 100 species of trees, a stream and a garden pond that's home to pintail ducks and four flamingos called Bill, Ben, Splosh and Pecks. Now owned by the Virgin empire, there's also the option to dine at the Babylon Restaurant. Free admission (but check to see if there's a private function first).
  8. The "Roman" Bath, Charing Cross: Down a flight of steps just off Surrey Street, near Charing Cross, and well-hidden down a tunnel is the so-called Roman Bath. It is unattended, but managed by the National Trust (you can press a button to illuminate the interior if the site is not open). Visit inside only by appointment via Westminster County Council: phone +44 20 7641 5264. Some say part of the bath is constructed in "small non-porous, Roman bricks", others reckon it only dates back to Tudor times. Either way, it's very old and a good place to exercise your imagination as did Charles Dickens: he had David Copperfield plunging into its cold water (sourced from the Holy Well at nearby St Clement Dane's Church). Closest Tube is Temple. More: www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
  9. Middle Temple and Gardens: Within the precincts of London's ancient legal quarter is Temple Garden, a peaceful 1.2ha sweep of lawns, manicured roses and herbaceous borders hidden between the bustle of Fleet Street and the River Thames. Historic references for this area go all the way back to the Knights Templar. Middle Temple Hall, which dates from to 1574, is one of the city's four Inns of Court. The historic buildings, cobbled streets and atmospheric gas lighting of Middle Temple have often been used as film locations. The walled garden is open to the public between 12.30pm and 3pm on weekdays. Access from Victoria Embankment or The Strand. Closest Tube is Temple. More: www.visitbritain.com.au.
  10. The London Silver Vaults: Looking for a quality souvenir? Hidden under the city's legal district, among office buildings and tailors on Chancery Lane, are the silver vaults and the world's most extensive collection of antique silver, from swizzle sticks to candelabra. There's no obligation to buy and it's a great place for lovers of antiques to browse. In the 19th century, the underground vaults were the safety deposit boxes for London's affluent. Gradually, silver merchants started to store their goods there too and now there are 40 dealers ready to buy, sell, exchange, repair, evaluate and generally give expert insight into all things silver. Closest Tube is Chancery Lane.

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