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12 beautiful London buildings straight out of a fairytale

These magical structures might as well have been designed by the Brothers Grimm. Step a little closer to their doors

Written by
Ashleigh Arnott
  • Things to do
  • Eltham
As well as looking like Rapunzel’s tower, this handsome Georgian building has its own, real-life tragic past. Lady James built it in the late eighteenth-century in memory of her husband, Sir William, and the castle commemorates his greatest adventure: destroying a band of pirates in 1755 in their fortress – Severn Droog – off the west coast of Malabar. Make sure to climb to the top for the fantastic 360-degree views, and to check there are no pirates nearby.
  • Sport and fitness
  • Manor House
This climbing centre’s building is actually an old Victorian pumping station; kudos to the architect who thought it appropriate to give such a functional building a turret. Bouldering, top roping and lead climbing sessions for all abilities are available within the building, but to admire the impressive faux-castle you’re better off visiting the centre’s community garden.
Ashby's Mill
  • Attractions
  • Brixton
You can go to The Windmill Brixton for a lively punk music scene, but you can go to Brixton Windmill (officially called Ashby’s Mill) for freshly ground flour and the feeling that Thumbelina is probably gathering seeds at your feet. The building turned 200 in 2016, and although it hasn’t housed a business since 1862, thanks to an impressive refurb it now offers regular tours and events.
  • Restaurants
  • French
  • Wandsworth
Another Victorian masterpiece of the spooky (and spookily out of place in Wandsworth) is the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, originally built as an asylum for girls orphaned during the Crimean War. Since then it has been a hospital, an MI5 interrogation unit and a boys’ school, but is now home to several small businesses. The only restaurant in the building, Le Gothique, runs a top-notch beer festival twice a year. Go to the Halloween iteration and you could swear you saw the shadow of a hunchback on the roof.
  • Things to do
  • Event spaces
  • Soho
Is it the home of Tudor hobbits, or the cover for a secret tunnel to Buckingham Palace? Well, currently it’s basically London’s fanciest garden shed, but Soho Square’s two-storey central hut does act as an emergency fire escape for a 3,200 sq ft underground bunker from World War Two.
Golders Hill Park Pergola
  • Attractions
  • Golders Green
Built in the early twentieth century by a grand chap called Lord Leverhulme, this gorgeous walkway was built for fancy garden parties held at Leverhulme’s home a few hundred yards away, which sort of makes him the original Gatsby. The colonnades aren’t as glamorous as they once were, but this secret garden is all the more atmospheric for it, especially in early summer when wisteria blossoms tumble over the walkways.
  • Attractions
  • Sightseeing
  • Westminster
This dinky little house in St James’s Park was built in the 1830s by the Ornithological Society of London as a base (and later a home) for the park’s official birdkeeper. Its cute ‘cottage orné’ style was designed to contrast with the stern architecture of the new government buildings in Whitehall. In the ’50s it was pebble-dashed, making it much less like the house from Hansel and Gretel, and became home to a pair of spinster park-keepers. But the building you can visit today is the restored version, and is the headquarters for the London Park and Gardens Trust.
  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Twickenham
Is it a palace? Is it a castle? No! It’s spooky writer Horace Walpole’s gothic revival home. The youngest son of Britain’s first Prime Minister turned an existing Thames-side hall into this magnificent building in the late eighteenth century, and was thereafter inspired to write ‘The Castle of Otrantro’, widely considered to be the first Gothic novel. The building opened to the public in 2010, and now hosts regular family events, evening tours, murder mysteries and more. Visiting without pretending to be some kind of valiant Disney character is, from experience, a challenge.
Russell Square Cabmen's Shelter
  • Restaurants
  • Cafés
  • Bloomsbury
There are 13 of these Victorian caffs still standing in the capital; they’re all still run by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund and they’re all Grade II listed. This friendly little green hut opened in Leicester Square in 1901, but moved to Russell Square in the late ’60s. It still provides affordable tea, coffee and hot meals to local cab drivers. It also looks a bit like it might be Tinkerbell’s second home.

Read more about Cabmen's Shelters
  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • West Ham
You may think that this curious building resembles the Child Catcher’s holiday home, but in actual fact it’s a sewage pumping station that was built in the 1860s. Although it was known as ‘the cathedral of sewage’ thanks to the crucifix formation of its beam engines, a modern pumping station was opened 200 metres away from this one in 1997. Abbey Mills is linked to Beckton Sewage Works by the Lee Tunnel, which was opened by Boris Johnson in January 2016. The tunnel is designed to carry 16 million tonnes of sewage; sewage which had previously been left in the River Lea – a thought more repulsive than the Child Catcher himself.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
  • Attractions
  • Religious buildings and sites
  • Neasden
The ‘Neasden Temple’ is amazing in many different ways, but the fact that it looks like the AirBnB that the cast of ‘The Neverending Story’ would choose is clearly the main one. Whether Hindu or heathen, you are welcome to admire the mandir, which cost £10 million to build and hosts prayer meetings for 2,000 people at a time.
Battersea Park Peace Pagoda
  • Attractions
  • Zoos and aquariums
  • Battersea
Japanese Buddhist monk the Reverend Gyoro Nagase built this stately sanctum at the riverside edge of Battersea Park in 1985, staying in what is now the children’s zoo and using a storeroom in The Old English Garden. Its location makes the structure particularly striking, its delicate roofs and golden buddhas set against an unusually clear stretch of English sky. Nagase is now the only monk at the temple but still offers daily prayers at sunrise.

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