Forget Big Ben and forget Buckingham Palace. This is the London that doesn’t make it on to the postcards, but it’s the London Londoners love. Delve a little deeper into the city and discover alternative nights out, unusual exhibitions and quirky things to do in London.
Alternative days out in London
Unusual things to do
Alternative nights out
Escape the tourist traps in the city
Watching south-west Londoners mistake chugging around Richmond Park in their 4x4s for a day in the country isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but the traffic-free Isabella Plantation is a real oasis. Established during the 1950s, the ornamental woodland garden consists of clearings, ponds and streams and is planted with ferns, exotic trees and shrubs. It’s particularly striking during April and May when the azaleas and rhododendrons put on their annual show.
Hill Garden and Pergola
A favourite of local artists, this formal Arts and Crafts garden, created between 1910 and 1925 by Thomas Mawson for soap magnate Lord Leverhulme and restored in the 1990s, is a little-known part of Hampstead Heath. In late spring the raised, covered pergola – as long as Canary Wharf is tall – is festooned with wisteria, but great views of London are to be had at any time of year. Visit during the early evening and you might see roosting long-eared bats.
Walthamstow Marshes have always been a place for Londoners to go and pretend they live in the actual countryside, and now that illusion is about to get even better. Walthamstow Reservoir has been undergoing an £8.7 million redevelopment since 2012, and it will finally open to the public. Consisting of ten reservoirs, the 211-hectare Walthamstow Wetlands will form the largest urban wetland in Europe. It’s going to be a prime wildlife-spotting site, particularly for swans, kestrels and geese. E17’s industrial history gives the area an unusual aesthetic, with old metalworks and even gunpowder mills dotting the fecund green spaces. The onsite Marine Engine House (built in 1894) has been completely restored, chimney and all, to serve as a visitor centre and café. It’ll be a place to fish, spy, walk and go on smug couple runs. No need to escape to the countryside: it’s all right here.
Two-hour guided tour of Nunhead Cemetery, a romantic and overgrown Victorian cemetery featuring 1,000 ivy-clad angels and mighty Victorians buried in the green heart of Peckham. Takes place on the last Sunday of every month. The cemetery is open daily, 8am-4pm in winter, 7.30am-7pm in summer.
Unusual day-trips from London
Bizarre London museums
Leighton House Museum
Leighton House reopened in April 2010 after a £1.6 million refurbishment which has uncovered and restored many of the decorative schemes and features of the house, as well as a previously unseen staircase. In the 1860s the artist Frederic Leighton commissioned his friend, the architect George Aitcheson, to build him a showpiece house in Holland Park, which he filled with classical treasures from all over the world, as well as his own works and those of his contemporaries. The house was a work of art in itself, with every inch decorated in high style inspired by the studios Leighton had seen on his extensive European travels. There were magnificent reception rooms downstairs designed for lavish entertaining, and a dramatic staircase leading to a huge light-filled studio taking up most of the first floor. Four extensions were added over the years, the most striking addition the ‘Arab Hall’, designed to showcase Leighton’s huge collection of sixteenth-century Middle Eastern glazed tiles. The house was created as a stage on which Leighton could play out his role as a great artist, contrasting with the tiny single bedroom, the only private space in the whole house. Today, the house is still an architectural treasure trove which belies its somewhat dour exterior and the museum holds, or has on loan, some fine paintings as well as drawings and sketches.