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egyptian crystal palace
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Secret wonders of London to seek out on your next walk

Use this winter to rediscover your city. This is our guide to London’s weirdest, oldest and most magical bits

By Kate Lloyd and Huw Oliver
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It’s fair to say we’re all doing quite a bit of wandering around the city at the moment. If you’re after stuff to head to on those ambles, then look no further. With going abroad not really an option for the next few months, now is the perfect time to reimagine London. Let’s start looking at our city’s historical sites, tranquil beauty spots and architecture with the eyes of a tourist, taking time to explore parts we’ve never seen before and dig into their histories. From dark and weird artefacts and really, really, really old stuff to the super-cool curiosities hidden in plain sight at some of London’s major landmarks, this guide is a starting point to exploring the stranger side of our city. 

Secret wonders of London

hyde park dog cemetery
hyde park dog cemetery
Photograph: Baloncici / Shutterstock

Hyde Park Dog Cemetery

Attractions Sightseeing Hyde Park

Some died of gluttony, others fell beneath the wheels. A certain Balu was even poisoned. This fenced-off Victorian canine graveyard in the back garden of the park’s Victoria Lodge brims with sorry tales. They hadn’t quite nailed dog names back then – see ‘Scum’, ‘Freeky’ and ‘King of Pussies’.

Giraffe at ZSL London Zoo
Giraffe at ZSL London Zoo
Photograph: ZSL

Giraffes in Regent’s Park

Attractions Parks and gardens Regent’s Park

Did you know that if you head along London Zoo’s perimeter path in Regent’s Park you can see the giraffes for free? Free giraffes, everybody! Peek through gaps in the hedge to catch forbidden glimpses of them flaunting their necks and chomping on leaves, you big perv. 

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Highbury River Walk

Duck down a snick by busy Canonbury Road and you’ll suddenly land at a riverside so tranquil it feels like ‘The Animals of Farthing Wood’. This 2.5km nature path has been around since the seventeenth century; that’s when the New River was created: a canal that doubled the water supply to a city that faced major shortages. 

millennium bridge
millennium bridge
Photograph: Shutterstock

The secret beach by Millennium Bridge

Attractions Towers and viewpoints Bankside

There’s a lot of talk about seeing the London skyline from very high up, but what about seeing it from very low down? Edgy. Cool. So you, right? In that case, you should probably know that when the tide is out, the river Thames shrinks, revealing strips of sandy beach running alongside the South Bank and under the Millennium Bridge. From there, you can gaze up at the centre of London like you’re a tiny pathetic mouse. 

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Abbey Mills Pumping Station
Abbey Mills Pumping Station
© Ian Wright

‘The Cathedral of Sewage’

Attractions Historic buildings and sites West Ham

You can understand why Joseph Balzagette might have been a little shitted off. He was an urban-planning god, but almost all his works were out of sight. (They were sewers.) So when he did get to design anything above ground, he ran properly wild. In an otherwise not-that-scenic patch of Bromley-by-Bow, the still-functioning Abbey Mills Pumping Station is his masterpiece. It’s ridiculously ornate and topped with a grand cupola that makes you think of St Petersburg. See it on the east London section of the Capital Ring Walk, which runs right past. The Nunnery Gallery’s café (181 Bow Rd, E3 2SJ) does decent flat whites, and if it’s more like dinner time, order a kebab from Sultan Sofrasi (73 Parnell Rd, E3 2RU). When you get in, whack on ‘Batman Begins’: the Arkham Asylum scene should feel familiar.

Pickering Place

Back in 1842, Texas was a fledgling republic taken seriously enough for Britain to let it open a full-on embassy off St James’s Street. It was pretty hard to find, mind. Today, you’ll spot a sign commemorating the site in Pickering Place, also the spot where London’s last duel took place. Bring your Beyblades along and continue the tradition.

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London’s biggest potted plant

Attractions Cemeteries Highgate

Your cheeseplant has nothing on Highgate Cemetery’s comically enormous cedar of Lebanon. A huge circle of mausoleums creates the impression of a pot enclosing this tree, which predates the rest of the graveyard by a century.

king henry's mound
king henry's mound
Photograph: Shutterstock

King Henry’s Mound

Attractions Parks and gardens Richmond Park

Okay, so let’s say you’re the king of England and you’re getting your wife executed for treason. What do you get up to when the beheading happens? Quick bev? Cheeky trip to Ye Olde Nando’s? Apparently, King Henry VIII stood at this spot in Pembroke Lodge Gardens to watch a rocket fired from the Tower of London to let him know the deed was done. Fair play. It remains one of the best spots in the city for seeing panoramic views of the skyline. 

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St George’s Nature Study Museum

‘A temple of nature in the least romantic centre of the metropolis’ – that’s how the former guardians of this building in Shadwell described the mini-museum it once housed. Children, unused to seeing wildlife, would come here to goggle at newts and stuff. The boarded-up structure is now covered in wire, bent into Biblical snippets; unclear why, exactly. 

Severndroog Castle
Severndroog Castle
© Ian Macaulay

Severndroog Castle

Things to do Eltham

Its name sounds like something out of Redwall and it kind of looks that way too: a triangular gothic folly, surrounded by woodland, at the top of Shooter’s Hill above Woolwich. It was built in the eighteenth century by a grieving widow as a tribute to her later husband’s greatest escapade: destroying a band of pirates in their Indian fortress of Suvarnadurg (rendered in English as ‘Severndroog’). Nowadays, it’s a great excuse to do a hill walk. 

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Stretcher railings

From afar, they look a bit like, y’know, some pretty conventional railings. Your steel bars. Your mesh. Decent job there. But the fencing around several estates in Peckham, Brixton, Oval and Deptford were originally stretchers used to carry wounded during the Blitz, You’ll can spot them by the kinks in the frame, which worked as feet to raise the stretchers off the ground.

The hardy tree
The hardy tree
Photograph: Shutterstock

The Hardy Tree

As though ghosts are rising from beneath the surface of the earth, overlapping headstones encircle an ash tree in the yard of St Pancras Old Church. Expanding nineteenth-century railway lines meant that remains from a swathe of the graveyard had to be exhumed. Tasked with relocating the stones? Architect’s assistant Thomas Hardy. 

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Fake houses near Hyde Park

Tall, graceful and faced with white stucco, they may make look like any other posh London townhouses – but two buildings on upmarket terrace Leinster Gardens are, in fact, impostors: five-foot-thick façades with no agas or ‘cinema rooms’ or terrible art behind them at all. When the first Underground line was dug, the backs of the houses were demolished to allow smoke from trains to escape from the tunnels. The District and Circle lines still use the tracks. 

The spriggan
The spriggan
Photograph: Shutterstock

The Spriggan

Attractions Parks and gardens Finsbury Park

Finsbury’s Parkland Walk was nice to stroll along even before the Spriggan arrived. This disused railway track is overgrown with ivy and is very pretty. Then an arts officer decided to turn it into a sculpture walk and commissioned just one artwork – a fairy bodyguard crawling out of the wall by Crouch End station – before they gave up. 

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St Dunstan-in-the-East

Attractions Parks and gardens City of London

Practically in the shadow of the Walkie Talkie and next to a Premier Inn, you’ll find a peaceful, ancient place that just doesn’t seem to fit in… Since it was bombed-out during the war, the picturesque ruins of medieval church St Dunstan-in-the-East have been overrun by nature, creating an idyllic spot in the City’s most business area. Leaves and vines now cling to the Grade I-listed stone arches. Spend a morning reading a book here – we recommend something set in London in WWII, like ‘The Night Watch’ or ‘The End of the Affair’ – before popping across Tower Bridge for a takeaway mulled wine from The Vault 1894 (SE1 2UP).

Bits of Old London Bridge

Attractions Parks and gardens Victoria Park

Chances are you’ve perched in one of the two stone alcoves in Viccy Park at some point or another, giving little thought as to how they got there. That would be totally fair enough. But it is weird to think they once stood on the old London Bridge (the one that was ‘falling down’), before they were plonked in east London around 150 years ago for Victorian goths to simply hang and chill and look a bit sad and dejected in. 

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bunhill graveyard, william blake
bunhill graveyard, william blake
Photograph: Alan Kean / Shutterstock

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground

Attractions Shoreditch

Ever thought that the City practically stinks of death and decay? Could be all the musty old bankers – or maybe the ancient Bunhill burial ground. Originally named ‘bone hill’ after thousands of skeletons were transferred here from the charnel house of old St Paul’s in the sixteenth century, this eerie cemetery near Old Street may have been used as a plague pit too. Look out for William Blake.

The tomb of the unknown London girl

Attractions Sightseeing City of London

The bottom of a skyscraper might not be the first spot you’d look for a Roman burial ground, but that’s where you’ll find the tomb of a teenager who died between AD 350 and 400. Her body was found when an IRA bomb exploded on St Mary Axe in 1992 and she was reburied in a shiny box when the Gherkin was built.

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The Wimbledon windmill

Museums Childhood Wimbledon Common

All it takes is a few minutes’ walk on to Wimbledon Common to feel like you’re interrailing around Europe with a load of 18-year-old Australians. That’s thanks to a twee black-and-white windmill that’s been in the park since 1816 and that looks ever so Dutch. It’s got a museum inside but you don’t care about that. Go take your Instagrams and begone. 

The fossils at St Paul’s Cathedral

Attractions Religious buildings and sites St Paul’s

Don’t think you have to rush off to the Jurassic Coast whenever you’ve got a thirst for a spot of palaeontology. London’s paved streets are actually home to a host of preserved prehistoric creatures. Take the steps at the main entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral. Trapped in the polished flagstones, right by the door, you’ll find ancient cephalopods. 

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grasshopper on lombard street
grasshopper on lombard street
Photograph: Shutterstock

Lombard St’s old signs

Imagine the pressure. In fact, imagine the freedom. ‘Logos’ aren’t a thing yet, and you’ve got to come up with an image to give your business a visual USP on London’s foremost banking street. There were once 138 signs here. Only four remain: a grasshopper, an anchor, a cat and a crown. 

egyptian crystal palace
egyptian crystal palace
Shutterstock

Crystal Palace’s Egyptian Terrace

Attractions Parks and gardens Crystal Palace

Sure, Crystal Palace’s wonky dinosaurs are cool but they’re also attention hogs: ‘Oh wah, my body’s not anatomically correct: come laugh at me!’ Shut up, dino. True stans of the park will tell you the best bit is at the other end, where you’ll find six sphinxes guarding a grand staircase to nowhere. They’re the remains of the original Crystal Palace, which burned down in 1936 and they are eerie af. 

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The London Stone

Tucked away on the side of a building on Cannon Street you’ll find a big lump of rock that a) is very old, and b) apparently has occult significance. Believed to have been in the city since 1100, the London Stone was once thought to be a ‘palladium’ – an object protecting the city’s wellbeing. It’s doing a bit of a shit job at the moment if that’s the case. 

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The smallest police station in the UK

Attractions Event spaces Trafalgar Square

Stealthily secreted in the base of a street light, this is Britain’s smallest police station, built before WWII so the Met could keep an eye on troublemaking protesters in Trafalgar Square. Given the obvious Tardis associations, it’s tempting to imagine it’s perception-smashingly massive on the inside. In reality, it’s just one very small room (now literally a broom cupboard), only ever intended to hold a single police officer. Case of the hunger pangs? Grab a vegan cake and Greek coffee from Black Box (WC2H 7JA), just around the corner, or if you’re after something heftier, try the sizzling meat dishes at Café TPT (W1D 6PN). Once you’re home, dig into Dorian Lynskey’s epic history of the protest song, ‘33 Revolutions Per Minute’.

 

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Druidic mounds

Fancy vibing with our Celtic ancestors? Well, rumour has it there are four druidic mounds in town: Tothill in Westminster, the White Mound at the Tower of London, Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath and Penton in Pentonville. Do a crawl of these humps and think about what London could have been like if the Romans hadn’t invaded. (Probably quite bad, tbh.) 

Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

The site of London’s first coffee house

Back in the 1650s the only way to get a caffeine hit in London was with a trip to a little nook behind Leadenhall Market. There you’d find London’s OG coffee house, selling sweet, sweet juice made from beans imported from Turkey. Find the plaque marking the spot and nail a thermos of filter to pay tribute to our most buzzing ancestors. 

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A very old statue

Shopping Auction houses Fitzrovia

One place you’re probably not expecting to see an ancient artefact is just around the corner from a branch of Victoria’s Secret. But that’s where you’ll find the lion goddess Sekhmet, dating from 1320 BC. This Ancient Egyptian knick-knack sits perched above Sotheby’s. In the 1800s its buyer never collected it and now it’s the auction house’s mascot. Cute rich people larks!

Roman walls

Attractions Monuments and memorials Tower Hill

If there’s one thing that really got Romans off, it was building walls. When those lads weren’t fighting Asterix, they were encircling cities in brick. Londinium was no exception. You’re probably aware that back in AD 200 the original boundaries of this city were marked and protected by 85,000 tons of Kentish ragstone but did you know you can still see bits of that big ol’ wall now? In fact, you can walk a 3.5km route from Tower Hill to Barbican (via Aldgate and Bishopsgate) to view its remains dotted through the City. And if you do decide to do that, can we recommend a few stop-offs? Black Sheep Coffee (EC3R 8DR) for a jolt of caffeine to power you through your stroll, Birley Sandwiches (EC2M 1JJ) to pick up a snack to eat at the finish line: some Roman fort ruins at 3 Noble Street. (Search for ‘London Wall Walk’ and you’ll find a Google Map of all the locations.)

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Lullaby Factory

Things to do Event spaces Bloomsbury

If you’ve ever looked up in the back courtyard of Great Ormond Street Hospital, you’ll have encountered this strange, ten-storey contraption that looks like something Willy Wonka might have invented if he panic-pivoted into the brass-instrument business. Put your ear up to one of the listening pipes, and you’ll hear a lulling soundtrack designed to comfort the patients inside. 

st ethelbreg's church
st ethelbreg's church
Photograph: Vladislav Gajic / Shutterstock

London’s smallest church

Music Music venues City of London

Dwarfed by the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater and pretty much every other building around it, believe it or not, St Ethelburga’s was once the tallest building in Bishopsgate. Against all odds, London’s smallest church building survived the Great Fire of London, the Blitz and even an IRA bombing. If wedding sizes are capped for the foreseeable, we know a pretty cool, intimate place. 

 

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cross bones garden
cross bones garden
Photograph: CK Travels / Shutterstock

Cross Bones Garden

Attractions Cemeteries Borough and London Bridge

The gaudy shrine of flowers and ribbons may scream fun, hippy-dippy May Day celebration. In fact, it commemorates a pretty morbid history. Cross Bones, just near Borough Market, was once the unconsecrated ‘Single Women’s Graveyard’ for medieval sex workers. There’s now a garden in its place, and ‘vigils for the outcasts’ are held on the twenty-third of every month. 

 

London’s narrowest house

If you want to feel like you’re performing a disappearing act every time you enter your front door, you should know that London’s narrowest house, in prime Shepherd’s Bush, is for sale. Sure, you’ll need £950,000 – for two bedrooms! 

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bermondsey dr salter statue
bermondsey dr salter statue
Photograph: CK Travels / Shutterstock

Dr Salter’s Daydream

The Salters (doctor Alfred and Bermondsey mayor Ada) dedicated their lives to alleviating poverty in Victorian SE16. And what did they get back? Personal tragedy: their only child, Joyce, died of scarlet fever at the age of eight. This set of statues overlooking the Thames immortalises the whole heroic family, including the pet cat. 

The actual ‘Clerk Well’ in Clerkenwell

It’s a hole on Farringdon Lane that’s been around since 1174 and happens to be what Clerkenwell is named after. In the past it was used as a ‘sacred well’, where parish clerks performed scaremongering ‘miracle plays’ to get locals to behave. Now you can spot the old pump on the corner of Ray Street or the water source itself down some steps in the basement of 16 Well Court.

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