We believe even the most popular of destinations has an offbeat side. We found several offbeat things to do in London that confirmed it. Some of these expeditions started with a book, others with a mobile app and a couple of them were a sweet random encounter.
The Brick Church, Stanmore, Greater London
I have an attraction to, what I call, “end of the line destinations”. It’s sort of a routine breaker mixed with an old sense of curiosity to know what’s beyond “there”. With time (and age), I take fewer risks, but the itch to know what happens if I take one step further is still there. This church in Stanmore was more of a calculated risk; we wanted to see if there was anything interesting at one of the ends of the Jubilee tube line, so we searched for it. But I’m pretty positive that the urge to see what was there beyond that final stop came first.
The 17th Century first church of St. John the Evangelist lies in ruins behind the new one today, it was consecrated by William Laud (Bishop of London in 1632), who was later sentenced to death for High Treason. According to the religious laws, only the Pope can consecrate churches and Laud was accused of consecrating (at least) three chapels.
I had an image of small English villages churches, with the graveyards around it, some of the gravestones tilted by time (and weather), and this church was all that. It might be a bizarre piece of History to look into, but still a piece of History. Besides, the area is very photogenic.
Closest Tube station: Stanmore (Jubilee Line)
Opening hours: April to September, Saturdays from 2.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.
Ragged School Museum
I can’t remember where I heard (or read) about the Ragged School Museum, but I remember something about a school with classrooms that were kept as they had been in the late 1800’s. That was enough to pique my curiosity (and the fact that it was within walking distance from a tube station also helped). I’m sure you’ve heard by now about our propensity to take the wrong turn and end up taking the longest and most difficult route… Well, on this day we found ourselves in the middle of a residential block, without anyone around to ask for directions, and with the feeling that we had probably made a mistake. When we decided we should head back to the tube station, we found the museum (and later on realised how much closer it was to the station than the route we had taken… These moments will always be part of our traveling History).
When we walked in the first impression was that we were indeed inside a school. Had we misread the sign outside? We were greeted with a “you look perplexed! Are you looking for the museum? It’s right here.” Everything was indeed left as it had been in 1867 when Thomas Barnardo opened the first “ragged school” — it was a way to keep the poor children off the streets while providing them with basic education.
As the gentleman who welcomed us at the door explained, the Ragged School Museum is very important for this community in the East End of London; it’s part of their History and heritage, and that is what compelled them to set up a trust and open the museum in 1990. The Victorian classroom on the top of the narrow (and squeaky) staircase is meant to be used and experienced (yes, you can sit at one of the desks). On the first Sunday of every month, you can be a part of a forty-five-minute “Victorian Lesson” reenactment.
Closest Tube station: Mile End (Central, District and Hammersmith & City lines)
Opening hours: Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.
Florin Court (or Poirot’s apartment building on ITV)
Remember the ITV’s “Poirot” with David Suchet? And the amazing Art Deco apartment building he lived in? Well, it’s real. I usually don’t bother visiting filming locations, but this one was special. The TV shows aired from 1990 to 2013, and by far it has been the best portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Belgian private detective. When we stood outside the building (I’d like to apologize to the residents who might have thought we were a couple of creeps lurking outside their homes… or maybe they’re used to it by now), part of me was kind of waiting for Monsieur Hercule Poirot to walk by. That’s how big of a part the building also played in the series.
The garden in front of the Florin Court is now a gated parking lot, which makes it very difficult to take a decent photograph of the building.
Closest Tube station: Barbican (Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines)
Twinings Tea Shop
Forget adjectives like vintage, classic, historical. Twinings Tea Shop is an institution. Small in size (it looks like it was inadvertently squished between two larger buildings), but huge in History, this tea shop in Westminster was established in 1706. Although the Twinings were a family of weavers by profession, Thomas (the founder) chose another career path in trading tea. Tea was officially introduced to the English by the Portuguese wife of King Charles II and Thomas Twining simply picked up on the possibilities of a growing trend. (You know I had to refer to a trivia fact involving the Portuguese…)
Over three hundred years later, the same exact shop (with some design updates), with the same exact facade, with the same exact logo is still there, squished between two larger buildings, at 216 Strand. I’m not a tea enthusiast, but if you are (or know someone who is) the shop is a perfect little spot to buy them a gift. I heard the “Pick ‘n Mix” is very popular.
Closest Tube station: Temple (Circle and District Lines)
Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 7.00 p.m.; Saturday, 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.; Sunday, 10.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
Church St. Mary Le Strand
I usually don’t read travel guides when I want to explore a new place (although of course sometimes they come in handy), and London was no exception. One of those books is Tom Quinn’s “London’s Strangest Tales”*. The book is a result of Tom’s research of the city’s quirky side and a very light (and humorous) read. From the long list of strange (but true) tales, some will pop more than others, like the one about the church of St. Mary did.
With the inspired chapter title of “St. Mary in the Roadway”, the author claims the tourists find it odd to see a church (almost) in the middle of the street. Traffic didn’t seem to be a problem when the church was built in the 1700’s, so the building wasn’t much of an obstacle. What did become a problem was the amount of bodies being buried in the church’s small graveyard that clearly wasn’t big enough to accommodate all its deceased parish members. Eventually, the road was widened and the church has a bit more room around it (just no more dead bodies overflowing from the graves).
Closest Tube station: Temple (Circle and District Lines)
Opening hours: The times available are for services – Sundays, 11.00 a.m.; Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, 12.30 a.m.
Brixton Station Road Market
I wrote before about Brixton and how it was a pleasant surprise. Before leaving the neighborhood on that day, we explored the Brixton Station Road Market. Although gentrification seems to be a real problem in the 21st Century, Brixton is a different story. It’s not totally immune to some renewal and rebuilding plans in the area, but the community bonds are still tight enough to fight for the local businesses and to prioritize giving back to the community.
The market is vibrant, diverse, and at risk — you’ll see posters on the local shop’s windows asking you to sign the petition and messages here and there with the call to action #SaveBrixtonArches. We visited a couple more markets in London (the obvious Covent Garden and the shops and stands at Portobello Road) but we didn’t connect with them like we connected with this one.
Closest Tube station: Brixton (Victoria Line)
Opening hours: Food Corner, Wednesday to Friday at lunchtime; Friday Market, 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.; Themed Saturday Markets, 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.; Sunday Farmer’s Market, 10.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m.
While planning our tours of London, I was searching for a mobile app that could show me the offbeat side of London and I found it. I’ll be blunt, the user experience of this app (called Hidden London) sucks — it is not appealing at all. However, to serve as a directory of slightly “detour-ish” spots in the city to visit it was more than enough. Oh, and it’s free so the investment kind of pays off in the end.
Of a list of “meh” places (“meh” here as in, would I really go through the trouble of finding this place?) I was intrigued with the Facade Houses (remember those from that Sherlock episode where we were shocked to find out Mary isn’t who she says she is?). And although we had an address and kind of knew what they looked like, this one was a tough one to find! Yes, they’re that good! It took us a few minutes of walking up and down the street, stopping, investigating, thinking “is it…?” Also, I confess I didn’t feel comfortable asking people on the street if they could point us in the direction of the “fake houses”… Now that I’ve been there, I can make your search easier by telling you it’s right next to the Henry VIII Hotel (and the buildings have also been featured in a Sherlock Holmes’ episode… so they’re not so secret anymore I guess…).
The original numbers 23 and 24 of Leinster Gardens were demolished to give way to the first underground line in 1863. In the old Victorian days, it was unacceptable to have such an unaesthetic gap between two houses, therefore, the fake facades were built and they really paid a lot of attention to the details (seriously, I was only totally convinced when we got home and saw the photos). Except that if you go around the back to Porchester Terrace you’ll find out there is no facade there… I guess keeping up appearances in the back wasn’t that important.
Closest Tube station: Lancaster Gate (Central Line)
What would your list of offbeat things to do in London include?