I have been asked recently to reveal my top 5 places someone should be visiting in London in 2018. London is not just about the Big Ben (whose tower will be wrapped in scaffolding for another 3 years) or the Tower of London (I make some allowances, though, for those who like ravens), or even Oxford Street or Camden Town (it’s okay, I know, I was that kind of tourist too – once upon a time..) : The real London is about the places that are a bit behind the scenes. There’s lists upon lists on the internet as far as I know, but if you haven’t been to at least one of the below in your London trip, then me and you have probably been living in parallel universes, and it’s about time our worlds start colliding. So, in no particular order :
1. The Barbican Estate
I have spent the last 15 years working next to the Barby, and I still can’t get enough of it : The monolithic shapes of its towers define the City’s skyline, and its a unique architectural marvel, in my mind perhaps the most ambitious example of the high-rise social housing vision of the 60s and 70s. In the heart of the complex, the Barbican Centre of performing arts is a world class venue for exhibitions and shows, but the real show stealer is the estate itself – its breathtaking vertical neighbourhood, its streets in the sky, its hand-crafted exposed aggregate surface, the immaculate gardens and ponds, the innovative architecture and engineering give it a timeless aura. I always take some time to visit, perhaps once a week. It is a unique space, an environment built to facilitate the flow of people through it, so I go there to engage in that vision, but also to visit some of the high quality exhibitions or installations in the Centre : I enjoy taking my lunch in the always welcoming lake and/or the interesting lobby area !
2. Highgate Cemetery
No trip in London can be complete without a visit at the Highgate Cemetery. It is one of the oldest and grandest organized burial spaces in London, and its alluring Gothic grandeur will stir your imagination. Through the amazing stories related by the vastly knowledgeable Highgate Volunteer guides (I know, I am one of them – albeit just sufficiently knowledgeable for now), one can travel back in time to catch a glimpse of Victorian society, and experience the glory, passion, and pain of Dickensian London and beyond : prepare for some poignant and entertaining stories – with all sorts of colourful characters included, of course ! Although most people don’t see it that way, Highgate Cemetery is also a great, alternative park to visit : It’s a lush, clean and quiet green space away from the crowds, where one can spent a few calm hours to promenade, relax and reflect : which is much closer to the original Victorian cemetery concept than you might think !
3. The South Bank
You don’t have to have my (obvious) bug with brutalist architecture to want to visit the South Bank, although the most important example of high brutalism, Sir Denys Lasdun’s National Theater, can be admired there. However it is the greater space itself that also attracts me : comprising the entire Southbank Centre brutalist ensemble, the Royal Festival Hall and the BFI Film Theater – as well as the promenades that connect them – is a haven for performing arts and entertainment at any day or night. It is a great place for al fresco riverside dining – if you arrive early – and for having drinks on the spot from the canteens under the arches. There’s an interesting book fair on Saturdays, an awesome street foodie market on weekends, and I always enjoy seeing London parading before my eyes from the connected balconies ! The view of Thames and the South Bank from the middle of Waterloo Bridge in the sunset (Waterloo Sunset, anyone?) is one of the most definitive postcard images of London.
4. Pall Mall
Most tourists walking around Green Park and the Buckingham Palace won’t bother to take the slight detour down Pall Mall, the fabled street that has given rise to the term Clubland. Pall Mall and the surrounding streets are lined with chandelier-laced, mahogany furnished, prestigious private clubs, where London’s most refined gentlemen have been spending their free time since the 17th century. The life of a Victorian upper class gentleman was not as simple or private as it would be today : Keeping a proper household up to that era’s societal expectations meant an unforgiving regime of mounting social responsibilities : involvement in politics, public appearances, parties and balls, receptions and etiquette, arduous travel, constant business engagements – or even service in her Majesty’s army or navy. So when a gentleman was somewhat tired from all that and wanted to take some time off to repair, he would seek refuge to the welcome haven of his club, whose membership was then (as it remains today) a very serious affair. But from the moment when – after an appropriately rigorous vetting and selection process – a gentleman gained membership to a club, he would be able to enjoy the company of his peers in playing card games or snooker, reading a book or a newspaper, discuss adventures, place a wager or several, dine or enjoy a sherry and a cigar in the lounge in the company of his peers – or even alone, should he chose to – and in this manner, the Gentlemen’s Clubs of Pall Mall have been the equivalent of today’s “man caves” in terms of comfort and much needed respite from the pressures of life. The most famous of them all has to be the Reform Club, where a certain Phileas Fogg of “Around the World in 80 days” fame used to frequent – or so the story goes 😉 Today, the 25 or so remaining clubs in London are also open to ladies as well as non-British gentry, although they still remain as private as ever. Walking down Pall Mall to admire those imposing buildings and catch a glimpse of the modern remnants of this Victorian social habit is a quick and interesting stroll through history.
5. The Last Tuesday Society : Museum of Curiosities
An unforgettable experience, and one of my favourite spots to hang out in London, this little museum,bar and exhibition space is the brainchild of Victor Wynd, perhaps the last of London’s true eccentrics and once described by John Waters as “a sick orchid, who seems like the perfect man to me”.. A true dandy, story teller and collector extraordinare, Mr Wynd has amassed through the years a vast collection of curiosities and memorabilia from his travels. The out-worldly, weirdly occult, and often hilariously grotesque items in his collection include the mummified erect penis of a hanged convinct, a two headed lamb, ancient dildos (for hire), formaldehyde jars containing anything from human foetuses to the feces of Amy Winehouse .. well you get the idea. This is a true modern day Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities like no other with thousands of exhibits crammed in a very small space. Prepare to be offended, but also amazed and intrigued – the drinks and cocktails at the bar are simply awesome too. The Last Tuesday’s events include taxidermy classes, absinthe mixing, storytelling, and organized trips to Papua New Guinea to experience tribal initiation rituals first hand.
We visit the South Bank and the Barbican Estate as part of our Brutalism for Beginners walk, every Saturday at 10.00