It’s no secret that London is a historical masterpiece filled with buildings, monuments and museums which are open to members of the visiting public. But there are also many lesser-known places, or those that are overshadowed by the more popular attractions.
If you enjoy discovering strange and untold pieces of the past, this alternative selection will leave you with no excuse not to embark on your very own treasure hunt in the English capital. Even if you’re just visiting, you might be able to see one or two of them from the window of your London accommodation…
Old Operating Theatre
If you weren’t aware of it, you would never know by looking at St Thomas’s Church that it was hiding an eerie past. But if you’re brave enough to venture up to the roof garret you’ll find the oldest surviving purpose-built operating theatre from the 19th century.
Before its construction in 1821, operations took place on the south ward of St Thomas’s hospital where the poor female patients stayed, but the practice was deemed too stressful for all concerned. Superficial surgeries weren’t necessarily the problem, but you can imagine that the regular amputations and absence of anaesthetics were less than pleasant.
The theatre has since been restored for public viewing with original furniture and objects, including surgical equipment and a 19th century operating table. The adjoining herb garret offers some relief from the stark clinical room; the cosy space is filled with stores of herbs and complete with old wooden beams, and is also open to the public.
In plain sight between Fleet Street and the Embankment, the Temple often goes unobserved by daily passers-by. Today, it is chiefly recognised as a base for the lawyers of London, but its historical significance encompasses one of the most famous Christian military orders of the middle ages: the Knights Templar.
The ancient church was built by the order and consecrated in 1185, and was used for Templar initiation ceremonies until their suppression and dissolution in the early 1300s. The Inner Temple and Middle Temple are now two of England’s four Inns of Court, and the area is regarded as one of the most tranquil and historical places to work in the city of London. Visitors are welcome to observe the beautiful church and wander around the Temple district.
Our last sewer lamp
You could be forgiven for overlooking this small reminder of 19th century London; the last remaining sewer-powered gas lamp stands alone on Carting Lane, emitting its gauzy yellow glow between the Savoy Hotel and the Shellmex building. Okay, so it’s actually a replica of the original which was unfortunately knocked down by a lorry many years ago, but it is still an interesting – if somewhat nauseating – example of Victorian invention at its finest.
Conceived by Birmingham inventor Joseph Webb, the innovative system was a cost effective way to illuminate the city and burn off the smells and germs caused by the sewers. This particular lamp would have been powered partly by patrons of the Savoy Hotel.
In an area of greater London, near the quaint suburban village of Chislehurst, lies a labyrinth of limestone tunnels originating over 8,000 years ago. The caves were carved out by generations of men who sought flint for their tools and, later, lime for the building of London city.
Access is only by guided tour, but there’s no need to book and the 45-minute underground excursion takes you on a whirlwind journey filled with of tales of smuggling and murder, and of Romans, Saxons and druids. In the last 100 years alone it has been used for the storage of munitions, mushroom growing, a venue for dances and concerts, and it even turned into an underground town during the height of the Blitz.
If you’re an animal lover, you might appreciate this next story: in 1880, the Duke of Cambridge’s dog was run over and killed outside Victoria Gate. Deciding that a simple garden grave wasn’t good enough for his beloved pet, he began building a Dog’s Cemetery in a quiet corner of Kensington Gardens.
Today, it is mostly hidden and but it can be found if you know where to look. On Bayswater Road, near Victoria Gate, peek through the bushes and bars and you’ll see the gravestones sticking out of the ground, each displaying the affections of a mourning owner. If nothing else, it’s an interesting snapshot of the Duke’s life and perhaps a little like something out of a Stephen King novel.
Jessica lives in London and loves exploring the city in her spare time. Although she frequently travels across the world, she enjoys nothing more than returning home to discover new places in the historic English capital.