Off the Beaten Track in London


Sometimes you tire of the large and well-known tourist sites which are generally busy and commercialised. Even if it's your first visit to London, maybe you'd like to see something out of the ordinary. If you've visited London before, maybe you're ready for the road less traveled.

Or you could be someone who passes through London often, maybe for business reasons. From time to time you catch a glimpse of another, more intriguing side to the city, and you wish you had time to stop and find out more. Take the time. It will be worth it.

The following are my suggestions for places to visit if you do want something different. They fall roughly into five categories: gardens, houses, churches, pubs, museums, and one that doesn't really fit anywhere.

I've added a table with the area/postcode so that you can sort them into roughly the same area, to make visiting easier (by clicking on the column heading) if that's what you wish. Alternatively, you can choose the type of attraction that appeals to you.

(click column header to sort results)
Area (postcode)  
Whitechapel Foundry
Chelsea Physic Garden
Basil Hume Garden
Chumleigh Gardens
London Wetland Centre
Garden Museum
Leighton House Museum
Foundling Museum
Dennis Severs' House
Benjamin Franklin House
St Bartholomew the Great
All Hallows by the Tower
The Grenadier
Ye Old Mitre
Old Operating Theatre

Chelsea Physic Garden

A section of Chelsea Physic Garden
A section of Chelsea Physic Garden | Source

An oasis of calm in the midst of the city, this garden of medicinal, historic, edible, and otherwise useful plants dates back to 1673. Only the University of Oxford's botanical gardens are older. You can take a guided tour (I recommend this) or you can wander at will, or both! There is a café to keep you going, and a shop.

There is a charge for entry. For current charges and opening times, visit their website.

The Basil Hume Quiet Garden

The tiny garden dedicated to the memory of Cardinal Basil Hume.
The tiny garden dedicated to the memory of Cardinal Basil Hume. | Source

The garden, which was designed and created in memory of Cardinal Basil Hume, is not only a wonderfully quiet spot for meditation and reflection but it also has an interesting story.

You will find it adjoining the Chapel of St Joseph, a small chapel in the basement of a former school dating from 1901. Before that, the building had been a school-chapel, and it still contains stained glass windows dating from the 1820s. You can read the full history on St Joseph's website.

The garden is beside the church entrance on what was once a car-park. It is a haven of peace in a built-up area.

Chumleigh Gardens

Chumleigh Gardens in the Winter Sun
Chumleigh Gardens in the Winter Sun | Source

Chumleigh Gardens were once the gardens of the Chumleigh Gardens Almshouses which were opened in 1821 "for the winter of life" to "women of good character." The almshouses suffered severe bomb damage during WWII and were left derelict for many years. Now they have been renovated and provide a café, office space and a nursery, along with a peaceful garden for all to enjoy. The work of the original charity, the Female Friendly Society, continues elsewhere.

The gardens themselves form part of the larger Burgess Park. and provide peaceful surroundings in a variety of styles: African, Oriental, Mediterranean, Islamic and English, to reflect the multicultural area.

There is no charge for entry.

The London Wetland Centre

A statue of Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, at the London Wetland Centre
A statue of Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, at the London Wetland Centre | Source

It's really amazing that you can find a wetland nature reserve in (virtually) the centre of London, but there it is! The reason it's possible is that it was developed on the site of four Victorian Thames Water reservoirs, beside the River Thames. It was opened in 200 and now is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

It's not only wetlands, there are sustainable gardens, activities for children, a shop and a café. There is an entrance fee, but book online and get 10% off.

The Garden Museum

Part of the Garden Museum showing the recreation of a 17th century knot garden and some of the tombs.
Part of the Garden Museum showing the recreation of a 17th century knot garden and some of the tombs. | Source

This has to be a must for all garden and gardening enthusiasts. There are attractive gardens around the now deconsecrated church of St Mary at Lambeth, including a reconstruction of a 17th century knot garden.

Amongst the tombs still in place, is that of John Tradescant (1570-1630) and his son. He was a naturalist and gardener who collected seeds and bulbs on his worldwide travels, and brought them back to England. The plants of the genus Tradescantia are named for him. He and his son are the main characters in Philippa Gregory's novels, "Earthly Joys" and "Virgin Earth" respectively.

The church buildings, badly damaged during World War II, were due for demolition but rescued when the Garden Museum was set up. They now house displays of gardening history: tools, books, painting, historic ephemera from every imaginable type of garden, from royal gardens to humble allotments.

It's currently closed for major refurbishment but will reopen early in 2017.

Leighton House Museum

The Leighton House Museum
The Leighton House Museum | Source

The fairly mundane red brick exterior hides an amazing interior with a lot of Middle Eastern influences. You can see Lord Leighton's studio with a collection of his works, paintings, sculptures, drawings, and books. "A private palace of art."

Open every day apart from Tuesdays, it costs £7.00 to get in, half price if you are a National Trust member. There are guided tours on Wednesday and Sunday afternoon.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square
The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square | Source

When I mentioned to a friend that I was trying to get together a list of interesting but unusual places to see in London, she immediately came up with the suggestion of the Foundling Museum.

The Foundling Hospital was started in 1739 to look after abandoned babies and children. It was supported by well-known artists and composers of the time.

The museum contains furniture, period interiors, photos, and the works of art donated by the artists who supported the Hospital. You can also see the tokens left with the children by their mothers, in the hope that one day they would be reunited.

The top floor is dedicated to the composer, Handel. There you can learn about his life and how he helped set up the Hospital. There are four armchairs where you can sit and enjoy his music.

It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, and again, National Trust members can have half-price entry.

Dennis Severs' House

Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London
Dennis Severs' House, 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London | Source

This is another suggestion by a friend. This isn't a house that you just walk around, viewing the period interiors as you would in several other notable house museums. No, it's much more of an all round experience.

The idea is that you've walked into a home where you've interrupted a family going about their normal day-to-day lives. They appear to have popped out, but only a moment ago, or they may be in the next room...

You can visit on Sunday or Monday afternoons without booking, £10 for adults and £5 for concessions. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings you can experience a "Silent Night" in the house which is more expensive at £15. It does include a short introduction.

show route and directions
A markerChelsea Physic Garden -
66 Royal Hospital Rd, Chelsea, London SW3 4HS, UK
[get directions]

B markerBasil Hume Quiet Garden -
15 Lamb’s Passage, off Bunhill Row, EC1Y 8LE
[get directions]

C markerChumleigh Gardens, Burgess Park -
Burgess Park, 3 Chumleigh St, London SE5 0RJ, UK
[get directions]

D markerLondon Wetland Centre -
WWT London Wetland Centre, Queen Elizabeth's Walk, London SW13 9WT, UK
[get directions]

E markerThe Garden Museum -
5 Lambeth Palace Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 7LB, UK
[get directions]

F markerLeighton House Museum -
12 Holland Park Rd, Kensington, London W14 8LZ, UK
[get directions]

G markerThe Foundling Museum -
40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ, UK
[get directions]

H markerDennis Severs' House -
Eden House, 18 Folgate St, London E1 6BX, UK
[get directions]

Benjamin Franklin House

Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, London
Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, London | Source

It may seem an odd fact, but only one of Benjamin Franklin's residences is still in existence, and it is in London. He lived here for 16 years where he acted as a diplomat, studied science, and wrote many letters. It is the first site outside the USA to gain a Save America's Treasures designation.

The house has been restored in a way that allows allows a visitor to have a multi-media experience with the historic rooms as a backdrop. Not only are there these Historical Experiences, there are guided architectural tours to learn about the Georgian building itself. There are also walking tours available of the surrounding area (Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Downing Street).

Booking is advisable for the Historical Experience, and can be done online.

St Bartholomew the Great

South aisle of St Bartholomew the Great, London
South aisle of St Bartholomew the Great, London | Source

If you've seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Shakespeare in Love, or The Other Boleyn Girl, you've seen part of the interior of St Bartholomew the Great. It is a wonderful old church with a beautiful Tudor gatehouse entrance. It was founded in 1123 as a priory but of course the Dissolution in 1536 meant much of it was ransacked. Parts of it survived and much was restored in the 19th century. There is a café (recommended) now in what used to be part of the cloisters.

It was the first church to charge casual visitors admission to see the interior.

All Hallows by the Tower

Arch in all Hallows by the Tower
Arch in all Hallows by the Tower | Source

This tranquil little church has seen its fair share of history dating, as it does, from 675AD. It is 300 years older than the nearby Tower of London from which it takes part of its name. Although it survived the Great Fire (Pepys climbed the tower to watch) it was heavily bombed during WWII.

A number of famous people have associations with the church, among them, Thomas More, William Penn and his father, and John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the USA.

It is well worth a visit to feel the peaceful and historic atmosphere. It is open every day, and free to enter. There are guided tours available in the afternoons and even these are free, so please consider buying a book or giving a donation. these places don't survive on fresh air.

The Grenadier Pub

The Grenadier pub
The Grenadier pub | Source

Belgravia, where you'll find The Grenadier is one of the very wealthy areas of London. It is a "real" little pub, built in 1720 for the use of 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, as an officers' mess. When it first was opened to the public, its name was The Guardsman but this was changed to The Grenadier after the Battle of Waterloo.

It's reputed to be haunted!

Ye Olde Mitre

Ye Olde Mitre tavern
Ye Olde Mitre tavern | Source

Ye Olde Mitre is considered to be London's most hidden pub because it's so hard to find, in a very narrow alley and surrounded by tall buildings. It was built in 1546. It has been used as a location in films such as Snatch" starring Brad Pitt, and TV too.

Next door is St Ethelreda's Church, one of the oldest Catholic churches in England, dating from 673.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

The old operating theatre in the garret of St Thomas's Church, Southwark
The old operating theatre in the garret of St Thomas's Church, Southwark | Source

St Thomas's Hospital is a modern and renowned London Hospital but even in 1215 it could be described as ancient, run by monks and nuns to care for the poor and sick. It was originally in Southwark, eventually rebuilt near Lambeth Palace.

Parts of the old hospital survive in Southwark, among them the church which itself was rebuilt in 1703. It contained a herb garret part of which was converted into an operating theatre. This is now the oldest surviving operating theatre in the UK , and a fascinating insight to medical history.

There is a charge of £6.50 for adults, but National Trust members pay half price. Open every day.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The shop front of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry
The shop front of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry | Source

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is open for tours only when there is no foundry work going on, so they must be pre-booked (at £15 per head). They are often booked up to a year ahead, so you need to think ahead. You can visit the shop and small museum at any time, Monday to Friday, 9:00-4:30.

Dating from at least 1570, if not earlier, the foundry is the oldest manufacturing company in the UK. It has produced some world famous bells, such as the Liberty Bell and Big Ben.

show route and directions
A markerAll Hallows by the Tower -
Byward St, London EC3R 5BJ, UK
[get directions]

B markerThe Grenadier -
18 Wilton Row, Belgravia, London SW1X 7NR, UK
[get directions]

C markerYe Old Mitre -
1 Ely Pl, London EC1N 6SJ, UK
[get directions]

D markerOld Operating Theatre and Herb Garret -
9a St Thomas St, London SE1 9RY, UK
[get directions]

E markerWhitechapel Bell Foundry -
34 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1DY, UK
[get directions]

F markerSt Bartholomew the Great -
Cloth Fair, London EC1A 7JQ, UK
[get directions]

G markerBenjamin Franklin House -
36 Craven St, London WC2N 5NF, UK
[get directions]

In Conclusion

In fact, there is no end to the interesting and out-of-the-way places to be seen in London, but I have to draw the line somewhere. I'd be delighted if you would add any suggestions for other places to see, in the comments section below. And thank you for reading this far!!

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    SheilaMilne profile image

    SheilaMilne120 Followers
    47 Articles

    I have been living in the southeast of England for the last seven years, and still exploring the rich history the area has to offer.

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