Down narrow passageways overflowing with antiquities, busts, life masks and architectural features bathed in an amber glow, I wander around this unusual townhouse in London. Every inch of wall space and every nook and many a cranny is filled with sculptures and artwork; sarcophagi, stained glass — you name it. A rare and wonderful collection brought together over a lifetime and bequeathed to the nation so that amateurs and students in painting, sculpture and architecture can have free access. Once a month it can be seen by candlelight. How eerie it must be. Do you know who built this collection? I only heard of it for the first time very recently. Read on to find out more.
No matter how many times I visit London, there is always something new to explore. A new restaurant or exhibition and now, with the help of a rather wonderful little book, I am discovering another side to the city, one that had been here all the time, unnoticed by many, including myself. ‘Secret London – An Unusual Guide’ is opening a whole new world to me. A world of English eccentricity, quirkiness, the downright bizarre and occasionally macabre. An unknown realm of unique museums and stunning, yet rarely seen interiors, as well as the little-known backstories of some of London’s famous features. From the Twinings Tea Museum to the smallest police station in Britain, this book is packed full of unusual places to visit in London.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Back at Sir John Soane’s Museum, the former home of this renowned architect, we take our time exploring. Overlooking Lincoln’s Inn Fields, this is where he gathered together a vast collection of antiquities. His aim was to enable students of art and architecture who couldn’t afford to go on a Grand Tour of Europe to still see and study such pieces from around the world. Frustratingly no photography is allowed inside.
I had no idea this museum existed until I started flicking through the pages of Secret London.
The London Silver Vaults
Nearby, we discover The London Silver Vaults, a place that neither myself or my husband (who was born in London and has lived there all his life) had heard of before. Two floors down, beneath Chancery Lane, locked behind a door nearly one metre thick and with six giant deadbolts, the vaults were originally opened in 1876 as a place where wealthy Londoners could store their valuables. While it’s not quite Gringotts from Harry Potter, it’s the closest you’re likely to find.
In World War II it was used as a storage site for London’s silver dealers. Today, it is a renowned shopping destination frequented by international royalty, film stars and those in the know. Each of the original vaults (each with its own huge door and series of deadbolts) is now home to an independent retailer. Many are third-generation family businesses, possessing an astounding knowledge of their industry and the fine items in their possession, mainly antique but also contemporary pieces.
Apart from the (now decommissioned) silver 1940s machine gun, and no end of wondrous silver tigers and pheasants, one of the most striking items was a Victorian silver centrepiece. Decorated with scenes commemorating the British Expedition to Abyssinia, it was presented to Sir George Tryon for his key role as transport officer throughout the campaign. This 1868 rescue mission by the armed forces of the British Empire against the Ethiopian Empire was a success despite the unbearable heat and hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain they had to cross. The Ethiopian capital was captured, and all the hostages rescued. This one piece alone, pictured above, is worth over £95,000.
The London Silver Vaults are open to the public (Monday to Friday 9am to 5.30pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm) and are situated just a few minutes’ walk from the Chancery Lane underground station. The shopkeepers are all very welcoming and eager to share their knowledge, even if you’re just window shopping.
The Twinings Tea Shop & Museum
Some 300 years old, this is the oldest tea shop in London with a mini-museum at the back as well as a Tea Bar where you can enjoy new flavours and old favourites or join in a masterclass. You’ll need to book well advance as they get fully booked months ahead. You’ll find Twinings flagship shop at 216 Strand not far from the south end of Chancery Lane. The nearest underground station is Temple. It’s easy to visit all three of these sites in one morning or afternoon but you’ll find many more interesting spots nearby IF you know where to look.
Secret London – An Unusual Guide
There are hundreds of such entries in this wonderful book, some small enough for you to have passed every day and never noticed, others much grander in scale but off the beaten track. The one I’m most eager to see is pictured on the front cover. Looking like a stunning Victorian science fiction film set, this is Crossness Pumping Station. Who knew that a sewage works could be so beautiful? I’ll be visiting it soon and look forward to sharing my pictures and telling you all about this stunning feat-of-engineering-meets-work-of-art. I can’t thank enough the writers and publishers of ‘Secret London – An Unusual Guide’ for introducing me to all these unique and weirdly wonderful hidden gems of the city. And I’ve only just begun my explorations of this secret London.
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