A beginner’s guide to London’s hidden gems
Few cities have so many globally famous icons as London. Tower Bridge is one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks. The clock-tower of Big Ben is also iconic.
But beyond the postcard-worthy sights, London is also a city of hidden gems. The nooks and crannies tucked away down secret medieval alleyways, overlooked by the throngs of commuters who pass them every day. London is a city where even people who have lived in the city their entire lives can find something new every day.
Here are some of the hidden treasures that you may have missed.
Ceremony of the Keys, Tower of London
Thousands of tourists visit the Tower of London every day. But only a select few get to visit the Tower in the evening to witness the world’s oldest military ceremony .
It’s not particularly exclusive, it’s free – you just have to apply in advance in writing.
The Ceremony of the Keys is all about how the locking of the Tower secures the castle, where the Crown Jewels are kept, for the night. But it also symbolises how the military is responsible for the security of the whole country.
It’s been done in the same way every day for around 700 years. The warder guarded by a troop of soldiers is challenged by a sentry. When he explains he is carrying ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Keys’ he is allowed to pass. It’s all over in 10 minutes but it’s one of those experiences you never forget.
Dead Man’s Hole, Tower Bridge
The bridge may be a compulsory Instagram selfie location for every tourist, but underneath the bridge – on the north side of the river – is a little corner that few Londoner’s have ever heard of.
Dead Man’s Hole was designed to retrieve corpses that had been thrown into the river. Next to the steps down to the water is a small morgue which was used to keep the bodies until they could be removed for burial.
London Stone, Canon Street
The small block of limestone known as the London Stone is a bit of a mystery.
Tucked away behind an iron grill, at pavement level opposite Canon Street Station, it’s entirely overlooked by the thousands of city workers who stream past it every day. But, according to its mythology, if the London Stone is ever removed from the capital, the city will be destroyed.
The stone is sometimes called the Stone of Brutus, after the original founder of London in the year 1,000 BC. There are also suggestions that the London Stone was part of an ancient stone circle at Ludgate Hill, or that perhaps it was the stone from which King Arthur withdrew his famous sword. Other explanations are that it could have been an altar from the time of the Druids, or perhaps it was the Roman milliarium - the central spot from which all distances were measured in Roman Britain.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum, London Bridge
In the 19th century, the world of medicine was fairly basic. The Old Operating Theatre takes you right back to the horrors of surgery without anaesthesia.
Operations here were carried out almost as a spectator sport, a kind of Victorian gladiatorial show, in the roof space of a Baroque Church.
Nowadays it’s a museum with the original features remarkably well-preserved and atmospheric.
The Regent’s Canal, Camden
The canals were London’s original motorways, drawing in vital supplies for the city’s industry and shipping out its products.
The original barges were drawn by horses – in places, you can still see the grooves in the stone or iron where the horses’ ropes cut into them.
One of the best things to do on a sunny day is to walk from Camden Lock towards Paddington basin. That route takes you beside London Zoo for a free glimpse of their enormous aviary and the African hunting dogs sniffing up by the fence.