London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Recently Discovered Treasures In London

21/09/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 16933 votes


Little Venice Church

We have thrilled at the sight of St. Paul’s Cathedral in all its magnificence; but why did we so enjoy the subdued splendor, both inside and out, of Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s church, tucked unobtrusively in a little corner south of the River Thames? We have enjoyed the finest of dinners at the elegant restaurant Rules; but why is it that we so fondly recall the little pub named Raven at the Tower, stumbled upon one bone-chilling winter’s day, weary after a morning of antique shopping on Tower Bridge Road? We delighted in the opulence and sheer majesty of Apsley House, the first Duke of Wellington’s stately manor; but why do we particularly remember seeing, during a taxi ride one sunny day, the sweep of elegant Georgian homes quietly situated around Holland Park?

I suppose the answer is the same to all of the above: they were, without exception, surprises, “finds”, places we felt we ourselves had “discovered.” The charm of London lies in its seemingly infinite offering of hidden treasures and wonderful surprises. It is absolutely full of such riches, scattered over the vastness of the city, slipped into nooks and niches, buried deep within its maze of streets and passageways. While in London recently, we discovered some of these treasure places and now count them among our favorite of all finds in the city.

One bright, crystal-clear morning, we found ourselves in an area of London we had never visited - Little Venice. Huge houses, some stucco, others brick, stood regally along the tree-lined street. There was a canal before us, shimmering in the sun and half frozen, running along the Blomfield Road. Moored peacefully on the sides of the canal, in their winter hibernation, were houseboats painted in various shades of reds and blues. It was beautiful in a picture postcard sort of way, as the sunlight angled all about, shadows falling between the boats. This was Regent’s Canal.

My friend Joan, who knows London so well, had ridden in a canal boat one summer’s day from Camden Town, through London Zoo, and on past these same houses in Little Venice. Some say the poet Robert Browning, once a resident, coined the phrase “Little Venice”; others say that an estate agent in the 1950s came up with the name. In either case, it is a lovely place for a stroll, whatever the season.

Originally built in 1820 as a direct link to connect Birmingham with the new London Docks, it is no longer used commercially but purely for recreational purposes. In the summer, marionette shows are playfully performed on the Puppet Theatre Barge that sits here during the warm months. We walked down one side of the canal and up the other, admiring the way the old Catholic Apostolic Church looked in the snow.

On another day, we wandered down Chancery Lane, the pathway to London’s legal district. Had we continued on, we undoubtedly would have spent the afternoon at the London Silver Vaults, a cluster of 37 shops displaying and selling the world’s most extensive collection of antique silver. But we veered off to the left and entered the grounds of Lincoln’s Inn, thought by many to be the prettiest of all the inns of court (legal societies which exclusively control admission to the Bar) and definitely the most well preserved. We passed under the 16th century gateway, with its diamond-patterned brick, a theme carried throughout the architecture of these grand buildings.

We saw the square known as Lincoln’s Inn Fields, at twelve acres the largest of London’s squares. Built in the 1640s as an upscale community, the elegant homes quickly became popular and one of London’s better addresses, although for a time the grassy square itself was used as a duelling ground and an execution site. The home of the eccentric but brilliant architect Sir John Soane is on the north side of the square. His extraordinary home is now a museum, left to the nation with Soane’s enormous collection of art and antiquities, in its original state.

Inigo Jones House

We could not pass up the opportunity to walk through this amazing museum with its domed ceilings, colored skylights and paintings hidden in panels within the walls; it was a bit of a dizzying experience with its special effects, illusions and tricks of the eye. This was the first Tuesday of the month, the only time the museum is open in the evening; and had we been there several hours later, these intriguing rooms would have been ablaze with candlelight.

Back outside, we spent some time in the square itself and walked over for a better look at the exquisite home attributed to Inigo Jones, the only original house in this square remaining today. The Royal Academy of Surgeons takes up most of the south side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and houses a museum of medical oddities and anatomical specimens. We moved on, however, and round the bend on Portsmouth Street was the Old Curiosity Shop, reputed to be London’s oldest shop (from the 1500s), and the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ book with the same name. A single light burned from within; had little Nell appeared, we would not have been surprised. It was difficult to stay anchored in the present, and not slip into an earlier time.

The Old Curiosity Shop

Later in the week, on a brisk, silvery-gray day, we explored the Temple, another area of London’s legal world, consisting of the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple. The Knights Templar, an order founded to defend travelers to the Holy Land, were headquartered here in the 12th century and built a round church (Temple Church) modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We poked around this unusual church for awhile, then returned to the Inner Temple Gateway. We climbed the stairs to Prince Henry’s Room on the first floor of this fine half-timbered structure built in 1610. Once a tavern, the room itself is fascinating with its paneling - some original - and stained glass bay windows. The plasterwork ceiling is adorned with flowers and the Prince of Wales’ feathers, as well as the initials “PH” for Prince Henry, the eldest son of James I.

We loved the memorabilia and materials relating to Samuel Pepys exhibited here by the Pepys Society to commemorate the famous diarist who left a detailed account of London life during the 1660s - one of the most eventful decades in English history. This decade witnessed the Restoration (the coronation of Charles II), the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and Pepys recorded it all. The kindly gentleman serving as guide/information giver recommended the nearby Old Bank of England Pub for our lunch, and we finished off the morning in the swanky gallery of the most luxurious pub we have ever seen, under the gorgeous ceilings and brass chandeliers of this Italianate building that once was a branch of the Bank of England.

The Temple Church

After a delicious lunch, we flew across Fleet Street to attend a concert at St. Bride’s Church, but, sadly, a sign was posted apologizing for the concert’s cancellation. But we happily discovered a museum in the crypt of this church with the steeple (the tallest of all Wren-designed church steeples) that served as the model for what we think of today as the traditional wedding cake.

No, we will not easily forget coming upon the house with the blue plaque on the Portobello Road where George Orwell once lived, nor seeing, while crossing the River Thames, the fascinating Tudor building that turned out to be the gatehouse to Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whether it’s the sight of a Chelsea pensioner ambling down the road, wearing his bright red jacket like a badge of honor, or a flock of carefree, chattering schoolchildren on an outing, ties and hats slightly askew, this is what makes walking through the city a true adventure, giving us the vivid memories we now carry with us.

They are the pieces of London we take home, as surely as if we had boldly chiseled off a piece of that glorious Portland stone, or gleefully picked a handful of those brightly colored flowers, so rare at home in January, but in abundance in London - those treasures just waiting to be discovered - secrets, almost, yet to be uncovered.

Candice Caster

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