The Hidden Gems of London – with pictures!

My previous post concerned my trip to London to talk to an agent about my book ‘The Heartland of the Winter’. Since then I have finished writing a first draft of the new Chapter 1, and had some friends to stay for the weekend. They brought with them games, Buffy comics, a bunch of tulips, a bottle of Gewürztraminer, and some nasty germs. The last of these proved to be the gift that keeps giving so I haven’t been doing a great deal for the last four days except lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. That would be a pretty boring subject for a blog post, however, so here’s something about London instead.
My trip to London was not as straightforward as I may have previously led you to believe: as well as seeing an agent, there was lunch with one group of friends, coffee with Legialite, ballet at Covent Garden with a completely different group of friends, trains to Southampton to visit family, more trains back to London, and then finally back to Derby. Heavy snow across much of the country led me to worry that I might end up sharing the fate of some of my characters, stranded by the weather – which would have been ironic, but also irritating. In the end it was all fine, with no problems at all. Life does not always imitate art (just as well really).
Besides causing travel chaos, the other thing snow is great at is transforming the mundane into the beautiful, and the beautiful into the ethereal. Fresh snow underfoot and a coat of frost, glittering in the sunshine, can turn a walk to the railway station through some of London’s lesser-known streets into a trip to winter wonderland. I was enjoying such a walk, when I turned a corner and was startled to see before me a Norman-style church, looking implausibly picturesque, as if someone had set up a giant-sized Christmas card at the side of the road.
On closer inspection, it turned out to be St Pancras old church. The new church, since you ask, is a Greek revival affair on Euston Road, but I found that the more striking contrast is the station itself: a red-brick-Gothic temple to the triumph of Victorian engineering and commerce. The old church is now left slightly stranded by the side of the railway tracks, one of London’s many forgotten gems. I haven’t lived in London for several years now, and I had almost forgotten its ability to surprise you with these unexpected pleasures.
If, like me, you are happy for your unexpected architectural pleasures to be a little bit morbid, I recommend a stroll around the churchyard. It boasts an arresting sight – an old tree, crowded in by dozens of old tombstones which look like enormous fungal growths. A nearby sign informed me that, when the railway line was built, it cut through part of the churchyard, so the monuments had to be moved. This was where they ended up. The person in charge of moving everything was, apparently, none other than the young Thomas Hardy. If this is not enough, literally a few yards away is an impressive neo-classical tomb – that of architect Sir John Soane, designed by himself. The sign claims that the tomb was a major design influence on the classic red telephone box. Now you know.
To me it seemed especially appropriate that, on this day of discovery and rediscovery, I should find the tomb of John Soane. His old house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the ultimate hidden gem of London – a treasure trove of art, displayed just as it was when he was alive, tucked away on a sleepy square. I remember visiting it on one of my lunchtime walks around the area when I worked at Chancery Lane – walks I loved precisely because they gave a chance to stumble across such hidden delights. Perhaps next time I go to London, instead of cramming my schedule with appointments, I’ll try to make a little time just to wander. You never know what you might find, if only you look…

I call it a hidden gem, although I realised later that you can actually see it from the train.

This is Sir John Soane’s tomb. If you like visiting graves, in St Pancras old churchyard you can also pay your respects to: John Polidori, author of ‘The Vampyre’, Johann Christian Bach, and Mary Wollstonecraft (although her remains were later moved, her memorial is here).

Those things around the bottom of the tree are gravestones. Suitably creepy inspiration for a Gothic tale…

3 thoughts on “The Hidden Gems of London – with pictures!

  1. Fascinating! Building St Pancras over the graveyards was a big issue, at least in the sense that a lot of graves were simply built over and a lot of others unceremoniously moved/dumped elsewhere. Such was the power of the railways in those days. I love the picture of the grave-tree.

  2. Really nice post, definitely a good find here. Thank you for sharing your hidden gem, I am going to visit as it looks like it’s out in the countryside!

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