David Long, author of Bizarre London, reveals the strangest and most intriguing corners of the English capital
Unique among London’s traditionally secretive Gentleman’s Clubs – in that occasional guided tours are offered to the public – the Travellers’ was founded in 1819 when new members were required to have travelled at least 500 miles from London. Its exceptionally elegant design is based on the Palazzo Pandolfini in Florence, with the Library the best room in the house. With its Greek-style frieze and Roman columns it is also the most familiar having become a popular choice among television and film location hunters seeking unspoilt period interiors.
Look out for the famous handrail fitted to the main staircase, reportedly for the Club’s most celebrated member, the octogenarian French Ambassador Prince Talleyrand-Perigord, who spent a good deal of time here in the early 1830s playing Whist with friends. Otherwise soak up the atmosphere of a precious, unspoilt architectural gem whose picky members savagely blackballed the painter Landseer, Thackeray and Churchill’s father.
Historic highlights: Designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Palace of Westminster
Location: 106 Pall Mall, SW1Y 5EP
Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
Part medieval royal palace, part glamorous Art Deco showpiece, the opulence of the wealthy Courtauld family’s stylish 1930s extension – complete with piped music, under floor heating and a centralised vacuum-cleaning system – could scarcely provide a stronger contrast with the lofty, moated 14th century Great Hall built by Edward IV. Generally acknowledged to be England’s finest Art Deco interior, Eltham also boasts the third largest hammer beam roof in the country, the whole having been painstakingly restored by English Heritage.
Today, just seven miles from central London, the place positively drips luxury, with glossy, black veneers, rare and exotic hardwoods, gold-plated bathroom fittings and great, sweeping staircases. Clearly no one would get away with this today – trampling all over the country’s medieval heritage in this manner – but as an exemplar of craftsmanship, self-confidence and high society living in the inter-war years, there is nothing else in London to touch it.
Historic highlights: in 1827 the hammer beam roof was nearly taken away to repair the one at Windsor Castle.
Location: Court Road, SE9 5QE
Nearest train station: Eltham/Mottingham
Now a restaurant and art gallery, this was once the turbine hall of the London Hydraulic Power Company. For more than 100 years (until the 1970s, incredibly) this slightly Heath-Robinson outfit operating via its own 200 mile network of pipes and tunnels supplied pressurised water at 600psi to power hotel and apartment block lifts, theatre curtains and stage revolves, presses for hat-blocking, forging, flanging and stamping, even dockyard cranes.
Running from Limehouse in the east to the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, from Pentonville Road across the river to Southwark and Rotherhithe, these tunnels – the one under the Thames is easily large enough to drive a car through – were constructed to such a high quality that 130 years later many of the original cast-iron conduits are still in use. Today they form part of the information super-highway, carrying fibre-optic cables and other communications equipment around 21st century London.
Historic highlights: Originally six pumping stations consumed 25 million gallons of Thames water a week, but this is the sole survivor.
Location: Wapping Wall, E1W 3ST
Nearest tube station: Wapping
With space having long ago run out in the City’s historic burial grounds and churchyards, Parliament in 1830 paved the way for 3,000 acres of commercial cemeteries where the dead ‘would be less prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants.’ The first was here with 50 acres, hundreds of trees and a new Greek Revival chapel.
With all mod-cons, including a lift linking this to the catacombs below, and huge elaborate tombs, Thackeray, Trollope and Wilkie Collins were buried here. So too were the poet Thomas Hood, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and the great showman Blondin following his death at ‘Niagara House, Ealing’. Another, General James M Barry, Senior Inspector of the Army Medical Department, was upon his death discovered to have been a woman all along. Miranda Barry had risen to the very peak of two professions, as Britain's first qualified lady doctor and the Army’s first female general.
Historic highlights: Princess Sophia and Augustus, Duke of Sussex, children of George III, were among the first incumbents.
Location: Harrow Road, W10 4RA
Nearest tube station: Kensal Green
‘Established in XVIIth Century', as the elegant sign writing outside declares, Berry Brothers is not merely a veritable museum of viniculture but also still a family firm after more than 300 years. Backing onto a narrow stone-flagged gas-lit courtyard – called Pickering Place, where two young blades fought London's last recorded duel – the shop’s sloping wooden floors, ramshackle Victorian furniture, Arts and Crafts trappings and displays of antique glassware would not look out of place in the V&A.
It is nevertheless a thriving commercial concern with the most venerable vintages available to order online and anyone welcome to drop in for as little as half a bottle. The shop still has several giant, leather-bound ledgers containing the personal details of distinguished customers including Byron, Beau Brummell and George IV. Also an immense pair of balance scales, since 1765 used to weigh eminent visitors to the elegant glass-fronted shop.
Historic highlights: Even the French by their wine here, with previous customers including King Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III.
Location: 3 St James's Street, SW1A 1EG
Nearest tube station: Green Park
London has a surprising number of windmills, several folly towers, even the remains of a semaphore tower or two, but only one lighthouse which has stood here since 1864. It was used to carry out experiments to develop new lighting for the lighthouses and lightships operated by Trinity House and replaced an earlier one built for the great Sir Michael Faraday.
Since New Year’s Day 2000, it has enjoyed a new life as home to Long Player a unique sound installation by Artangel and Jem Finer. Based on a piece of music 20 minutes long, and played on Tibetan singing bowls, the performance is controlled by a sophisticated computer programme which minutely varies the music to ensure that no sequence or segment is ever repeated. It aims to play the piece for 1,000 years to make it not only the world’s longest ever musical composition but one of the strangest and most engaging millennium projects.
Historic highlights: HMS Thunderer was launched nearby in 1911, the last warship ever built on the Thames.
Location: Orchard Place, E14 0JW
Nearest tube station: Canning Town
The historic home of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, Woolwich Common is a must-see for anyone with an eye for eccentric buildings. Facing down towards the river James Wyatt's Royal Military Academy is more than 700’ from one side to the other, with a two-thirds scale replica of the Tower of London at its centre.
Across the Common, John Nash’s extraordinary Rotunda started life as a tent in St James's Park where it was erected as part of the celebrations to mark the defeat of Napoleon. Replacing canvas and wood with copper, bricks and mortar, Nash moved his masterpiece here and for more than 150 years it was used to house the Gunners’ unrivalled collection of historical weaponry.
Another victory altogether, the capture of Severndroog off the coast of Malabar, is celebrated at nearby Shooters Hill, a triangular folly tower commemorating Sir William James whose 'superior Valour and able Conduct' won the day.
Historic highlights: Favourably compared to the Winter Palace at St Petersburg, Woolwich Barracks is London’s widest building at almost 1,000 feet.
Nearest train station: Woolwich Arsenal
Hidden beneath the famous market and an old gin warehouse, the catacombs comprise an extensive web of vaults and underground passageways which originally provided stabling, storage and tack space for scores of pit ponies serving the railway/canal interchange situated above. As well as a large underground canal basin, the complex includes a vast subterranean hall which once housed steam-powered winding gear used to winch trains up the hill from Euston Station.
As such it provides a fascinating glimpse of the changing technologies used in the transport of goods into the capital, with horses, canals and railways all coming together in what was a vitally important inner-city nexus. Sadly mostly closed to the public, there was even provision made for any horses injured, with the premises of the old Horse Hospital now reborn as a unique arts venue for underground and avant-garde media including music, rare films and installations.
Historic highlights: It is possible to glimpse a small portion of the network by visiting Camden’s Stables Market which sells antiques, vintage clothing and other collectibles from the restored canal-side buildings.
Location: Camden Lock Markets, NW1 8AH
Nearest tube station: Camden Town/Chalk Farm
David Long is the author of more than a dozen books on the capital, the most recent of which, Bizarre London: Discover the Capital’s Secrets and Surprises, can be ordered on Amazon now.