Author of the acclaimed Bryant & May thrillers Christopher Fowler offers up the fruits of his research to help you discover a London you may not know
When it comes to London nightlife, the listings magazines only give you the most touristy part of the picture. To discover the quirkier events you have to find flyers put out by fringe organisers who can’t afford to advertise through the more conventional routes. For theatre, pick up flyers at Dress Circle in Monmouth Street, WC2. For clubs and gigs, hit the Soho bars and cafes on Brewer Street, Old Compton Street and Beak Street.
There’s a reason why the top London exhibition spaces are so popular; they put on world-class shows. But they can also be expensive, especially if you’re travelling with a family. Many of the odder museums and galleries are free. The Hunterian, the Wellcome Institute and the British Library can all be done in one long morning, while the Sir John Soane, the Wallace and the quirky Museum of Everything will fill a very busy afternoon.
For more odd museums around the country check out our two-part feature:
See all the shows and art exhibitions you want, but nothing is better than walking across London if you plan to see a real cross-section of the city. The trick is to do it West to East, not North to South. London is a transverse city built around a switchback river; follow the Thames and see how the London Eye keeps turning from front to side-on views if you really want to discover the trickiness of the streets. Your path should cut through the West End, the South Bank, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Millennium Bridge and something off the beaten track, like the beautiful and underrated Leadenhall Market.
My heart sinks every time I pass the immense queue for Madame Tussauds or see visitors eating in an Angus Steak House, because when you have limited time, there are better places just a street or two away from the obvious tourist attractions. Go to Camden Market by all means, but you’ll find better bargains between Spittalfields and Brick Lane. Go to Brick Lane for a curry, but you’ll find just as good (and cheaper) meals in Drummond Street. For every well-publicised place, there’s a good alternative.
In the US, bars are largely the province of loners or office workers. In London, they’re used for everything from family gatherings to hobby enthusiasts. Often pubs rent out floors for events, from free cinema clubs like the one in the King’s Cross Social Club (actually a pub) to meetings of literary societies in the Fleet Street area, you’ll find it easy to make friends and get into feisty conversations. The Dracula Society meets in pubs, and the Handlebar Moustache Society goes to the Windsor Castle (worth a visit to see its mad décor). There are ex-pat clubs, Goth groups, Rockabilly nights, book readings, dubstep sessions, quizzes, stand-up shows and events for just about any London tribe you can think of.
A peculiarity of the London pub scene is that the same venue may be used for a dozen different types of event, undivided by race, sexuality, age or musical preferences. In my novel, The Victoria Vanishes, I listed a great many London boozers, and recently checked back in to find some of them now sadly closed. Pubs often occupy corner sites and have extensive basements, which makes them ripe for property vultures.
Wherever you are in London, you’re never far from water. I used to live off Angler’s Lane in Kentish Town, beside a fisherman’s pub that is now a Nando’s, and once helped to dig out an underground tributary in Soho, where I found myself surrounded by clay pipes and animal bones washed down from the butcheries on the riverbanks. The rivers are all around us, but remain elusive.
The canals are accessible, though. Connected by wells, lock-gates and basins, they run right across the capital. Once they were filthy, but now they’re filled with fish, hemmed with wildflowers, home to herons, swans and Canadian geese. They’re perfect for cycling too, because the walkways are largely flat.
If you’re looking for pop-up cocktail bars, clubs and fringe performances, check anywhere near a railway arch; a great many themed evenings take place around and beneath the stations of London Bridge and Vauxhall. Websites like The Londonist are your friends here. And don’t just look at the back of your cab driver’s head – ask questions. Not many visitors realise that some black cabs can be hired for tours.
Christopher Fowler is the acclaimed author of the Bryant & May mysteries and has written over 30 books. His latest novel Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood is published by Doubleday in hardback on the 29 September.You can pre-order you copy on Amazon now.
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