Are London’s ‘Secret’ Places Really Secret?

Observatory

Cross Keys

When I wrote my latest London book round-up recently, I noticed that the words ‘secret’ and ‘hidden’ cropped up a lot in the titles. Fine, you won’t find St Paul’s Cathedral in these guide books, but you will find an awful lot of venues that could hardly be called ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ or even ‘relatively unknown’, like Leighton House, the Chelsea Physic Garden, the Albert Bridge, Little Venice or the Design Museum.

One volume, ‘Secret London: An Unusual Guide’ by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash, fulfils its brief more accurately, with some genuine oddities photographed and annotated, like the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery (which features in ‘Bryant & Man and the Bleeding Heart’) and the Fetter Lane Moravian Burial Ground, along with some nicely acidic opinions. Ah, opinions – remember when people expressed those without fear?

A lot of these ‘secret’ volumes are by a one-man guide to London, Graeme Chesters, who on the whole does a good job pointing things out that many of us have simply forgotten about. That is, until you come to his Secret Pubs & Bars volume, which can only be described as perverse. About a third of the venues he features are bland modern cocktail bars, most of which will already have vanished, many are in hotels (which simply disqualifies them, as far as I’m concerned) and the last third, like the Black Friar and the Grenadier, are famous even with tourists.

Odder still are the omissions. Hardly any of London’s really quirky pubs and bars, like the Cross Keys and the Windsor Castle, make the cut here at all, and even when a handful do, much is left out. The Salisbury in St Martin’s Lane is celebrated for its art nouveau interior, but there’s no mention of its legendary history as London’s oldest gay pub, haunted by famous thesps until everyone was kicked out in the 1980s. Or The Edgar Wallace, with its collection of Edgar’s books and its astonishing displays of smoking adverts. In fact, the pubs in this book are probably the least ‘secret’ in London. It made me wonder if the author had even visited any of these venues.

The answer is obvious; caveat emptor – when you see ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ in the title, check the contents first. Look for strong opinions and real reasons to visit.

9 comments on “Are London’s ‘Secret’ Places Really Secret?”

  1. Vivienne says:

    I agree about this: every bit of London is walked past by local residents so it is hard to see how anything is really hidden or secret. This must apply even more so to pubs, or they’d be out of business, although I have been to the Edgar Wallace when it was fairly unfrequented, being off the tourist beaten track.

    But I have found a few little places that seem hidden: the courtyard that you reach down the little passageway off St James’s which tells you that was where the Embassy of Texas used to be. Then, walking to the end of the Mall, there is a little pathway, called something like Milkmaids Way that leads into Green Park – it would be easy to think this road is a dead end. Then there is Brydges Place, the narrow walk from Bedford ? to St Martin’s Lane, and the other one further north. I know they are not really secret, but they are easy to miss. Recently on a walk I saw a sign – in mosaic – over an archway that was at basement level between two houses. It said To The Mosaics. There were steps down, so down I went, then through a covered brick alleyway (luckily I had a torch) between the houses to reach an open space, where indeed there were magnificent mosaics: about the Chartists and similar. Unfortunately, in a way, you could reach these from the other side across an open grassy area, but it wouldn’t have been so much fun to find them like that!

  2. admin says:

    Here’s a pretty secret pub, Vivienne – the Two Chairmen in Warwick House Street, almost on Trafalgar Square and yet weirdly invisible to passers-by…

  3. Vivienne says:

    Thanks, Admin. Will look out for that on my next jaunt.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    “In Warwick House St.” That must have been the only part of Trafalgar Square we didn’t explore. It’s a nice parat of London, that square, and I hope Canada doesn’t sell Canada House.
    I was watching “New Tricks” last night (keep your blood pressure down) and I really thought you must have written it, Admin. It was series 11, Episode 5 London Underground, all about the Fleet River, the wells and spas along it, the prisons in the area and the bricked off basements. One thing, though, is that with the last of the original characters leaving the series isn’t likely to go on much longer. It’s funny that you’ve been told that the scenario would never be popular and here it is going into series 12.

  5. Jo W says:

    Hi,Admin. HOW ARE YOUR EYES NOW? 😎

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    Hopefully the Kingsway subway tunnel managed to get excluded, for some reason that’s the one that niggles me when it pops up on lists. I like to show people the T34 tank sat in the scrub in Bermondsey (usually painted garishly, and different every time). My family are Lambeth so Westminster Bridge Road was where I remember my Granda showing me the likes of the Necropolis railway, Century house, and where the music hall was where a lot of my forebears did all manner of walking up and down shouting ‘oy!’ to packed audiences. Not so much secret there I admit, drifting as ever.

    The biggest sigh personally was when I saw Poliakoff’s The Tribe, and the secret places revealed there were the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace (where we’d often nurse our hangovers on a Sunday) and the caves, in Chistlehurst, where then I worked.

    Then again I did get a book on subterranean London as a well meaning present for Christmas this year. You’d written the foreword. Which was nice.

    And yes, eyes? We worry.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, asking again about THE EYES. We really do want to know.

  8. admin says:

    THE EYES are on the mend thanks. It’ll probably take a year to get them fully back though. I’ll try not to get hit in the face with a football again. Thank you kindly for asking.

  9. jan says:

    i daren’t get strarted on this one i’d never ever shut up!!

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