Are London’s ‘Secret’ Places Really Secret?
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.