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Sights worth seeing, Culture,

February 23 2024

London’s hidden historic gems

With so many famous landmarks around London, it’s easy to think you’ve seen it all. But London is a city full of historic hidden gems. Some, you may already have walked right past without realising. So, we thought we’d let you in on a few of the city’s secret sights that fly under the radar. These are the cool hidden parts of London worth seeing. 


Aldwych Station

Let’s start with the secrets right under your feet. Aldwych Station on Surrey Street opened in 1907 as Strand Station on the Piccadilly Line – and closed in 1994. You can still visit this abandoned station as part of a Transport for London tour that shares the station’s fascinating history and current appeal as a film and television location. 


Aldwych Station housed the National Gallery’s collection in World War I, and in World War II the station protected the Elgin Marbles. Today, it features in films like The Mummy and in The Prodigy’s Firestarter music video. On your tour, you visit the original ticket hall, the connecting walkways, platforms and tunnels, and the network’s only original wooden lifts (long since replaced everywhere else with fire-safe alternatives). 


Bloomberg London Mithraeum

Bloomberg’s EU headquarters at 12 Walbrook in Central London is a thoroughly modern glass and steel building. But what you won’t know from the outside is this modern office block is on top of one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites: the ancient Temple of Mithras. London’s remarkable Roman site was discovered in 1954, then moved to make way for modern buildings where it sat neglected for many years. 


Now, it’s been restored and returned to its original location alongside a selection of recently excavated Roman artefacts. Today, it’s the star attraction of London Mithraeum where you can learn about the Temple and the lost river that once flowed alongside it. It’s free to visit, and you can just turn up or book a ticket to guarantee your chosen entry time. 


23-24 Leinster Gardens, Bayswater

Not all is as it seems here. From the outside, 23-24 Leinster Gardens looks like the other handsome houses lining this street. But these are fake houses just five feet deep. There are a few clues at the front, but you have to look closely. Yes, there are front doors and grand pillars just like the other houses on the street. But there are no letter boxes in the doors nor any life behind the upper windows. 


In the late 19th century, the original houses were demolished as part of building the underground network. But rather than rebuild on top, the ground was needed as a vent for the trains below. Unhappy locals wanted the houses rebuilt, so, as a compromise, the builders added the fake frontage. It’s certainly one of London’s more peculiar historic hidden sites. 


Postman’s Park, The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice

These days, heroic acts are often filmed, reported on and given posthumous awards. But before official honours existed, a gentleman called George Frederic Watts wrote to The Times newspaper in 1887 requesting a people’s Westminster Abbey to honour the remarkable people who’d died helping others. This idea eventually became the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, which opened in Postman’s Park in 1900.


Unlike Westminster Abbey, the memorial stones here tell otherwise forgotten stories of heroic acts by ordinary people. Today, you can visit the 54 memorial stones under a wooden cloister and find out a little about the lives of those remembered, including the pantomime artist whose dress caught fire while saving her companion. Postman’s Park, a hidden garden north of St Paul’s Cathedral, is a little-known memorial, so visiting really feels like uncovering a London secret. 


The Panyer Boy of Panyer Alley

Also near St Paul’s Cathedral, this next spot is hidden in plain sight. Along the walkway, between St Paul’s station and St Paul’s Cathedral, is an unusual 17th-century stone carving and inscription. It’s easily missed if you’re hurrying to get to the famous cathedral, but it’s worth stopping for a moment. The bas-relief appears to show a naked boy sitting on a basket, taking a thorn out of his foot. But is that accurate? Is he naked? Is he holding bread? Squeezing grapes? It’s not clear, nor is the original location of this stone relief. 


Many historians think this carving comes from a long-gone building on Panyer Alley and depicts one of the Panyer boys, who would sell bread from their pannier baskets. Others have a theory it depicts a young Baccus – the God of Wine –crushing grapes with his hands and foot. Although the inscription says “When ye have sought the City Round. Yet still this is the highest ground. August 27th 1688” which would place it on Cornhill half a mile away. Wherever it came from, it’s now a part of London history most people miss. 

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