You don't have to leave London to grab a bit of peace and quiet. Here's our guide to the secret places that will whisk you away – without you leaving the capital...
(And best of all, most of them are free!)
#1 ST DUNSTAN’S IN THE EAST
St Dunstan’s In The East was bombed out in the Blitz and then left as a picturesque ruin, overgrown by creepers and with palm trees growing up in the centre of the nave. It’s down a side street, away from a busy main road, and finding it is like stumbling across a perfect jewel of a hideaway. St Dunstan's makes a regular appearance in 'secret London' lists – but it deserves to be there.
#2 Japanese Gardens
London has loads of great open spaces, and tucked away inside some of these are Japanese gardens. These gardens, as Wiki puts it are 'typified by a Japanese aesthetic and philosophical ideas, they avoid artificial ornamentation, and highlight the natural landscape. Plants and worn, aged materials are generally used by Japanese garden designers to suggest an ancient and faraway natural landscape, and to express the fragility of existence as well as time's unstoppable advance'. Quite. What that means is they look great and are calming, chilled-out spaces. One of our favourites is in Regent's Park; here you'll find enough greenery to make you think you were in Kyoto and an authentic waterfall that spills into a large lake. A small bridge crosses a stream and if you squint you could be in the far east (no, not Stratford!)...
Another of our favourite Japanese gardens is in Holland Park and is well worth visiting if you over that side of town. And if all the walking makes you hungry, here is our guide to the 11 best Japanese Restaurants in London
#3 Inns of court
If you haven't been to the Inns of Court, we're not surprised. For a start, they are only open to the public in the week (when we’re at work, so are the lawyers). Most of the best bits are closed on the weekends. Secondly, it’s so very pretty, so totally unlike London – despite being just minutes away from Blackfriars – that the barristers probably don’t advertise it because they want to keep it all to themselves. And it’s so lovely we're not surprised – if our workplace was Lincoln’s Inn, we wouldn’t tell anybody about it either. We’d want it to be a special, private place – a peaceful little pool of calm in the middle of the city.
#4 Greenwich foot tunnel
If you want to walk from south to north London in a few minutes, technically you can – via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Under the Thames! A wood-panelled lift will swoop you down to the start of the tunnel. Which is rather like walking through a urinal – damp metro tiles and puddles – but it's a pretty nifty way to escape Greenwich's tourists and arrive in Island Gardens, which had great views back across to Greenwich and also the Island Gardens Cafe, which will serve you tea and chocolate cake for £4. Just watch out for time anomalies while you're down there...
The Greenwich foot tunnel is 1,217 feet long and was dug by hand and was completed in 1902
#5 Leighton House
Home and studio to painter Lord Frederick Leighton, this gorgeous house is short walk from Holland Park. Built between 1866-95, most of the rooms are classically Victorian – but the real treat is the two-story Arab Hall that housed Leighton's tile collection. It's a stunning space that's been used in various pop videos including Spandau Ballet's 'Gold' and – more importantly – The Stranglers' 'Golden Brown'. Sadly, you aren't allowed to take picture inside, so you'll have to trust us or do a Google search.
#6 bird's-eye view of st Paul's
After you've fought the crowds and been inside St Paul's Cathedral (something you should definitely do, despite the arse-ache of all the people), you should cross over the road on the east side and go into New Change One shopping centre. Take the lift to the top and you will be rewarded with a view of St Paul's that only the pigeons normally get to see. While you're up there, grab a cocktail from Madison's and take in the incredible views across London.
Sir Christopher Wren, the Architect of St Pauls, was the first person to be buried in the Cathedral.
#7 Postman's park
If you're visiting St Paul's or the Museum of London, then you're only a short hop away from Postman's Park, a small open space that is dedicated to the memory of those who have died trying to save others. There's a wall with the descriptions of the sacrifices ordinary people have made – it's astonishingly moving. The park doesn't get too busy and is well worth an hour of your time.
#8 Sky Garden
Hidden in plain sight, the 'Walkie Talkie' building (opposite The Shard on the north side of the river) could hardly be considered a secret – but the garden at the top is less well known. You need to book in advance if you want stunning 360-degree views of London – but tickets are free, so head over to Skygarden.london to book. The Sky Garden is within walking distance of St Dunstan's in the East (see #1), so you could do both at the same time.
The Walkie Talkie building (real name 20 Fenchurch Street) ran into problems in 2013 when its concave shape acted like a magnifying glass on the streets to the south, melting paint on cars and burning a shop doormat!
#9 London wall
London used to be tiny. Back in Roman times, it was also surrounded by a defensive wall, which can still be seen if you know where to look. Built in the 2nd-3rd centuries, the wall is hidden against a backdrop of modern buildings. If you're near the Barbican, then two great spots to see it are at St Alphage, a small, sunken oasis amongst the cranes and diggers churning up the City; the other is at the Barber Surgeon’s Hall Garden. A garden’s been here since 1555 and it includes a brilliant herb bed, planted with all the essential greenery a doctor in the 16th century would have needed to use (the captions are an interesting read - see the 'Comfrey' picture below. The Roman wall and two towers encircle the garden, adding to the peaceful, pretty, alone-ness of this lovely spot.
#10 London curios...
'scratching fanny of cock lane'
Cock Lane was the site of the infamous ‘Cock Lane Ghost’ in the 1760s; a peculiar tale of a young girl, a dead woman and one of the biggest media sensations in 18th-century London. In essence, ‘Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane’ (the unintentionally hilarious name given to the poltergeist) was a cautionary tale of morals and making money from what was probably a scam perpetrated by Elizabeth Parson’s father. He offered lodgings to a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes; Fanny died from an illness and then her ghost reputedly began haunting Parson’s house in Cock Lane. Worth a visit simply to take a photo of the naughty street name.
Statue of Hodge the cat
Samuel Johnson loved his cat, Hodge. And this pampered feline is remembered outside Johnson's house with a lovely little bronze statue. Hodge is sat on a copy of Johnson's dictionary and surrounded by oyster shells; the black cat's favourite treat. It's lucky to put coins in the oyster shells when you pass by.
Secret underground station
Look out for the closed-up entrance to Aldwych Station, just off The Strand. The station was finally closed in 1994 after years of slow decline; during WWII, it kept antiquities from the British Museum safe from German bombs, including the Elgin Marbles.
#11 THE 13 guardian DRAGONS
Dotted around the original city of London (the Square Mile) are 13 little dragons in 10 different locations. Each one marks the site of the old city gates. London is obviously much larger now, and the original gates (in a lot of cases) are gone or have been moved. You may have spotted one or two dragons on your travels (you have seen one on this page already!) – but here is a guide to all 13* of them, with a map to help you spot them all. (map by Emminlondon.com)
Following the map is a great way to see various part of London and some of the locations mentioned in this post. Our advice is to be selective about the ones you visit (unless you are a completist, of course!). Most of the dragons are identical, so if you only want to see all the different types of dragon, then head to:
These are replicas of the Victoria Embankment dragons; they are all half-sized.
These two are larger and are the base model for all the rest (except the Temple Bar dragon). The dragon pair originally sat above the London Coal Exchange. Heading north, you will pass through The Inns of Court mentioned earlier; this will lead you to...
Temple Bar Dragon
Designed by Charles Bell Birch, a much fiercer-looking dragon, this design wasn't adopted for the subsequent boundary markers. It is also by far the highest-up dragon as it sits upon a monument in the middle of Fleet Street (the others, bar the London Bridge and Victoria Embankment pair, sit on small metal plinths).
For an extra bit of sightseeing you can go from the Blackfriars dragon, up to the Victoria Embankment dragons, on to Temple Bar via Inns of Court. From there, on towards Holborn or Farringdon, down to Museum of London/Postman's Park (see above) then St Paul's Cathedral (see above), where the original Temple Bar (gate) is now situated. Then go down to Tate Modern, arriving back to either Blackfriars or, if you prefer, London Bridge (taking in the Sky Garden, or St Dunstan in the East). You will then see all the different designs of the dragon boundary markers without having to do the whole route.
*at the time of writing (May 2018), the Moorgate dragon is being restored while Crossrail carry out development in that area.