Today marks the publication of Erin Lawless’s brilliant new novel, SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW! To celebrate, we have a guest blog from protagonist Nadia, who is going to guide you around her favourite hidden London spots – read on to discover more, and take a look at the interactive map!
(And don’t forget to start reading SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW, available now!)
Hello! My name is Nadia Osipova, and I’m a Londonholic.
I’ve lived here my entire adult life, and I love it all: the tourists, the expensive, inauthentic food, the crowded pavements, the ‘minor delays’ on the tube… Haha, I’m joking (sort of) – but it is the truth that since the news of my potential deportation, I’ve been feeling extra fond of the Old Smoke. Because it’s true: “when a (wo)man is tired of London, (s)he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Or something like that.
But London isn’t all Buckingham Palace and museums and boating on the Serpentine (although that is very nice) – in my years here I’ve discovered that the ancient history has many secrets… And here are my Top 15!
1. Embedded in a case set into the front of a rather shabby WHSmith on Cannon Street is the ‘London Stone’, the ignoble remnants of a once much larger limestone object, because… REASONS (that had already been forgotten by Tudor times). But it is generally accepted that the Stone came to London with the Romans, although some prefer to believe it formed the altar in a temple founded by Brutus, the Trojan refugee who was the mythical founder of London a thousand years even before said Romans. Level three on the romantic scale is that London Stone is the stone from which the legendary King Arthur pulled the sword Excalibur. However it got here, legend has it the destruction of the stone is meant to herald the destruction of the city in turn!
2. London is famous for its grisly histories and ghost stories – for a couple of quid you can join tours that will take you round all of the ghoulish sites. But they probably won’t include the tale of London’s weirdest ghost – the chicken ghost of Pond Square. As the story goes, Francis Bacon (yes, he who pops up in films about Elizabeth I quite a lot) was hurrying through a snowstorm in January 1626 when he suddenly came up with the theory of refrigeration (as you do). Eager to test out his idea he quickly purchased a chicken and slaughtered it before stuffing the carcass with handfuls of snow to see if it preserved the flesh. Wonderfully ironically, Bacon never lived to find out: the day out in the snow meant he contracted a severe chill, which eventually became pneumonia and killed him a couple of days later. But it’s not Sir Bacon’s disgruntled spectre that haunts Pond Square – there have been frequent reports for hundreds of years of a ghostly chicken who appears from nowhere to race in circles around the square, frenzied and flapping, before disappearing as suddenly as it arrived. So if you’re at a loss around Highgate one evening, maybe go for a stroll around the Square, and see if the chicken appears for you…
3. London may be an amazing city, but it’s seriously lacking in beaches, am I right? Well, if you traverse all the way to the western end of the Central Line you’ll find a reservoir complete with artificial beach nestled near Ruislip Woods. The old reservoir was renovated into a lido for swimming and boating in 1933 and although the pollution eventually got so bad that going in the water was banned, there is a paddling area and now the water is said to be considered again to be an “acceptable standard” (!) for inland bathing (should you be that desperate). Most people just enjoy the walk – it takes about an hour and a half to leisurely stroll around the water, but there’s also a charming miniature railway run entirely by volunteers to take you most of the way round the lido in style.
4. Full of the typical grandeur and romance that the Victorians imbued with the dead, Highgate Cemetery is one of the world’s most famous graveyards, but most Londoners don’t even know where it is. The avenues of death entomb poets, painters, princes and paupers, including (most famously) Karl Marx, the novelist George Eliot, the man who invented the modern postal system and the one who invented cinematography! You can easily get lost in the winding paths, gazing at the gothic majesty of typically-dramatic 19th century tombs – but nowadays the cemetery is most famous for its supposed vampire. Girls looking for their Lestat/Edward/Salvatore brother, jump on the Northern Line now.
5. People most often go to Crystal Palace to go to the, er, Crystal Palace, which is fair enough. But if full scale models of dinosaurs are your thing, don’t forget about Crystal Palace Park itself, an old Victorian pleasure ground. A delightfully random set up with one lake where you can boat and one where you can fish (and never the two shall meet), sculptures of extinct animals (the Bromley council website describes them as, tongue firmly in cheek, “the Victorians’ answer to Jurassic Park” – in very unVictorian fashion, bring your smart phone to access a free audio tour), a landscaped maze and a small zoo (if you prefer your animals not yet extinct).
6. If you head as north as North London gets, you’ll arrive in Enfield, where the ancient Plantagenet kings had a hunting ground. Hidden away in the parkland that now covers the area is an island surrounded by a man-made moat, known since time immemorial as “Camlet Moat”. Archaeological digs have unearthed that there used to be a substantial castle on the site, already established by the time the Romans were here. Unsurprisingly, Camlet Moat is a centre for spiritualists and Druidic activity and many believe that this was the site of the legendary Camelot. A wraith-like “grail maiden” is meant to appear to the worthy! Whatever your thoughts on King Arthur, the walk through the park and around the island is a magical way to spend a loose afternoon.
7. You can’t help but notice the Windmill International – its sign is pretty unsubtle. It was once known as the Windmill Theatre and remains best known to this day for the introduction of nude tableaux vivants in the 1930s. Before the introduction of a little nudity the club was haemorrhaging money – people really weren’t feeling variety shows anymore – and so the owners eventually decided to take a leaf out of the Moulin Rogue’s playbook and brought in the ladies. However, to get past the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship, the girls had to remain completely stock-still, as if classical statues (as that was their argument – how could nude statues be morally objectionable?). Cheeky soldiers on leave used to bring in mice or spiders in their pockets and throw them onto the stage in the hopes that the girl would scream and run around a bit, but the ‘Windmill Girls’ were famously stoic. So was the theatre itself. “We Never Closed” they claim proudly, even now; performances at the Windmill continued even at the height of the Blitz. Today (after a brief stint as a cinema/casino), the Windmill is now a pretty standard table-dancing club. Still, it’s nice to celebrate the history of the British appreciation of a nice pair of tits (even while being bombed by the Germans).
By now I bet your diary is pretty full of all the cool things you’re dying to check out! But THERE’S MORE! Check back tomorrow for numbers 8-15 in Nadia’s Hidden London!
Nadia Osipova’s ‘Hidden London’