Seven Days Out in London

I’ve lived in London for more than thirty years. Here are my suggestions for cheap days out in the city, based on my own interests and aimed at independent travellers curious to discover some of the less obvious London attractions.

Day One. Holborn

From Holborn Station, head for Lincoln’s Inn Fields to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum  and the Hunterian Museum then explore the green spaces of the Inns of Court. Carry a copy of Bleak House (1853) and call in at the Dickens Museum afterwards. The October Gallery is also worth a visit, not least for the ladies toilets! Finally walk to Judd Street to the Patisserie Deux Amis where you can pretend to be a character in a French film – Thérèse Desqueyroux works well.

Day Two. Hampstead Village

Turn left out of the station and stroll down Flask Walk. Call into Keith Fawkes second-hand bookshop and pick out a cheap paperback. Get completely lost in the back streets before heading to the Heath for a picnic. If it’s rainy you can visit the Freud Museum or Keats House Museum or pop into the Flask or the Holly Bush for a port and lemon as though you’re in a Patrick Hamilton novel.

Photo by author (August 2015).
Photograph by author (August 2015).

Day Three. Deptford (market days are Wednesday and Saturday)

Take a Docklands Light Railway train from Bank or Tower Gateway to Deptford Bridge. Sit at the front and imagine you’re the driver. Enjoy the glass and water dockland views out of the train window. Walk from Deptford Bridge station to the High Street and spend the day hunting out pop-up art projects or looking for bargains in the market stalls or independent shops. Peter and Joan’s at number 119 is an Aladdin’s Cave of colourful wools, cute buttons and gorgeous fabrics. Call in at Cafe Selecta for a mug of instant coffee (90p) and two slices of toast and marmite (90p) served by friendly staff then make your way to St Paul’s Church to admire the beautiful Baroque architecture of this landmark structure.

Fish for sale at Deptford Seafood Center. Photograph by author (September 2015).
Fish for sale at Deptford Seafood Center. Photograph by author (September 2015).

Day Four. From Kensington to Covent Garden

Start the day with a breakfast tea in Benugo’s at the Victoria and Albert Museum. If it’s sunny you can sit in the courtyard. Otherwise stay inside to enjoy the mirrored and tiled beauty of the Morris room. Then you might go mainstream and explore the museums at South Kensington – or you might head directly to the tube station to take a train to Covent Garden. From here it’s a short walk along Long Acre to Freemason’s Hall where you can join a tour of the grand art deco building (free, advance booking recommended). Afterwards walk back along Long Acre until you get to the Rose Street turning where you will find Bageriet. It’s worth awkwardly sharing a table to enjoy the delicious coffee and cinnamon buns in this small Swedish bakery.

Day Five. West End

From Great Portland Street tube station walk to the Royal Institute of British Architects where there is a varied programme of talks and temporary exhibitions. Next get completely lost wandering through the back streets of Fitzrovia and the West End. Head vaguely south and go into as many pubs and cafes as you like. Clutch a copy of Roland Camberton’s Scamp (1950) to read in quiet moments. The eventual aim is to reach the National Portrait Gallery and make your way up to the café – not for the food but for the amazing view across slate city rooftops and Trafalgar Square. Go at a quiet time when you only need to order a drink rather than an expensive meal. End the day by strolling to the Thames to watch the sun go down from Westminster Bridge, in a Whistler-ish style.

Look out for attractive design details inside RIBA. Photograph by author (May 2015).

Day Six. East End (vintage market at Spitalfields takes place on Thursdays)

From Liverpool Street station, cross the road to the Bishopsgate Institute to look over the daily papers under the glass dome in the atmospheric Bishopsgate Institute library. Or bring along a copy of Alexander Baron’s King Dido (1969, set in 1911) to read. Leave the building by the side entrance then enjoy a slow stroll around Spitalfields Market’s vintage stalls before calling in at the Town House on Fournier Street for tea in the basement. Next wander through the back streets of Spitalfields towards Whitechapel. You’re on the leisurely lookout for Victoria Cottages near Deal Street. Once you’ve discovered them, return to Brick Lane for a bargain-price filled bagel from the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. If you can set it up in advance, arrange a visit to Dennis Severs’ House as part of your East End excursion.

Day Seven. Greenwich and the River (vintage market on Saturdays and Sundays)

Take the river bus to Greenwich. Read Howard Clewes The Long Memory (1951) ahead of the trip to add an element of mild peril as you travel past re-purposed warehouses and battered old barges. On arrival at Greenwich, visit the Clocktower outdoor market to rummage through boxes of twentieth-century musical scores or crates of crockery, brooches and badges. Next, make your way to the curious Fan Museum before striding up the steep slopes of Greenwich Park to take in the panoramic views of London and the Thames from outside the Royal Observatory. For afternoon tea and cakes, Royal Teas Café is recommended.

Greenwich in blossom. Photograph by author (May 2015).
Greenwich in blossom. Photograph by author (May 2015).

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to spending seven days in London but I hope it will provide some ideas for new and old visitors to the city. Feel free to add your own suggestions below!


To all from all

In August 1906 Alfred ‘Alf’ Leicester visited London from Bridgwater in Somerset with his friend (also called Alf). On 21 August he sent this picture postcard of Oxford Street home to his sister.


On the reverse, Alf wrote:

Dear Sis,

Getting on alright so far. Having lovely weather. Alf went back last night. Annie just had a PC [postcard] from him to say he got home safe. He says it was raining in Cardiff. We have not seen any rain yet. Eh, what? You say you would like to go down Oxford Street, shopping? I suppose you would. Kind regards to all from all,



…and not just adults

Delivering or supporting heritage projects involving school or youth groups is always an uplifting experience. I appreciate having the opportunity to encourage young people to see London’s history in new and different ways and I enjoy observing their invariably positive response to the chance to view historic sites they might not otherwise visit – or handle and work with original archive sources that are usually difficult to access. Invariably, too, their energy, creativity, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm provide a welcome counterbalance to the negative media stereotyping of young people.

The Only Way is Ethics (TOWIE) is a heritage lottery funded youth project, led by the brilliantly creative Emergency Exit Arts organisation with heritage support from Museum of London and Bishopsgate Institute. My main role in the project is to locate and share archive materials relating to the TOWIE themes (protest, politics, activism and representation). The idea is to establish a sound historical framework within which the ethical debates and discussions programmed to take place across 2013-14 might be meaningfully located.

Summer school archive workshop. Reproduced with the kind permission of TOWIE photographer Enrique Rovira
Summer school archive workshop. Reproduced with the kind permission of TOWIE photographer Enrique Rovira

TOWIE is a particularly uplifting project in which to be involved. Not only does it provide me with the chance to work with a team of inspiring creative heritage professionals from a range of organisations but it has also attracted an extraordinarily engaged and articulate set of participants. At the project summer school earlier this month I met young Londoners from across the city who shared a desire to engage in open, intelligent political enquiry about challenging subjects from class to gender to race. To find out more about how TOWIE summer school played out, view the amazing ‘storify’ narrative collated by Emergency Exit Arts:

In among the wealth of tweets, texts, clips and images showcased here, the words of one of the project’s young producers Gabriel Akamo stood out for me. Describing the archive workshop that took place on the final day of summer school, Gabriel wrote:

‘We looked at sources connected to feminism and gender politics from the mid-19th century to the present day. Possibly the most interesting archive task all week, we discovered evidence of an early women’s suffrage movement in the 1840s: a rejected parliamentary bill and a pamphlet arguing for female voting rights, inspiring engaging and insightful conversation. After this, we fed back to the rest of the group, inspiring a discussion about our perceptions of feminism, gender roles and the historical narrative presented to us from the sources we had looked at. Once again, I found myself questioning my assumptions about these issues and the contrast between the narratives taught in the curriculum and what we had just seen in the archive session – truly fascinating.’

The power of original historic sources to make people pause, think and re-think their views and ‘knowledge’ about the past is the reason why it’s so important to allow a range of audiences to access archive collections; that is, not just academics, not just researchers, not just librarians and not just adults.

To get involved in the project discussions on twitter, use the hashtag TOWIEthics.

The Adventurers at the Shah Jahan Mosque

On Friday 12 April the Adventurers caught a train from Waterloo to Woking to visit the oldest purpose-built mosque in Britain. The Shah Jahan Mosque was built in 1889 as a centre for the study of Oriental languages and cultures. It was also intended to provide a place of worship for Islamist visitors from abroad. Its founder was a Hungarian-born scholar and traveller fascinated by the ‘exotic’. Dr Leitner (1840-1899) had a theoretical interest in a broad range of religions and philosophies. To encourage inter-faith tolerance and understanding, he planned to establish a mosque, church, synagogue and temple on the same Woking site – but an absence of funds and Leitner’s ill-health and premature death prevented this curious scheme from flourishing.

Shah Jahan Mosque

Today the Shah Jahan Mosque is a thriving centre of Islamic worship and activity, visited weekly by thousands of Muslim men, women and children. To promote awareness of Islam in the wider community, tours of the historic site are offered to school and student groups. On the day we visited, the Imam welcomed us into the beautifully-decorated mosque before taking us on an informative guided tour of the prayer rooms. These are situated in unassuming single storey-blocks alongside the ‘proper’ mosque, which is now a listed building but far too small to accommodate the numbers attending daily prayers in 2013. You can find out how to book a visit to the mosque here:

Following our tour, we had almost two hours to spare before Friday prayers (the practising Muslims in the group had been invited to attend the service). With torrential rain falling, we reviewed our original plan to walk back into Woking to explore the town centre and instead headed for the shelter of a nearby retail park where we familiarised ourselves with the contents of Argos and Pets at Home. Some of the group took the opportunity to get their faces painted at Hobbycraft.


After Friday prayers at the mosque, we returned to Woking town centre to visit the Lightbox museum and gallery. A separate post on this will follow shortly.

London Studies Network: a new initiative by the Raphael Samuel History Centre

London for the Curious

On Thursday 9 May academics, project workers, educators, postgraduates and authors gathered at Queen Mary (University of London) on the Mile End Road to discuss the possibility of forming a London Studies Network to facilitate informal collaboration between historians, geographers, writers, artists and film-makers interested in the life of the city. The meeting was initiated and chaired by Professor Barbara Taylor, Co-director of the  Raphael Samuel History Centre 

Attached to the Raphael Samuel History Centre since 2000, I attended the meeting which began with introductions. The thirty-plus people present were researching a range of topics from different periods, with modern and post-modern London especially well-represented in the room. Strikes, social clubs, consumer cultures, queer theory, carnivals, London docks, popular television, gender and childhood were among the subjects mentioned. Everyone seemed to agree about the need for a network to foster dialogue and co-operation across disciplines and institutions so it was decided to hold a second meeting in the autumn to continue the discussion. In the meantime it was recognised that a Facebook page might be a useful way to test wider interest in a London Studies Network over the summer, as well as experimenting with the proposed network’s form and function. For example, did people want to use a network to find research or heritage project partners, draw upon others’ experience and knowledge or simply to socialise with a wider grouping of men and women sharing their interest in London past and present?

The London Studies Network Facebook page was set up  last week It is anticipated that the page will eventually become a welcoming virtual home for the widest possible community of ‘Londonistas’. The more people *like* the page and post events and requests on the timeline, the sooner this goal will be attained so please spread the word about this new venture to your metropolitan friends and colleagues.