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.

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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!

Disappointed Borrowers at East Ham Public Library

East Ham Public Library opened in east London on 2 January 1899. More than 1,400 borrowers’ tickets were issued within a fortnight of the opening date. By the end of the month, chief librarian William Bridle (1868-1927) was growing concerned about the dwindling numbers of books remaining on his library’s shelves.

Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900
Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900

On 27 January 1899, he submitted a report to his library committee managers that included the following urgent appeal for more stock:

The result of starting with an insufficient supply of books is that within a month I have had to refuse further admittance, and practically close the Library to all but the fortunate 1,500 readers who were able to make early application [for tickets], thereby causing disappointment, even disgust, among the large numbers of people who are now patiently awaiting their turn to become members [of the lending library]. To meet our pressing needs, the stock of books should be doubled at once. We cannot do less than this and keep faith with the public. We are, by our action in opening the library, inviting them here, and we must be prepared to keep pace with their increasing demands.

This story of immediate, almost unmanageable, demand for reading matter was repeated in new public libraries across London at the turn of the twentieth century. From Hither Green in south-east London to Chiswick in west London to Willesden in north-west London to Lambeth in south London, chief librarians struggled to keep pace with borrowers’ needs. Many became resourceful in their efforts to secure additional stock. Some librarians circulated begging letters to local businesses or authors for books and others got up fund-raising events to secure money to buy additional stock – all to ‘keep faith’ with a reading public whose appetite for literature appeared limitless.

 

Stay Safe Victorian People

Here are four reasons that suggest health and safety actually ‘went mad’ some time ago:

(1) In 1897 two whole pages of a short guide to the diamond jubilee celebrations in London were given over to advice about ‘staying safe’ during the day (don’t smoke, don’t faint, don’t fall off tall buildings, don’t buy flimsy and flammable decorations manufactured abroad) under this dramatic sub-heading:

From 'All About the Diamond Jubilee' (1897).
From ‘All About the Diamond Jubilee’ (1897).

(2) In January 1894, the City Press reported that more than 40 Liverpool Street station staff had been successfully examined in the principles of first aid.

From London Collection Press Cuttings. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive
From London Collection Press Cuttings. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive

(3) In 1851,’ due care and attention’ was paid to the load-bearing capacity of the new gallery flooring ahead of the public opening of the Great Exhibition in a purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

'Testing the Galleries of the Great Exhibition Building,' from the Illustrated London News, 1 March 1851. Reproduced with the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute.
From the Illustrated London News, 1 March 1851. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive.

(4) In 1893, the architect employed to design the new Bishopsgate Institute and Library implemented structural safety measures to facilitate prompt evacuation of large numbers of people from the lecture hall in the event of a fire.

Detail of Bishopsgate Institute ground floor plan (1893), showing that hall exit doors were positioned to enable direct access out to the street. Reproduced with permission of Bishopsgate Institute and Archive.

A more systematic overview of the history of health and safety legislation is available here.