Monday, December 03, 2012

London: Knights, ancient lights and quirky sights

I decided to group my London posts vaguely thematically, rather than chronologically, to avoid a case of the "and thens", so in our first installment we'll look at some of the more quirky or off-the-beaten-path things I did and saw in London.

I joked on Twitter today that I still have a day and a half of my twenties left to tick things off those generic "100 (etc.) things to do before you're 30 (because after that you morph into a crippled hag)" lists you see on the internet. There may be plenty of time and life in the old girl yet to explore and discover new things, but as I approach my 30th birthday, it's a good time to reflect that I really have been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling and see some wonderful sights. It's no wonder, with all the different cities I've lived in, that sometimes even I forget that I was once briefly a resident of London town. In fact, I spent the first 4 months or so of 2007 living and working in London, and I've visited many times, including several times a week for the 2 months I spent on holiday in Woking, Surrey back in 200-05.

The upshot of this is that it's easy to feel that you've been there and done that, and this, combined with tight schedules packed with wining and dining and other fun things, meant that I didn't get out and about a great deal on my last couple of visits to London. So this time, while I stepped off the plane with only a couple of vague plans, I was motivated to get out there and see some of the lesser lights London had to offer.

There was also another factor in my planning, however. I'm very much a girl on a budget, so I wanted to find free or cheap activities to fill in my time. As we all know, London is a pricey place to live, eat and drink, but you can have your pick from world-class attractions such as the British Museum or Tate Modern for free. I've already been to most of the big free museums a couple of times, but many of the smaller places can also be enjoyed gratis. The only place I paid to go into, in the end, was the Courtauld Gallery, which was a reasonable £6.

I will blog about the Courtauld another time, but my London quirkometer was first triggered by running across a film set just off the Strand as I guiltily munched on a cheese and onion pasty (ON THE STREET! French people would have a collective conniption at the sight). No-one seemed to have a clue who the people were or what was being filmed, but we were all compelled to snap a few photos in case the mysterious actors turned out to be Persons of Note:

Upon googling, I found that the ME is a luxury hotel opening this December, so I think it's more likely just to be an ad

Things seemed to revolve largely around the chap on the left in the grey jumper. If he *is* a well-known heartthrob, do let me know

My first genuinely quirky destination was Sir John Soane's house. I actually didn't know what I was expecting to find here, I just remembered hearing about it years ago, and that it was a house stuffed with all manner of interesting objects collected by its owner, and left just as it had been on his death (in 1837).

Sir John Soane's house
I felt a bit like this getting into the place:

as I was asked to turn off my phone (it was an ipod, actually), relinquish my water bottle, put my handbag inside a plastic bag and promise not to take any photos once inside. I could understand why, since it's crammed with precious objects with no ropes holding you back from them. At times I was a bit worried I'd knock a Roman bust off a ledge, even with the straps of my handbag hidden away.

The absolute highlight was the picture gallery, which featured panelled walls that the helpful and informative curator opened up for us to reveal (on one side) a hidden atrium and (on the other) the original Hogarth Rake's Progress paintings and a couple of supposed Raphael cartoons. I must say, if I owned any of the above, they would probably be on permanent display, however cool the hidden panels may be.

A picture with the walls opened up, revealing a skylit space beyond. Source
Eek, so many breakables! Source
Definitely an enjoyable way to spend a spare hour in London!

Just around the corner is Lincoln's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court to which all English and Welsh barristers belong

Library building at Lincoln's Inn - according to Wikipedia, not as old as it looks! (19th C, although the Inns as a whole are much older)

Also nearby, the Royal Courts of Justice. PS Yes, blue skies!

This sarcastic comment on a mural-covered transformer made me laugh
From the Soane Museum, it's just a short (but slightly confusing) walk to Temple Church. This was famously featured in the Da Vinci Code, but while I'm embarrassed to admit that I have actually read the book AND seen the film (for some reason), I can't remember in what capacity. What I do know, is that it's very old: the original round portion is modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and was consecrated in 1185, while the oblong chancel was consecrated in 1240. It owes its name to its original owners, the Knights Templar, a powerful order of crusading knights who were destroyed amidst accusations of heresy in the early 14th century.

Outside Temple Church

Looking towards the Round Church

View of the chancel

Looking from the chancel into the round nave

The chancel again

Stained-glass windows above the altar

I'm not sure when the stained glass dates from, but I think it's modern-ish. At first I thought this was the fire of London, with St Paul's, until I remembered that St Paul's obviously did not look like this before the fire. Then I thought maybe it's the Blitz, which heavily damaged Temple Church. Or something else entirely?

By coincidence, while looking for more free things to do in London, I came across a reference to a museum which has a connection with the Templars. I don't know about in the United States, but at home St. John's is known for providing ambulances and First Aid training, and I've never thought too much about their name. I was intrigued to find that there is a Museum of the Order of St. John which explains that St. John's Ambulance comes under the aegis of the Order of St. John, which was - and still is - a real chivalric order, complete with knights.

The knights of St. John were not Templars, but Hospitallers. This order was founded in around 1023 to care for the sick and injured in Jerusalem. For a time, they even controlled Rhodes and Malta, before being driven out by Saracen and Ottoman troops. The connection to the Templars comes in because they were awarded much of the Templars' land in England and elsewhere after that order was destroyed. In England, they were dissolved under Henry VIII, and revived in their modern form under Queen Victoria.

I took a tour with a Commander of the Order, who showed us through the 16th century church, with its Norman crypt, and the 16th century gatehouse which houses the museum. Unfortunately, I didn't realise we were going "behind the scenes" to parts not open to casual visitors, so I thought I'd go back and take photos without the crowds, but failed to do so. Still, it was an interesting look at a building which has many claims to fame: many of Shakespeare's plays were officially vetted here by the Master of the Revels, whose office was in the building; Samuel Johnson worked in the building for a time, and Dickens used to drink in the pub which later occupied the site!

The Norman church crypt. Source
One of the hidden upstairs rooms
While the museum and church can be visited independently, I would recommend going on one of the tours if possible. You get to see a lot more of the site and learn about the history, since the museum itself is very small. There are videos in the museum which look interesting and well-produced, but bizarrely, they have the soundtracks on all of them running non-stop, so it's just a noisy constant cacophony.

Let's be honest... I'd probably take a "hee hee, Cock Lane" photo anyway, but I was especially excited to, um, come across this on the way to the Museum of the Order of St John because I recently listened to a podcast about the Scratching Fanny and the Ghost of Cock Lane - as the Daily Mail puts it, a 'tale of sex, death and loan sharking' from 250 years ago
As for the ancient lights...
"Ancient Lights" signs on the windows of buildings in Clerkenwell. Our guide told us that this showed they had paid their window tax in the 18th C and thus had the right to enjoy light from those windows in perpetuity. I just googled, however, and it appears he is wrong. The actual explanation is that, by UK law, if you have enjoyed light from a window for 20 years or more, then you have the right to challenge any development (e.g. a skyscraper) that would block out that light.


  1. Happy almost birthday, you youngster, you. Cheers and many more!

  2. Since I'm a bit of a celeb gossip junkie, I've done my absolute best to analyze the photo of the guy in the grey sweater (this involves me holding my laptop up to my face so I'm practically IN the photo) but I still can't figure out who he is :( I'm sorry I have failed you.

    1. Hahaha that's awesome, I salute your noble efforts! It's not a great photo, to be fair - standing on the other side of the street with traffic going past all the time.

  3. I looked closely at the photo too and I couldn't make out the guy either. I'm also sorry, Gwan.

    London really is a pricey little town but you've managed to get around and see some interesting sites on a budget. Now that's how to see a city!

    Cock Road...he he he. I would have so taken a photo too. ; )

    1. That's okay, I think he's probably not famous. Disappointing.

      Heh heh, I know you would have!

  4. Are you going up to parreeeeeeeeeeeeee tonight, or in the morning?

    1. Disneyland Paris on Wednesday, and then overnight in Paris, came back yesterday evening

  5. No, I can't tell who the man in the grey sweater is either. But he looks very nice, in a grey sweater cuddly sort of way. Have to wait for the advert to come out.

    Really interesting take on London, I am surprised you find it expensive,I think London is much cheaper than Paris, but then a again I am spending pounds rather than euro.

    Far from morphhing into a crippled hag, don't you know that life begins at 30 ( and 40, 50, 60!) apparently you "find your own style" and " become more comfortable with yourself" after 30... and they say women reach their sexual peak in their late 30's. ( speaking form personal experience, they are right) so you have lots to look forward to! and don't you know that young French men just love women of a certain age......and speaking from personal experience, this is right too!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Love Denise

    1. He did look nice! Oh really, that's interesting, it might be the exchange rate thing.

      Ha ha, I was only joking about the crippled hag part, but it's good to know I have something to look forward to! French men haven't been beating a path to my door so far, but maybe that's all about to change!

  6. Happy birthday Gwan! I'm impressed with your quirky London tips and totally agree that avoiding chronological blogging is the way to go (is that a good excuse for why I still have posts from over a month ago to go?)

    All the best for the next decade!

    1. Thank you, it was cool finding some "different" things to do. And that's a totally valid excuse

  7. Happy belated birthday, Gwan! Since I already had the pleasure of talking with you in person about your trip to London while we were at Disneyland, I won't tell you again how much I love the Sloane museum and the Rake's Progress.

    I can't identify the guy in the grey sweater either but that doesn't mean anything because I'm completely "out of it" as far as famous people are concerned.

    1. Me too! They all seem to be about 14 these days as well!


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