Secret London: guide to the weird and wonderful secrets of London-town

I've read plenty of London guidebooks since I moved here in 2003, but none have inspired me to go out and see my new hometown more than Secret London - an Unusual Guide, written by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash. This handsomely illustrated book has peeled back the covers on London for me, showing off this city's many oddments and wonders, curiosities that had been literally lurking right there on my daily walk to work, all unsuspected.

Some examples:

There are literally hundreds of incredible sights to see enumerated in Secret London, and my New Year's resolution is to get to as many of them as I can!

I picked up Secret London by the register at Clerkenwell Tales in London's Exmouth Market, near my office, where they have done an absolutely brilliant job of curating a display of quirky, interesting and beautiful books.

Secret London - an Unusual Guide


  1. I don’t own this book, but it seems I’m already indebted to it for teaching me the phrase “punchable nun”. Outstanding.

  2. I have a friend who works at the Denis Severs House. The rooms are furnished to look as if the residents vacated them few minutes you entered them. As you ascend to the next story, you see evidence of the residents’s declining fortunes.

  3. nice! wish I had this book when I was there last summer :-/

    can anyone recommend a similar book for New York City? I’m looking on Amazon and there are a ton with similar names -don’t know where to start. Thanks!

  4. Dennis Severs did much more than fill his house with junk and curiosities. He invented several generations of a fictional family of merchants that occupied the house over several centuries. Each room is furnished in a different period style and as bjacques says, the effect is as if the residents have just left (Dennis Severs said he wanted to capture the “space between” in which you can just barely glimpse these fictional characters out of the corner of your eye), complete with sound effects. Having visited the House once I can testify that it’s an extraordinary experience but it must have been much more so when Dennis Severs was alive and conducted tours of the place in person. By all accounts those tours were a unique form of perfomance art. Perhaps he is still there, in the Space Between.

  5. I should have mentioned that this sounds like a book well worth having even, perhaps especially, for a virtual tour of London. Cory, does it mention my favorite London not-all-that secret–the display, per his will, of Jeremy Bentham’s preserved body at University College? (His bequest to the college was conditioned on his attendance at faculty meetings; the remains are wheeled in and he’s recorded as “present but not voting.”)

  6. A rare surviving “sewer venting lamp” outside Charing Cross station, which lit up the streets of London with “firedamp” rising from the foetid Victorian cloaca;

    Now, that is brilliant civil planning. BRILLIANT.

    An outstanding example of the ingenuity I always attributed to the British while growing up. (Must have been all those “making do” scenes from movies about Britain during the Blitz.)

  7. I just watched the Neil Gaiman Neverwhere TV mini series on Neflix this weekend, so this is apropos– may need to try to find this book somewhere! Thanks!

  8. Great that our work at Crossbones is now attracting widespread coverage, including this new book. NB The graveyard is NOT being used for parking buses. The northern part of this huge site is being used by Network Rail to construct their new Thameslink bridge. A small central section is being used as a temporary car-park for Borough Market Traders. This area is fenced off from the smaller southern part, adjoining Union Street – the site of the old Crossbones burial ground, where a guerrilla garden was created back in 2007. The agreement to fence this area off from the rest of the site was an important victory for our campaign, as it implicitly recognised its cultural significance. There is currently no public access to the site, which is fine by us – as we’re playing a longer game. We aim to eventually have a Garden of Remembrance / public park here by around 2015. The battle is not yet won but we have already established a broad coalition of supporters, including Southwark Council which is keen to support Crossbones as a major heritage site. So our vigils held on the 23rd of each month are not fuelled by outrage – that was about 7 years ago. Now we come together to commune, celebrate and honour the outcast dead, to refresh and renew the shrine we’ve established at the gates and to raise awareness of our campaign for a Garden of Remembrance.

  9. There are some alleys off st martins lane which are like stepping back in time. Dark with lots of gaslamps.

    I think there is also one outside the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden.

    Also there is some in the grounds of the Inigo Jones church in Covt Gdn as well.

  10. I learn so much from BoingBoing. I mean, I agree with Hairy that learning the term “punchable nun” is worth the price of admission alone, but I also loved “foetid Victorian cloaca.”

    That phrase has it all: British spelling, a Victorian reference (steampunk! STEAMPUNK!), and the word “cloaca,” which has long been a favorite.

    I’d love to open a pub and call it The Foetid Cloaca – not sure what I’d put on the sign, though…

  11. Gah! Took a trip to London with Wife last winter. I specifically looked online for a book about “Secret London!” Guess we’re going to have to go back!

    (BTW… London a week or two before Christmas is divine! Zero tourists and a wonderful bustling Christmas spirit!)

    1. Just be sure to get out of the city by Christmas Eve!
      I spent Christmas in London as a tourist a few years ago and still remember the eerie feeling of wandering lost in a massive ghost town at 4:30 PM on Christmas night: The tube (and everything else) shuts down on the 25th and no one seems to reenter the city until the 27th.

  12. Hi everyone,

    I found this page as a result of wondering why my photo of the pet cemetery at Hyde Park had suddenly seen such a flurry of activity! I’m glad I did, as it led me to this site and the book, which sounds fascinating. Because I love discovering London’s secrets, I’m definitely going to buy a copy.

    Anyway, I see there is also a mention of the Crossbones graveyard above and, by a coincidence, I also have a photo of this. I don’t believe anything of the original graveyard remains – certainly not anything that is publicly visible – but the entrance gates to the site carry a lot of mementos that people leave to remember their loved ones. This is what my picture shows and, if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a detour just to experience the poignancy of the place.


    Here’s the link to the photo, if anyone is interested in having a look:

  13. Andrew Duncan writes similar walking guides to London. His “Secret London”, which has recently been revised, follows Thames tributaries like the Fleet. He also did “Walking Notorious London”.

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