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:

  • The cellars beneath the Viaduct Tavern in Newgate Street contain the last remaining cells from the notorious Newgate Prison, now used as beer-cellars (the staff will let you in if you ask nicely);
  • Somerset House's "Dead House," in the Strand is a grim and ancient tomb, practically next door to the post-office box where I've been getting my mail for seven years;
  • 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;
  • Dennis Severs House, in Brick Lane (around the corner from our regular Sunday breakfast), a huge, mouldering row house formerly owned by a Canadian artist who filled it with junk antiques and curiosities, now open to the public;
  • The Mummy of Jimmy Garlick, in St James Garlickhythe Church in Garlick Hill — a body that lay in state during the Great Fire was mummified by a trick of the great heat, which rested for centuries behind the church organ (exhibited to curiousity seekers for a few pennies), then moved to the hymnal cupboard, and finally located in dusty bell-tower, where he can be seen by appointment only;
  • A hidden pet cemetery in Hyde Park, where "hundreds of mildewed miniature headstones" mark the final resting places of dogs, cats, birds and a monkey;
  • The Crossbones Graveyard, a plague pit filled with 15,000 dead (including the local whores, who were called "punchable nuns" in the parlance of the day) that is now used as a bus-parking yard by Transport for London to the outrage of some Londoners, who stage a monthly memorial at the site at 7PM on the 23d of each month.

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