London's secret treasures

Originally published in Daily Mail on 13th November, 2011 .

London's secret treasures

By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show,' Dr Johnson famously opined. But where do we 'see' London at its best? Many of us have visited the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the major galleries and museums, but there is more to our capital's cultural landscape than these - admittedly wonderful - treasures, not least the following, oft-overlooked gems...


The Queen's House


We begin at the old gateway to London, Greenwich, which grew to prominence in the 15th and 16th Centuries after a Royal pleasure palace was built there. However, by 1603 it was crumbling away. When Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, employed Inigo Jones to design her a residence in 1616, it was one of the most radical steps in the history of English architecture.

Seen by travellers entering London by river as well as by those on the Dover-to-London road, the Queen's House was England's first fully classical building and revolutionary amid the ubiquitous red brick of the period. The staggering spirals of the 'tulip stairs' are a highlight.

St Stephen Walbrook


The Great Fire of London took out 87 parish churches, along with the old St Paul's Cathedral, in September 1666. Charles II and the astonishing astronomer, mathematician and architect Sir Christopher Wren set about rebuilding a new baroque city to rival the great capitals of Europe.

Surely the most exciting of the 51 churches he rebuilt, which include St Paul's, is St Stephen Walbrook.

The radical design of this Anglican church often surprises. As you ascend the stairs, you expect a Latin cross shape (long nave, shorter transept); further in, you begin to think it might be a Greek cross (nave and transept the same length); once in the body, you realise there is a massive dome above your head and think that perhaps the church has a circular theme. The genius of the building is that it is a blend of all three. The marvellous dome looks as if it is floating on ethereal columns rather than heavy piers.

St Stephen's was also the church where Chad Varah, who founded The Samaritans, was rector. The telephone used for the first call to their crisis helpline in 1953 is on display.


The Foundling Museum


Established in the 18th Century after 17 years of petitioning by Thomas Coram, a sea captain turned philanthropist, the Foundling Hospital became a home, school and haven for abandoned children.

This poignant museum, set up in 1998, is a memorial to the children saved, as well as the patrons, including the great composer George Frideric Handel and the satirist and painter William Hogarth. Both are honoured in displays, with Hogarth's vivacious portrait of Coram a highlight. Don't miss the tiny bronze mitten seemingly tossed from a pram by a child on to an outdoor railing. Exploring the idea of separation, this artwork is a little-known Tracey Emin.

Sir John Soane's Museum


Sir John Soane, born to a bricklayer in 1753, became one of London's most intriguing architects. The Soane Museum, his magnificent former home, exhibits his fascination with unravelling classicism and putting it back together in a powerfully modern way. This unique and curious house is at times creepy, shocking and wildly misleading, as the visitor is confronted with unexpected mirrored dead-ends and vistas through surprising spaces.

Into this magical area, Soane's vast collection of art and antiquities has been lovingly placed, companion to the ceaseless manipulation of light, dark and space. No one should miss this most 'living' of all museums.


Leighton House Museum

Lord Leighton, an influential Victorian artist and one-time president of the Royal Academy, was an exponent of 'aestheticism' and his opulent and luxurious home, now the Leighton House Museum, on the edge of Holland Park sums up this cultural movement.

A piece of art in its own right, the house vibrates with organic decoration, including an indoor fountain, a sensuous Arab Hall, gold-gilded ceilings, stunning Damascene tiles and beautiful drawings and paintings by Leighton and his circle.

Embodying the Victorian ideal of 'art for art's sake', this recently - and meticulously - restored building is well worth a visit.

Check online for opening times before visiting these attractions. For further information on tours of Secret London, visit

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