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|
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|
|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|
|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|
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|
|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|