After quitting my job (this story requires a separate article) and spending some time thinking about what I actually want from my life and how I can make every day more meaningful, I decided to move to London. I have been to London before, but as a tourist, for two weeks or so. This time was different, I was going to live in London for more than 3 months. Although I travel a lot, it was my first time when I was going to live abroad for several months. It was scary and exciting at the same time. So, after saying goodbye to my family and friends, I moved to London with an open heart for a new adventure.
As we all know, London attracts like a magnet. Everyone wants to see with their own eyes a red double-decker bus and telephone box, Buckingham Palace and Her Majesty’s guardsmen in bear hats, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Big Ben – everything that we saw in the pictures of the textbook in English classes. I was no exception. On my first visit to London, I explored places according to the list from the topic “London is the capital of Great Britain” in my textbook.
However, it turned out that real London is not old textbook pictures becoming alive. Ancient buildings coexist there with ultra-modern skyscrapers and panel houses; branded stores with flea markets; Michelin-starred restaurants with unpretentious pubs. The huge metropolis has room for a historic centre and simple working-class quarters, ambitious new buildings like the London Eye and the Millennium Bridge and small, little-known places like Little Venice and Clattern Bridge. And all of them get along perfectly together.
Someday I will write a book about my long trip to London, but for now, I will limit myself to a short story about what impressed me the most there, what places and why will remain in my heart forever.
There are plenty of bloggers who write articles with catchy titles about what to see, what to do, where to eat in London and surroundings (for instance, https://www.earthtrekkers.com/london-bucket-list-must-have-experiences/ ), but not many who write about the less visited secret places – the hidden gems of London and the most importantly what makes these places to be a gem (I think it’s their atmosphere). So, for people who want to discover a different side of London off the beaten path, I am going to share with you my selection of some secret spots that I really love and, I think, if you do not visit them, you will only know half the story of London.
So, here is my selected list of London’s secret gems.
1. Seven Dials & Neal’s Yard.
When I discovered by chance Seven Dials and Neal’s Yard, I was fascinated by their fabulous beauty. I felt like a character of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. A mixture of colourful facades of buildings of varying degrees of preservation, niche shops, small cafes, independent restaurants, noisy bars and cozy streets filled with gapers fascinated by vivid shop windows! All of these create an incredibly exhilarating atmosphere.
Like most districts in London, Seven Dials is full of history. The area was given its name because of the seven streets and because of a column with sundials on it. Confusingly, the column has only six sundials on it. Why? Here is the answer: https://www.sevendials.com/history/seven-dials-history.
A very similar misunderstanding occurred with the name of Neal’s Yard and Neal Street. They were named after local developer Thomas Neale… despite the slight difference in spelling. But anyway, there is a brilliant story behind this place that you can read here: https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/.
The magical atmosphere of these places is so powerful and leaves such a pleasant aftertaste that visiting once, it will forever remain in your heart, believe me, it happened to me. Especially, if your visit occurred during Christmas and you enjoyed marvellous Christmas Lights! If not, it’s ok you can taste it online here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jY7Emmz59NQ, or plan your next visit to London on Christmas time, you will definitely be charmed by street lights!
2. Brick Lane & Columbia Road Flower Market.
I’ve heard about Brick Lane on my first trip to London. However, I did not have a chance to visit it. This time without any doubts I had an intention to go to Brick Lane and discover this piece of London’s Art and surroundings. The street itself, squeezed by rickety houses on each side, is adorned with many small works of street art, and as you walk along with it, you will fall in love with each piece of it. It’s also a bargain hunter’s, foodie’s and fashionista’s paradise, with street food stalls, vintage shopping boutiques, lively bars and independent galleries nearby.
The street was originally called Whitechapel Lane; it is thought that it was renamed because local earth was used by brick and tile manufacturers who set up shop in the street in the 15th century. By the 17th century, the street had also become a popular location for breweries. The famous brewing family, the Trumans, started their business here and you can still see their Black Eagle Brewery on the street. You can find more historical details here: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol27/pp123-126.
The best day for visiting is Sunday because that is the only day when the local street market is open. Of course, there is a story behind it: when it was originally licensed, the local population was predominantly Jewish, so a special dispensation was given for Sunday opening, as the Jewish Sabbath falls on a Saturday and it still remains today. So, if you have a chance to get there don’t spend much time looking for regular stalls selling the kind of stuff you’d expect in a market, spend time in the second-hand stalls instead, because that’s the real charm here. If you still doubt whether it is worth going there or not, here is a short video that will dispel your doubts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itSIHK2pIIQ.
Just a 15-minute walk from Brick Lane there is another gem – Colombia Road Flower Market, that you are going to love because it’s straight-up fabulous. Stacks and stacks of flowers, breaking up the greenery in every colour of the rainbow, from hot red roses to mellow yellow tulips, gorgeous heads of hydrangeas, oriental lilies just about to open up, gypsophila, gerberas, it’s there looking so pretty you could melt. Naturally, the whole market smells pretty amazing too. There’s no better place to be on a Sunday, believe me.
The history behind this place is just like all history of London – fascinating. Columbia Road owes its name to Columbia Market, an enormous neo-Gothic market building and square built-in 1869 to supply food to the poor of the East End. Unpopular with the locals, it was barely used, then converted into workshops, and eventually demolished in the 1950s. The Victorian terrace of compact little shops that you can still see lining Columbia Road today dates back to around the same time. A weekly street market has taken place here, despite the unpopularity of the original market building, since 1869. Here is a fantastic story about this unique place: https://londonist.com/london/history/columbia-road-market.
So, if you would like to recharge yourself deeply but can’t take a vacation, you should definitely spend one Sunday strolling down Brick Lane street, filling your ‘inner artist’ with wonderful street masterpieces and enjoying the festive atmosphere of street markets, especially Columbia flower market. Even on the coldest, greyest days, this area has a special vibe, as stallholders keep up a lively patter, locals bump into friends old and new, and street musicians provide an upbeat soundtrack to the proceeding. To immerse yourself in the laid-back vibe of this place, let’s watch this 5-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VUKriwIHOI.
3. Notting Hill & Little Venice
I will start with Notting Hill area which is well-known thanks to the annual Notting Hill Carnival and the eponymous movie nineties rom-com starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Now it is one of London’s most desirable and Instagrammable area with iconic pastel-coloured houses and a thriving Portobello market. You can find everything from world-famous events and restaurants, to cutting-edge theatres in Notting Hill. Perhaps you’ll even meet a film star in a travel book shop.
However, although Notting Hill is now renowned for being cool and sought after, it has not always been so fashionable. For much of its history, Notting Hill (or Notting Dale, one of the earlier names for the area) was a rural suburb of London and was avoided by the wealthy because it was run down with a poor reputation. In fact, in its early history and right up until the late 19th century, Notting Hill was home to potters and pig farmers and was known as the Potteries and Piggeries! Since that time the diversity has changed several times and with the benefit of such a central location, as London property prices have risen in recent decades, many streets in Notting Hill have become home to a wealthier section of its population. For more historical facts take a look here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=4ff73663758342d8a3258b3c4745235a.
The Notting Hill atmosphere is exceptional, particularly in May when Wisteria drapes the facades of colourful townhouses standing in a row along the main street, or in August during lively Carnival. However, other things at other time will surely take your breath away too. Along the Portobello Road, there are such as charming clothing stores, antiques shops and stalls, fresh food and local crafts, top-notch pubs and lovely small cafes. If you like to huddle in a crowd of people, I suggest visiting Notting Hill on Saturday. You will dive into the lively atmosphere of Portobello Market with a wide selection of items, cheap food stalls, antiques and bric-a-brac. Everything from the clothing stores to the cafés is intimate, well-curated businesses bursting with the character here. For a little more familiarity with the area, I recommend watching this 8-minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czO759xQopw.
Just a 25-minute walk from Portobello Market there is an absolutely gorgeous place called Little Venice. This is a series of tree-lined canals that tourists usually miss during their London trip. What makes Little Venice unique is that it is completely unlike anywhere else in the city: vivid canal boats roam the waterways, and many serve as tearooms and cafes. Afternoon tea or brunch on a London canal boat – does it get more memorable than that?
The story behind the name ‘Little Venice’ is quite controversial. Its origin sometimes attributed to the Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning who lived in this area back in the 19th century. Browning spent part of his life in Italy and died near Venice and the small island in the middle of the Little Venice Pool is named after him. However, in a letter dated 1966, Lord Kinross stated that it was Lord Byron who wrote that there would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington. So, there is no hard evidence for neither Browning nor Byron origin, but Byron’s story seems to be more plausible. If you want to figure out this story yourself, take a look: https://www.discoverbritainmag.com/little-venice/.
One of the loveliest things to do here is simply watching the boats go by, or you can take a boat ride if you wish. There are various types of boat trips, but most involve floating down the canal on a barge, listening to the history of the area. If you are not into boat stuff, you can simply chill out in one of the wonderful little cafes. If you are a theatre lover, you should definitely visit the Canal Café theatre or the Puppet theatre. What else? The atmosphere! Little Venice has a peaceful vibe with lots of quaint and colourful things, cute independent stores and very friendly people around. All you need is to just relax and enjoy!
And as usual, if you need video evidence, you can check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC7ua-QgU0Y. This is just a 4-minute video about the Little Venice area.
Let’s just summarize a little. As you already understood, these places have a special vibe that, when you feel it one day, you will never forget and will enjoy their smell and taste for the rest of your life.
I feel I can’t stop writing about London gems. It is just like building or repairing a house, when you can’t finish it, you can only stop it. So, I’m going to stop here and continue to tempt you in my next articles. Check my blog regularly: https://www.katiaknows.com/blog/. I hope you will enjoy it!
To be continued…