London: Off the Beaten Path

If any traveler, armchair or otherwise, feels they have exhausted the possibilities of London—one of the world’s most historic and sprawling cities—several recent guides have focused on the lesser-known aspects of one of the planet’s most fascinating destinations.

Secret London, An Unusual Guide is one in a series of “local guides by local people” from by Jonglez Publishing. While dealing with some of the lesser-known aspects of major attractions (such as the Triforium at St. Paul’s cathedral which provides a “secret history of a London landmark”), the compact illustrated volume primarily takes readers way off the beaten path.

And the variety is astonishing, from Henry VIII’s wine cellar, located “deep within the bowels of the Ministry of Defense,” to a Cinema Museum in Kensington housed in a former Lambeth workhouse where a nine-year-old Charlie Chaplin once labored. An exhibit of playwright Joe Orton’s famously (and lewdly) defaced library books can be seen at the Local History Centre at the Finsbury Library in Islington.

Like most London guides, Secret London is divided by district. Maps and suggestions for unusual bars, cafes, and restaurants are included. Detailed instructions for finding each sometimes quite secret destination are provided.

Another guide to a once-illegal but now-hardly-secret aspect of London life is Gay and Lesbian London (Time Out Group Ltd., 2010), which conforms to the usual district-by-district form of most city guides, but with a focus on the interests of the GLBT visitor or native. But really, anyone interested in the “in” and off-beat aspects of London would find this volume of interest.

The guide includes interesting personal perspectives by prominent Londoners. But a highlight is a fascinating history of gay London which takes you from the Celts and Romans through various royal and artistic affairs to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1962 and contemporary icons such as Orton and Elton John. Depressingly (but conscientiously), the guide opens with a full-page cautionary essay on the history of AIDs in London.

Guides quickly become out-of-date, but another Time Out publication, London 2012, doubles as an official (and now historic) memento of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with maps and features on the Cultural Olympiad and Olympic Park.

Hands-down, however, my favorite London book is David Piper’s The Companion Guide to London. Due to the changing character of any great city, this exhaustively detailed and brilliantly written volume has been reissued in various revised editions. But it’s still a London guide/history for all seasons in any revision, and some of the best and most informed travel writing I have ever read.

First published in 1963, my personal copy is the 1996 seventh edition, and you may have to do an interlibrary loan search for a newer reissue.

Cheers!

Ross Care