Matt Brown, London author and editor-at-large of Londonist.com, walks us through his suggestions for finding peace and quiet in the usually hectic areas of Holborn and Bloomsbury.
Begin in Leather Lane near Chancery Lane tube.
Leather Lane gets very busy at lunch time. Its many food shops pull in crowds from a wide area, and it might well be the least peaceful place in Holborn. Take in the clatter and the chatter while you can, for we’re heading into more harmonious spaces.
Grab a burrito or salad box, and duck into Brookes Market. It’s just metres from the bustle of Leather Lane, but a world away in atmosphere. No longer a market, the small square offers a half dozen benches beneath a grove of plane trees. Few know about it, and you can often eat in relative seclusion.
Leave the market through the alleyway in the north-west corner, itself a quiet cutting that bypasses the noise of Holborn. Cross Gray’s Inn Road at the Zebra crossing and head into Gray’s Inn through the arch.
The Inns of Court — historic campuses for the legal professions — are happy hunting grounds for those seeking a quiet spot. Gray’s Inn is no exception.
I like to head to the largest of its spaces, a lawned avenue, which is open to the public over lunch time. The benches along the walkway soon fill up, so head to the seating that’s set back on the lawns or, better yet, the hidden-away plant beds in the north-east corner.
Leave Gray’s Inn by one of the southern exits onto High Holborn. Cross over and head a little way down Chancery Lane to find the Silver Vaults on the left.
London Silver Vaults
One of London’s true hidden gems — almost literally — can be found in a glittering labyrinth beneath Chancery Lane. The Silver Vaults are freely accessed from Southampton Buildings. This argent marketplace contains dozens of small shops, all peddling items made from silver. You don’t need a big budget to shop here — commemorative spoons can be picked up for as little as £20. The subterranean location makes for a surreal, and peaceful, browsing experience.
Head back up to the street and cut down one of the alleyways into Lincoln’s Inn. Pass through the Inn — another serene place — and out into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The Hunterian Museum is to the south.
Guides to ‘hidden London’ always tell you to go to the Sir John Soane’s Museum, as though it’s still a big secret. Leave it to the tourists and instead head across the square to the much quieter Hunterian Museum (read a review here), which lurks within the Royal College of Surgeons building. This free medical museum contains a peerless collection of anatomical curiosities, including the skeleton of a giant and the supposed finger of a yeti.
Recross the square and take the oddly named Great Turnstile onto Holborn. Cross and head down Red Lion Street.
Time for a drink. The Holborn area has no shortage of superb pubs, but most of them get pretty busy. The Dolphin, by contrast, always has an air of calm, as though time has stopped somewhere in the mid-20th century and is in no hurry to get going again. The impression is reinforced by the ancient clock, whose hands never waver from 10.40. It hasn’t been repaired since a Zeppelin bomb smashed into the pub during the First World War.
Cross Theobalds Road, follow Lambs Conduit Street, then head west on Great Ormond Street to Queen Square.
St George the Martyr
Now here’s a rare discovery: a quiet and charming cafe so near to the British Museum. This Georgian church goes beyond matters spiritual with a fully stocked cafe. Most of the seating area is within the nave itself. Rarely busy, this must count as one of the city’s most relaxing cafes.
Head out to Southampton Row, then Russell Square, and reach the British Museum via the quieter back entrance on Montague Place.
British Museum’s Japan Gallery
The British Museum is one of the busiest buildings in the known universe, so it might seem an odd addition to this list of tranquil spots. But not all rooms here are awash with visitors. In particular, the Japanese galleries on the uppermost floor are surprisingly peaceful and contemplative. If you visit during off-peak hours, you might even find you have them to yourself. Look out for the exquisite netsuke, small carved toggles for holding together capes.
Leave by the Montague Place exit, and head north along Russell Square to reach the Brunei Gallery.
Keep the eastern theme going by visiting the secret roof garden on top of The Brunei Gallery — part of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies. I say ‘secret’, but it’s been here for 15 years now, and is reasonably well known among those who appreciate such things.
The Japanese-inspired garden is light on plants and heavy on decorative stones and water features. You won’t find a quieter spot in central London. The garden can be freely visited during the Brunei Gallery’s normal opening hours.
Return to Russell Square, head along the northern edge, then continue along Bernard Street. Turn left up Brunswick Square, then right along Handel Street.
St George’s Garden
A garden of a very different persuasion now awaits you. St George’s comprises two former burial grounds, which once served St George’s Bloomsbury and St George the Martyr, where we stopped for coffee earlier. In a curious feature, a line of broken gravestones marks the division between the interment plots of these two parishes.
You won’t find anyone famous buried here — the closest thing is Oliver Cromwell’s granddaughter. You will find plenty of squirrels and birds to befriend.
Leave the garden by the northern exit.
Regent Square Garden and Lumen church
We finish in what, for my money, is one of the more peculiar squares of London. Look around and you soon spot unusual features: a fading ghost sign, a sculpture of tiny birds hiding up a plane tree and the lone bollard, serving no purpose in the centre of the lawn. Regent Square has a macabre history, including two gruesome murders and heavy bombing in the Second World War. Today, it’s a calm place — a backwater of Bloomsbury that few trouble to visit.
Finish your walk in the adjacent Lumen church, which boasts a modern cafe with a distinctive architectural feature that recreates a shaft of light in concrete. You won’t have seen anything quite like it.
More quiet London area guides
- 14 quiet places in Bloomsbury and Russell Square
- 9 quiet places to visit in Holborn, Temple and Fleet Street
- 9 quiet places near Soho and Oxford Street (yes, it’s possible…)