Step off Fleet Street into Inner Temple and the sounds of the city instantly melt away. Beyond you lies Temple Church — a 12th-century masterpiece that’s about as far removed from London’s “beaten track” as you can get.
The church and its adjoining graveyard are protected by the Goldsmith buildings, meaning that it was almost silent when I visited on a busy Wednesday lunchtime.
The entrance to the church is on the other side of the graveyard, which means you get a secluded view of the church and its 12th-century round to yourself.
Speaking of Goldsmith… Oliver Goldsmith himself is buried in the graveyard, and his gravestone bears a quote from his friend Samuel Johnson, who lived just up the road in Gough Square: “…who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn.”
To add to the charm of the place, there are vegetables growing in a patch in the middle of the graveyard…
The church itself is about as far from a tourist trap as you can get — you could hear a pin drop inside, and the light streaming in through the huge windows makes it seem like the church is glowing.
Behind you is the church round, which was built by the Knights Templar to recreate the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — the holiest place in the world.
The current Magna Carta exhibition in the round is very fitting, since this building served as King John’s headquarters from 1214-1215, and it was here that the barons first confronted him about a charter.
Two of the men who mediated when John eventually signed Magna Carta — including William the Marshal, Earl of Pembroke who was an adviser to King John and regent to Henry III — were also buried here.
Climb to the upper level to get a good view of their effigies, as well as a birds-eye view of the round.
When you’ve soaked it all in, make sure you turn left as you leave the church and cross the square, to stop for a few minutes to admire the vista.
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Any building that makes a group of seasoned London bloggers go ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ must be pretty special. But you don’t have to be very seasoned to appreciate this fascinating pocket of history.
St John’s Gate is home to the Museum of the Order of St John, which tells the story of a monastic order dating back to the 12th-century.
You can visit this small museum (and the Church Cloister Garden across the road) anytime, or if you’ve got 80 minutes to spare then they also run tours of the rest of the building, including the 12th-century crypt.
Here are my highlights from the tour to whet your appetite.
1. St John’s Gate was built in 1504…
The gate was built as part of Clerkenwell Priory (established in 1140) which was the headquarters of the religious Order of St John — known as the Hospitallers.
St John’s Gate would have been the main entrance to the walled inner precinct of the priory; it’s thought that this gate replaced an even older one, which was built in the 1160s.
2. …Before Clerkenwell Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII
You can’t get far in a beautiful building in London without running into this guy, and Henry VIII makes his rather large presence felt yet again at St John’s Gate.
During the reformation, the Order of St John was dissolved and Clerkenwell Priory was seized by the crown — aside from being briefly restored during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, the Order was not to return to the gate for 300 years.
In the time after it was dissolved, though, the gate was put to good use…
3. Shakespeare had some of his plays licensed here
Our tour guide was not kidding when he suggested that this room deep within St John’s Gate was one of the most important rooms in English cultural history.
Back in the 16th century, this was the office of the Master of the Revels — the guy who had the power to grant licences for plays to be performed in public.
He could even ask you to perform some of it (or even the whole thing) for him, so many of the period’s well known plays were performed for the first time here.
And of course, no story about 16th-century culture would be complete without mention of William Shakespeare, who came here for licences for 30 of his plays; it was in this very room that the first performance of Twelfth Night took place.
4. It was once a coffee shop run by William Hogarth’s father
In 1703, Richard Hogarth opened Hogarth’s Coffee House as a place for gentlemen to meet and talk in Latin.
Consequently, William Hogarth grew up in this area, and would later paint the grand staircase at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which now leads from the museum to the Great Hall.
5. Dr Johnson worked here in the 1730s and 40s
Long before he compiled his famous Dictionary or uttered anything about being tired of London, Samuel Johnson (as he was then known) worked as a contributor, translator and editor for The Gentleman’s Magazine, which was established here at St John’s Gate in 1731 and based in the same room as the Master of the Revels office above.
Several of Johnson’s books were also printed here; join a guided tour and they’ll show you the spot where Johnson’s desk would have been. Other connections to the 18th-century culture include the actor David Garrick’s first public London performance, and the printing of Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity.
To complement this part of the building’s history, a first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary and some of his other work is on display in the museum.
6. The Jerusalem Tavern was based here (which was a favourite of Charles Dickens)
From the 1700s until the 1870s, the gate served as a tavern, known as the Old Gate, the St John’s Gate Tavern, the Jerusalem Tavern or Old Jerusalem Tavern. A fireplace from the original tavern still lives in the gate.
During this time, the gate started to change shape; the battlements were pulled down in the 1760s, probably because they were unsafe, and a double entrance was removed in 1771 to ease traffic. More work was done in the 1800s.
Much of the building we see today is a Victorian reconstruction, as the original Tudor buildings had decayed so much that the Watson family — who owned the gate at the time — were faced with either repairing it or pulling it down.
7. The crypt is the only part of the original priory to have survived from the 12th century
Go on a guided tour around St John’s Gate and you’ll also get to see the crypt, which is the only part of the complex to have survived everything that the rest of it has been through.
You can’t get much quieter than an underground crypt, even on a tour, and you’ll also get to hear why there is no one buried down here.
8. And The Church Cloister Garden is pretty special, too
The monks of the old priory would have grown herbs here and the space is now a walled garden open for the public to enjoy.
Take a pew on one of the benches and take in the view of the old church and galley that line the walls.
9. You might recognise the crosses dotted around the building…
In 1887 the Order of St John were able to return to the gate, and this has been their headquarters ever since.
They even still have the same motto that the Knights Hospitaller chose 900 years ago: ‘For the Faith and in the Service of Humanity’, and they take this objective very seriously…
The Order’s full title is The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and is itself an international charity with two charitable foundations: the St John Eye Hospital Group in Jersalem and St John’s Ambulance.
While on a tour, look out for the eight-pointed cross on a black background, which you might recognise from the St John’s Ambulance logo.
St John’s Gate: the essentials
Opening times: 10am-5pm, Monday-Saturday (plus Sundays in July, August and September)
Kenwood House in Hampstead (otherwise known as The Iveagh Bequest) has been more than a little elusive to me for just over a year. Neoclassical villas as lovely as this should be seen illuminated by sunshine (or at least decent daylight) however, the British weather has kept me from capturing its full beauty.
I still haven’t managed to get many decent photos of the inside, but I have found out a lot about some of the people who have made Kenwood House what it is today, and I can’t think of a better way to tell you about the house than to tell you about them.
Aside from Lord Iveagh’s art collection (see below), much of what we admire at Kenwood House today is the work of the architect and designer Robert Adam, who was employed alongside his brother James by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, to decorate Kenwood between 1767 and 1779.
“[Lord Mansfield] gave full scope to my ideas: nor were they confined by any circumstances, but the necessity of preserving the proper exterior similitude between the new and the old parts of the buildings.”
Robert Adam, The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam
One of Adam’s most striking designs is undoubtedly the library, which is regarded as one of his finest works; it was intended both to house Lord Mansfield’s vast collection of books and also to be the climax of a visitor’s route through the house.
Adam was so proud of Kenwood’s library that he featured it alongside masterpieces such as Syon House in The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam.
Adam also designed much of the Mansfields’ furniture at Kenwood and there are still examples of his designs dotted around today, including the sideboard, pedestals and wine cooler that can be seen in the modern-day entrance hall (above).
And not forgetting Adam’s changes to the outside of the building, which included the stunning portico on the south front (pictured above). This covers the earlier brick building and hints at the grand interiors that awaited Lord Mansfield’s guests.
Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh
Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (of the Guinness Breweries family) bought Kenwood House in 1925 to house part of his collection of paintings, with the intention of leaving it all to the nation in his will. When he died two years later, he bequeathed 63 paintings to Kenwood and stipulated that the house should be opened to the public so that some of his most treasured paintings could be enjoyed by everyone.
The 63 paintings that Lord Iveagh left are still displayed and conserved at Kenwood by English Heritage and include Rembrandt’s self-portrait — bought for £27,500 in 1888 — and other works by Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough, which are all still available to see and enjoy for free.
Born in 1761, Dido Belle (pictured above left with her cousin) was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved black woman called Maria Bell. It’s believed that Dido was conceived during one of her father’s trips to Jamaica as an Royal Navy officer.
Dido, Maria and her stepfather were living in London by 1766, before Dido was moved to Kenwood House to be raised by Lord Mansfield, her father’s uncle. By this time, her mother had moved back to Jamaica.
While records of her annual allowance suggest that her status within the household was below that of the rest of her family at Kenwood, Dido was raised as a lady. She was taught to read, write and play music, and supervised Kenwood’s dairy — a task normally given to the lady of the house.
As a mixed-race gentlewoman living in London at the height of the slave trade, Dido’s status within the house was extremely unusual for the time. Visitors to the house commented on her closeness to her cousin Elizabeth; in the only known painting of Dido (above) she is dressed in expensive clothes like her cousin, however, the fruit she carries and her turban suggest that she is still considered different.
Her uncle’s will left Dido with less inheritance than her cousin, although this may have also been because she was illegitimate.
According to her father’s obituary, Dido’s personality and skills gained ‘the highest respect from all his Lordship’s relations and visitants’. She never returned to Jamaica; instead, she moved to Pimlico where she lived with her husband and three children until her death in 1804.
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield
The second of our notable Kenwood residents is Dido Belle’s great uncle (and Robert Adam’s patron) William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who bought the house for £4,000 in 1754.
Lord Mansfield became Lord Chief Justice shortly after acquiring the house and, as the most important judge in the country, he made sure the house reflected his own increasing wealth and status. He was known as an entertainer and Kenwood provided the perfect backdrop to host fellow lawyers, politicians, artists and — according to the artist William Birch — King George III and Queen Charlotte.
But among Lord Mansfield’s most prominent achievements was his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade. As Lord Chief Justice he presided over landmark court cases in the history of slavery and the slave trade. These included the case of James Somerset 1772, in which he ruled that slaves could not be sent out of England against their will.
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was still 61 years away, but Lord Mansfield’s ruling is widely held to be one of the key moments in the road to the end of the transatlantic slave trade.
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“It is a place where one can forget the hurly-burly of London … and sense a respect for the craftsmanship, imagery and colour of a less shallow era than our own.”
Article in Antique Collector, August 1937
Walk up to the imposing gates of Burgh House just off Flask Walk in Hampstead High Street and you might expect stories of the people who have lived here and perhaps a potted history of the building. But what you get is something more refreshing, accessible and fascinating for anyone with an interest in London history.
I visit a lot of historic houses in London — I’ve even volunteered at this one. They all show you a different side of London, and Burgh House adds the history of Hampstead to the mix.
The history of Burgh House
The house itself has all the style and grace that you’d expect from an 18th-century Hampstead home. It was built in 1704 in what was then fashionable Hampstead Wells, on land that was reclaimed from Hampstead Heath. Over its 300-year history, it has been inhabited by everyone from politicians and physicians to West India merchants and the Royal East Middlesex Militia — but it’s Burgh House’s place in Hampstead’s community history that has long been its outstanding feature.
When John Keats was dying in nearby Well Walk (now Keats House), Israel Lewis — the house’s longest resident — sent fruit ‘of the nicest kind’ from the Burgh House orchard.
Frequent visitors to the house have included Samuel Wesley, the future Edward VIII and The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling — Kipling’s daughter, Elsie Bambridge, lived here with her husband. Elsie later wrote:
“Our life in the delightful old house and garden in Hampstead was a source of happiness to my father to the end of his life.”
Elsie Bambridge, daughter of Rudyard Kipling
But the residents of Burgh House were not always so renowned. The Rev. Allatson Burgh — who lived here between 1822 and 1856 — was so unpopular at his church of St. Lawrence Jewry that his parishioners tried to have him removed by petitioning Queen Victoria. Samuel Wesley’s description of Burgh is my favourite part of this story: ‘an odd fellow … and as diverting as Punch’.
Burgh House today
After Kipling’s death in 1936, the Bambridges left Burgh House and it was left to dilapidate until 1946, when Hampstead council announced plans to turn it into a museum.
After a shaky few years in the 1970s, when celebrities including Judi Dench had to be called in to help save it from developers, the house was saved by the newly-formed Burgh House Trust and restored into the beautiful house we see today.
The house and museum are now a celebration of Hampstead’s rise from a settlement for forest hunters in 7000 BC to a luxury haven in the present day.
Key events in the area’s history, including its use as a Tudor hunting ground and the London Underground’s stint as an air raid shelter in the second world war, are brought to life via tiny models (the lovely kind you only see in local museums), images and a collection of 3,000 objects.
The Buttery Cafe is probably one of the best historic house cafes I’ve been to in London — as well as the usual tea, coffee and cakes you’d expect, they also have a brunch/lunch menu full of locally-sourced, homemade food. The sweet potato hash was enough to tempt even my carnivore other-half (whose chorizo version was made with free-range pork) and I’d walk over hot coals to taste their hot chocolate again.
I hear their Sunday lunches are incredible, too — but you’ll have to beat me there…
Opening times: Wednesday, Thursday Friday and Sunday:12pm-5pm
The site of The Charterhouse in Smithfield, London, has been a burial ground, a monastery, a private Tudor mansion, a school and an almshouse. It was used by both Elizabeth I and James I to conduct business before their respective coronations, and appears in works by Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
And, for 2017, it’s added another string to its bow — it’s opened its doors to visitors and has a shiny new museum to show for it.
The museum opened on 27th January and tells the story of the site from the present day back to 1348, when it was used as a burial ground for plague victims. It’s small (and free) but packed with artefacts that are linked to the building’s history or that have been excavated — including the skeleton of an unfortunate plague victim on the way out.
Tours of the rest of the building — including the Great Chamber where Elizabeth I held court and the Tudor mansion — take place three times a day. Unfortunately, I missed the tours this time — book in advance as they’re very popular — but watch this space for a review when I’ve made it on one…
You don’t have to battle the crowds in South Kensington for the best and most beautiful free museums in London; the capital is replete with quieter, unique places to explore that won’t cost a penny to visit. Here are 25 of my favourites.
Note: While these London museums are officially ‘free’, some do ask for a small donation on the way out to help them continue their work. So if you enjoyed it, pop them whatever you can afford to say thanks.
The Wallace Collection, Marylebone
The Wallace Collection was one of the first quiet places I visited when I moved to London, so it’s kind of special for me. Set in Hertford House, a beautiful central London town house, The Wallace Collection is made up of 18th and 19th-century works of art.
Opening times: 10am-5pm daily, including bank holidays
As the name suggests, this historic house in Walthamstow charts the life and work of the famous interiors artist William Morris. The building was Morris’s family home during his school years and is now dedicated to his contribution to the arts and crafts movement of the 19th century.
Highlights include the stunning gardens, the rooms dedicated to his relationships and socialism, and of course the tea room (where you can buy possibly the biggest scones in north London).
Opening times: 10am-5pm, Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays
Burgh House holds 300 years of history, having been built during the reign of Queen Anne. It’s also the location for Hampstead Museum, which charts the area’s development from a settlement for forest hunters in 7000 BC to a luxury haven in the present day.
Opening times: 12pm-5pm, Wednesday to Friday and Sunday
Commissioned by Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge was built in 1543. Typically of Henry, it was built to be grander than anything that had come before: it was known as the ‘Great Standing’, owing to the fact that it was the only three-floor standing in England. There’s no evidence that Great Harry ever visited, but there’s an intriguing legend linking the building with his daughter (and its namesake)…
Valentines Mansion, a stunning 17th century house in Valentines Park, Ilford, was built for Elizabeth Tillotson, the widow of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1696. Added-to and renovated in Georgian times, it stood empty for 15 years before being transformed again into the house you can visit (for free!) today.
Opening times: Tuesday and Sunday (closed every winter until February)
If you love peering into pretty living rooms on Pinterest, then take a trip to Hoxton and The Geffrye Museum of the Home where you can indulge your passion for interiors (and see another, more down-to-earth side of Hoxton).
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm Bank Holiday Mondays
The 13th-century Bethlem Royal Hospital was the first UK institution to specialise in the care of the mentally ill continues to provide care today. This unique free museum within the hospital buildings charts the lives and accomplishments of those with mental health problems.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Wednesday to Friday (except public holidays) and the first and last Saturday of the month
When Michael Faraday took over this lab in the basement of the Royal Institution in the 1820s, he probably didn’t realise that it would be turned into a museum dedicated to his legacy almost 200 years later. But so it was, and the collection now includes many exhibits that were used by Faraday himself, including the electromagnet above, which was used in an experiment to show that light and glass are affected by magnetism.
Opening times: 9am-6pm Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays)
This small but perfectly formed (and free) museum in UCL’s buildings houses everything from a penguin skeleton to half a cat and a corner of insects; all from London Zoo, The Hunterian Museum and Imperial College London.
Not strictly a museum, but one of the finest (and oldest) historical buildings in London. The Guildhall was the setting for Lady Jane Grey’s trial as well as many other medieval defendants, and sits on top of a Roman amphitheatre.
Nowadays it’s used for state and civic banquets, as well as being the home of the City of London Corporation, and its great hall, art gallery and the amphitheatre can all be visited for free.
Opening times: 10am-4.30pm daily (not open on Sundays during the winter)
St Bartholomew’s Hospital has been treating the sick for almost 900 years and is now one of the world’s most prestigious museums. The museum of the same name is hidden beneath Henry VIII’s statue in the Hospital’s North Wing and includes hundreds of medical artefacts, surgical equipment, 12th-century documents, art and uniforms charting nine centuries of medical history.
As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to the history of dentistry. Among its 30,000-piece collection are Waterloo teeth (teeth taken from bodies from the Battle of Waterloo and sold as dentures) and some vintage public health information films and posters.
East London’s version of the Natural History Museum is a bit out of the way, but you don’t have to go into central London to visit it. Get your fill of natural history in a quieter setting at this Forest Hill gem.
Its big sister may be packed come weekends, but the V&A Museum of Childhood should be far enough away from central London to put off rowdy tourists. As its name suggests, this collection in Bethnal Green charts the evolution of everything from intricate Victorian dolls houses and paintings to Lego and He-Man – and even the trusty space hopper.
The third natural history museum on the list and probably the lesser-known. This small but full-to-the-brim museum contains thousands of jarred specimens and skeletons: everything from the 7ft 7ins ‘Irish Giant’, human brains and a plaster cast of Isaac Newton’s death mask.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday (CLOSED 20th May 2017 until summer 2020)
The Royal London Hospital Museum was founded in 1740 and, like St Bart’s, it has a museum dedicated to its history. Highlights (for want of a better word) include a carbon arc lamp used to give ultraviolet light treatment to King George V in 1928 and a replica of a hat and veil worn by Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) who stayed at the hospital.
Opening times: 10am-4.30pm Tuesday to Friday (closed over Christmas, New Year, Easter and public holidays)
The Petrie Museum’s website promises that it’s the ‘one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world’ and the 80,000 ancient artefacts in University College London would certainly take some beating. It’s hard to believe this packed series of rooms is free to visit but free it is.
Maybe it’s the fact that its huge collection has been left untouched, exactly as Sir John Soane left it, for over 180 years. Maybe it’s Londoners’ love of eccentric obsession. Either way, this time capsule charting one man’s love of art continues to gain in popularity.
If you can get in, you’ll be treated to an extraordinary collection of artwork from world-famous artists such as Hogarth, Turner and Canaletto.
Freemasonry might not be at the top of every London bucket list, but dig a bit deeper into this central London gem (it’s just round the corner from Holborn and a short walk from Covent Garden) to see items belonging to popular figures such as Winston Churchill and Edward VII.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Monday to Friday except public holidays
Its Painted Hall — designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor — has been described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK,’ so there’s at least one reason to visit this south-east London landmark if you haven’t already. On show in the visitor centre are Tudor objects excavated from the old Greenwich Palace, the secret of Greenwich’s own nuclear reactor, and the history of the site as a refuge for old and injured sailors.
Winter opening times: 10am-5pm daily
Nearest station: Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich