Standing on the Southbank and staring across the shimmering River Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral is undoubtedly one of the London experiences. But if you want to find the hidden London, you need to step back. Away from the shiny skyscrapers that hover over the old river, and back in time. Through the Victorian tunnels that snake southward. Past ancient streets that whisper stories of Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens.
So, what do you say? Shall we go for a bike ride?
You can pick up your bike in front of the London Bicycle Repair Shop on Hatfields. Just round the corner from Southwark Tube Station. Once you’re all set, ride down to The Cut, home of the world famous Old Vic theatre, and then take a left. With the tube station on your left, you want to take a right onto Blackfriars Road, cycling away from the Thames and the bridge which shares the same name. At the fabulously named Laughing Gravy pub, take a left onto Webber Street.
Ride all the way along Webber Street until you hit the junction with Great Suffolk Street. This is quite a long bike ride, so you might want to grab something to eat at this point for some energy. Besides, our first hidden London tour stop is a great place for a picnic! On your right you’ll see there’s a place called El Vergel. It’s a lovely South American cafe that sells empanadas and steak sandwiches. Yeah, I thought you’d like the sound of that.
Hidden London greenery
Ok, empanadas/sandwiches tucked into your bag, let’s get back on the bike. Ride up Southwark Bridge Road and around Mint Street Park on your right. Then you need to take a quick turn onto Marshalsea Road, before taking a left onto Ayres Street. From here you can access the secret oasis of peace that is Red Cross Garden.
Created in the late 19th century, this beautiful space is the epitome of hidden London. It’s the kind of place that can lift you out of the centre of one of the busiest cities on earth and into the countryside. If only for a few minutes. It’s much loved by locals and those who work in the area. Especially in the spring and summer.
There are quite a few of these spaces in the neighbourhoods of Southwark and Borough. Trinity Church Square to the south is another idyllic, secluded place that’s well worth a visit. The church comes complete with a statue of Alfred the Great out front, which is said to have once stood at the old Westminster Hall in the late 14th century.
The Borough of Charles Dickens
Either on the way to Trinity Church Square, or on the way back, there’s another piece of London history hidden away from view. On Borough High Street, just next to John Harvard Library, is a little alleyway. The old wall on the right-hand side is all that remains of the old Marshalsea prison. In the early 19th century, this place was notorious as a prison for those who couldn’t pay their debts. Charles Dickens’ father was sent there, and the author wrote about it a lot in his novels. Particularly in Little Dorrit.
From the setting for Little Dorrit and David Copperfield, we’re moving east to Bermondsey. If you didn’t eat before and feel like stopping somewhere in Borough first, there are two great pubs nearby that do food. The Libertine on Great Suffolk Street has a fantastic selection of pizzas, while The Gladstone on Lant Street specializes in pie and mash – if you’re in the mood for something a bit more local.
The secret space of Bermondsey
Hop back on the bike and ride all the way down Long Lane until you get to Bermondsey Street on your left. If you go to Bermondsey Street now, you’d find it hard to believe that not too long ago it had a reputation for being “a bit rough round the edges”. It’s now a hipster hangout and full of some of the most talked of places to eat and drink (especially coffee) in the city. There are simply too many options for food and drink to post here, but suffice to say it might be worth locking the bike up for a bit and trying one or two places. Check out this article and decide where you want to hang out.
Sorry, what’s that? Bermondsey Street isn’t secluded enough for you for an article titled ‘Hidden London’? Right, okay. Ride all the way to the top of the street and take a right onto Holyrood Street. On your left is a tiny path called Gibbon’s Rent.
This is the kind of place that you would struggle to find by accident, and be pretty amazed by if you did. It’s a community garden, with greenery as far as the eye can see. You’re actively encouraged to bring plants yourself, or to water the ones that are there.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a library?
Yes, a library. Outside.
The idyllic ruins of St Dunstan-in-the-East
From one of the least known places in London, we’re riding to one of its most famous landmarks. Head to Tooley Street and then take a left onto Tower Bridge Road. That’s right. We’re riding over Tower Bridge! It’s a pretty cool feeling to ride somewhere that you’ve seen so many times on the TV and in films. Enjoy the view!
North of the river, keep left and follow the traffic round to Byward Street. A little further down, get off the bike and cross over the street until you arrive at the tranquillity of St Dunstan-in-the-East Church. This place is well up there in my list of hidden London locations. It’s been through quite a lot. It was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was then bombed almost 300 years later in the Second World War. But it wasn’t rebuilt. Instead it was turned into the public garden space you see today. Have a look around and take a seat on one of the benches by the fountain. Within a few minutes you won’t hear the sound of the traffic anymore. I promise.
The Great Fire of 1666 started not far from there. The Monument to the fire is nearby. It was built where the fire began and is well worth a visit. For £4.50 you can climb the tight, spiralled staircase and admire the view from the top.
Borough Market delicacies
From one famous bridge to another. Just down from The Monument is London Bridge. We’re heading south again!
The area just over London Bridge is one of the most ancient parts of the city. It’s impossible not to feel the history there. To your right you’ve got Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market. There’s been a food market there for a thousand years, and it remains one of the most vibrant places in the city. You can eat whatever you feel like, from English to Ethiopian. The hardest part is often deciding what you’re going to choose!
From Borough Market, navigate the Victorian arches and paths that lead west toward the Tate Modern. Park Street will take you the whole way there. You’ll arrive at the back of the gallery by the new extension. Exploring this new part of the gallery, and the fact that, like all museums and galleries in London, it’s free, is more than enough reason to lock up the bike and pop inside for an hour. From the front of the Tate Modern, the view over the river to St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the loveliest in the city.
London’s hidden past and present
From the Tate, head along Southwark Street and back down toward where we picked up the bike earlier. But wait. We’re not quite done yet. There’s one last hidden London delight to enjoy. Roupell Street is a magical street of terraced houses that will make you think you’ve travelled back in time a couple of hundred years. The houses are all the same, but each door is a different colour. Oh, and the local pub isn’t bad either. If you’re thirsty and fancy a pint after the ride, this is a good spot.
I know what you’re thinking. And I haven’t forgotten. Somewhere to buy something sweet, right? Head to the end of Roupell Street and you’ll find a lovely cake shop called Konditor & Cook.
Better? OK, now we can take the bike back!
I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring hidden London with me. Be sure to check back in the future for other London routes. You can find some others I’ve written about Barcelona here, too.
All photos taken by Tom Cross