Medieval ruins and bluebell forests? 30 Minutes from Central London? Sign me up!
This year I promised myself I’d really delve into London’s unseen secrets, and that’s how I found myself crossing Abbey Road… but not the one you’d think! It was less 70s album cover and more abbey ruins, woods with bluebells and more dogs than you can shake a stick at.
No, you haven’t been transported to the set of yet another grim medieval fantasy show, this is actually within easy reach of London and you can explore to your heart’s content. What I loved was imagining the monks going about their daily lives. While most of the walls have long ago fallen, the abbey layout remains intact so it’s like starting a Sims game – wondering how you’d decorate and which room went where. Otherwise, the main activities I saw were playing hide and seek, family picnics and dog walking; there’s also a cute cafe selling lovely slices of banana bread.
Here’s the TL:DR take on the history – the abbey was originally built around 1180 and everything was fine and dandy until Henry VIII couldn’t keep it in his pants so all the monks and monasteries had to go.
I can’t believe the place hasn’t been transformed in apartments. At the moment it’s 30 minutes from London Bridge, but once Crossrail opens you’ll make it to Abbey Woods in 12 minutes from central London. That’s basically prime location.
If/when the apartments come I hope the mulberry tree survives – planted by King James I (well, his entourage), it looks so old it makes Pocahontas’s Grandmother Willow look like Baby Groot.
Once you’re all abbey-ed out you should explore the Lesnes Abbey Woods – ancient woodland carpeted with bluebells and other natural wonders – you’ll forget you’re in a huge city until you accidentally walk into someones backgarden.
Do you have any historic city secrets you can share?
Imagine it’s pitch black, loud air sirens are booming and you’re rushing down a endless metal staircase… Having grown up in a war zone bunker – in my case a cellar – this was as normal as your weekly visit your grandparents.
It took me over two years to get tickets for one of London Underground’s Hidden Tours. Tickets go on sale only a few times a year and sell out quicker than a spare tube seat gets taken in the rush hour. I was glad to head down after such a long wait, but it did strike a chord with me and my past back home…
When I booked the tickets I didn’t read into it too much so I thought we’d be seeing a closed off platform at a station, but it turned out this was a massive underground complex specifically built for the Blitz – bombing attacks of the UK by Germany from 1940-1941, there was a LOT to see and you could have easily got lost with the guides.
The tour guides show you around the little underground village that includes a medical station, a canteen that dished out top notch sandwiches and tea, and a recreational area (apparently getting frisky was probably the only sports activity ;). The shelters housed up 10,000 people so you can imagine it wasn’t just a place to stroll in. If your house was destroyed or if you were visiting London you could get a ticket. To get in you needed a pass with a bed number and each bed was allocated to a specific person, plus it was BYOB (Bring Your Own Bedding).
The first time was scary and no one knew what happened, but overtime it got … almost boring. I hated them during the day because it meant we had to stop our hide and seek or tag game, I was scared of them when I was at school or on my way to school as I was away from my mom and brother, but when they came at night it meant I didn’t have to sleep and could play with my friends and cousins
Once you walk down the stairs you step into the tunnels that are full and full of the actual beds that people slept on, some are made up and one had a Ludo game on it, something I had actually played during while killing time in what seemed like another life.
Then, it’s a long walk back up to daylight, I was thinking of my mom, my aunt and other people in town. While they were worried in what state the house or the animals would be I was proably more frustrated about the Ludo game I had lost.
After WW2, the underground tunnels became a kind of youth hostel, then it housed labour migrants from the Caribbean and the military before it was turned into archives – all that top-secret info and what not!
What the future holds for the tunnels is unclear (they want to expand), but similar sites are currently being used for mass hydroponics – growing all sorts of vegetables that turn up in the supermarket! To think your shiny orange carrot may have never seen the natural light of day until you take out outside in your shopping basket!
Earlier this year I put together a ‘reverse wander list‘ post – comprising the bucket list worthy things I’ve already done, and as the year’s end draws near I’m more than happy to add another to the list: wandering around empty London a la 28 Days Later.
28 Days Later is hands down one of my favourite horror movies. Nope, not for the zombies, Cillian Murphy or the tense-as-hell soundtrack. But for the empty London. This scene is probably the best in the entire film, I love how they take the idea of a vacant London and turn it into something frightening, despite there not really being any visible scares. If you haven’t seen it, this is the scene. In my head, I had this idea of seeing London when it’s very quiet and (in my head) at its scariest.
For some reason, I thought Christmas morning seemed to be a good idea for that. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
You Will Have To Get Up Super Early For the Full Experience
I got to frosty Westminster Bridge at 8 am and this was already too late, for the full experience (no/minimum other people and no cars) you will have to go for the 3 AM wake-up call. Which is reasonable in Summer, but on a cold December morning I could only justify 6.45 AM.
You Will Run Into People
Of the many scarf-wearing masses, you’ll find photographers and tours chasing for those empty shots – even it if takes 20 mins pinned to the same spot. Add to this mix are the tourists wanting to prove they’ve been in London by cosying up to Big Ben in that postcard perfect photo. Surprisingly, lots of people taking out their dogs – which they probably enjoy that more than any doggy gifts. There are the joggers who – I assume – dream of running through an empty London or prepping for that Christmas meal later the day.
Not Everything Is Closed
London isn’t in an entire lockdown over Christmas: for the sandwich deprived – I spotted two Prets that were open, an Italian place, a cake/coffee spot on Regent Street as well as a few gift shops (don’t worry you still can get that union jack flag magnet) that were open. The most useful thing is probably that you can rent a bike if you want to get from A to B a bit quicker and bus tours seemed to run, oh and though I’m not sure this is a positive – Ripley’s Believe It Or Not was ready for business.
The Side streets are the Best
Forget about vacant Westminster Bridge or completely empty Piccadilly Circus, it’s the little side streets where it started to get interesting and will give you the feel (and photograph) the best. I’ve seen Covent Garden empty early in the morning before, but seeing absolutely no one was there, and finally managing to get on the swing chairs was the highlight of my morning. Plus in the smaller streets, the silence you get is damn right weird – there was no sounds to be heard – which for London is like another world.
Would you want to see (or hear) an empty London?
Now the weather gods are smiling down on us Tea has emerged from hibernation and is actually doing things, here are some favourites you should try – on your next visit to London!
Kikki K – I love Paperchase, but their collections are always a bit hit and miss, which has always been good for my wallet. But then Kikki K landed in London, and I loved the store when I lived in Melbourne. Kikki K has a range of beautiful stationary and organisation items with a minimalist and Scandi vibe. And whether you are looking for a travel journal or wedding guest book, you will find it. They have this Scandi background story, but it’s an Australian brand really. Now can someone bring Typo (another Aussie brand) to the west?
Cereal Killer Café – I know you can make a bowl of cereal at home for 24p, but then again you can make a pizza for £1 at home too (or get it at ALDI!). I recommend you ignore the price and throw a few coins (£3.50) their way to be surrounded by kitsch 80s cereal boxes, a range of special milks in cute bottles and more cereals than you can shake a chocolate coated stick at.
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising – the refurbished museum in Notting Hill is great place to dive in for a few hours. Whereas most London museums are free, this one charges £7.50, but this isn’t too bad. So don some nostalgia shades and go stare at the 12,000+ items on display- you’ll get to see inappropriate war-themed marketing, toys from your childhood (and your mother’s/grandmothers) and there was even a wall of One Direction merchandise (RIP!). And most importantly – you’ll be able to answer the million dollar question – were chocolate bars way bigger when I was a kid?
SMUG – this quirky concept store hidden in Camden Passage in Islington is the place to find beautiful things for the home. They have stuffed their store with must have homeware, stationary and accessories. Make sure you can hold yourself together because this place will make you want to buy everything.
Shake Shack – the New York burger chain made its way to London 3 years ago which means Londoners don’t have to queue up in New York and waste 4/5 hours for one of their delicious burgers. I’m personally not a big fan of their crinkle-cut fries as they tasted like something you can get at Iceland (the store, not the country) but the juicy patties with the shake shack sauce and their milkshakes make up for that. Although the line (at the Convent Garden location) is almost always long, it does move quickly and is worth the wait, though the queing system (with a special plastic fob) did make it feel a bit like Argos or waiting for a doctor’s appointment.
What was the last thing you queued up for?