DEREK ROBERTSON, JULY 2017
London has a lot of history. Nearly 2000 years in fact. Founded by the Romans, who named it Londinium, the city has seen and survived fires, plagues, floods, and wars, emerging stronger each time. The history of the city is the history of western civilization in microcosm, and makes the capital what it is today – a vibrant melting pot of people and cultures, a great heaving metropolis that’s home to nearly 9 million people speaking over 300 languages. And despite rapid gentrification and urban development, London has managed to hold on to some precious historical spots. So get off the beaten track and learn about some of the historical twists that shaped this great city and its people.
Churchill’s War RoomsWorld War II was probably the United Kingdom’s greatest hour, so it was no surprise when Winston Churchill was crowned the Greatest Briton in a national BBC poll back in 2002. And hidden deep beneath the streets of Westminster are the War Rooms, the underground bunkers built to allow Churchill and his government to work safely and plot the war effort against Hitler and the Nazis. Immaculately preserved, they’re open to the public, and look exactly as they did when they were last used in 1945; the Cabinet Room, with Churchill’s chair at the head, the Map Room, where troop movement was plotted, and the cupboard housing the secure line Churchill used to call Franklin D. Roosevelt. The country was saved from here; no other historical site comes close to matching its importance.
Highgate CemetryOf all the cemeteries one might visit, Highgate Cemetry is by far the creepiest and most infamous. As well as being the final resting place of Karl Marx, sci-fi author Douglas Adams, and music mogul Malcolm McLaren, its use as a location by Hammer horror films in the 1970s led to grave robbing, desecrations, and sightings of “vampires”. Known as the Highgate Vampire Sensation, it culminated in two magicians attempting to have a “duel”, where a crazed mob stormed the cemetery, opening graves and staking and beheading the corpses. While the East section can be wandered at leisure, the West section can only be accessed via a guided tour – just be sure you’re made of strong stuff if you wish to visit as the sun is setting!
The Mail RailFew Londoners are aware of the Post Office Railway – affectionately known as the “Mail Rail” – an automatic electric railway sitting 70 feet below the capital that was designed to speed up the delivery of letters and parcels. Conceived and built in the 1920’s, the system transported 40 million items daily at its peak, and connected eight separate locations from Paddington to Whitechapel. However, the need for the system dwindled through the latter part of the last century, until it was closed and sealed off for good in 2003 due to rising costs. But thanks to an intrepid group of urban explorers, who became famous for trekking through its tunnels and photographing ghost stations, part of it will soon be open as a museum, and the public will, for the first time, be able to walk along the narrow tunnels and see the cars that provided such an invaluable service for most of the 20th Century.
Gordon’s Wine BarIf the stress of sightseeing gets a little overbearing, you could do worse than kill two birds with one stone at Gordon’s. For this subterranean space isn’t simply London’s oldest wine bar (established in 1890), it’s also one of the finest spots to enjoy a drop of vino anywhere in the capital. The building itself dates from the 1680s, and was once home to Samuel Pepys, author of the famous diary; the space the bar sits in was the cellar. The dark, candle-lit alcoves are the perfect place to enjoy some world-class wines from around the globe and forget about the hustle and bustle above ground.