10 quirky ways to spend an hour in London

According to my oracle (Trip Advisor) there are over 1600 attractions in London. Enough to fill years of sightseeing. But what if you’ve only got an hour to spare? Maybe you’ve seen the major sights and are looking for something different. Well, look no further; here’s my top ten quirky ways to spend an hour in London:

1. Shop for silver at The London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane

The place to buy silver in London. Housed in a large underground vault there are silver shops for all occasions and budgets. Access is via a security check and huge steel doors; all I could think about was the Hatton Garden robbery!

London silver vaults, Chancery Lane
London silver vaults, Chancery Lane

There are silver items galore in the shop windows, most leaning towards traditional rather than contemporary design. We didn’t buy anything but it’s definitely the place to come if you’re looking for a special gift.

And I’ve happily ticked this off my UK bucket list.

2. Visit a London film set

From Westbourne Park Road (Notting Hill) to Chalcot Crescent (Paddington) London is packed with film locations. A quick Internet search will help you find your favourite film locations.

Regency cafe, London
Regency cafe, London

My favourite? It has to be the Regency Cafe on Regency Street. A star of the film Layer Cake (and several other TV productions) I primarily love this cafe for its huge fried breakfasts!

3. Tour West Highgate cemetery

The hour long tour around West Highgate cemetery takes you through an Egyptian Avenue, into the catacombs and on a whistlestop tour of the resting places of many notable Victorians. Ivy and bracken spill over the gravestones and danger signs mark out unstable crosses; it really couldn’t be more atmospheric! Read more about our visit to Highgate Cemetery.

4. Admire the carvings at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden Temple

Be transported to India in Neasden. This huge Hindu temple is made from intricately carved marble, granite and limestone. The story of its construction is incredible; more than 26,000 parts were carved in India,  shipped back to the UK and assembled by over 1000 volunteers.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Neasden temple is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm. As the temple is a place of worship do read the visitor guidelines beforehand. You can read about our visit here.

5. Play the games at Novelty Automation, Holborn

This strange mix of arcade machines would have been at home in Banksy’s Dismaland.

It’s a hugely imaginative, irreverent and entertaining place to spend an hour or so; our family loved it. There’s no entrance charge, simply pay for the machines you want to use (generally £1-3 per go).

Novelty Automation, Princeton St
Novelty Automation, Princeton St

My daughter braved the Autofrisk machine, whilst I tested my nerve in the dog’s cage. I don’t want to spoil your fun by revealing what happens!

6. Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury

This University zoological museum is stuffed (literally) full of preserved animal specimens and skeletons. Housed in a single room you’ll find dodo bones, dissected brains and a python skeleton. It’s most popular exhibit appears to be a jar of moles!

The Grant Museum of Zoology is open Monday to Saturday afternoons, admission is free.

7. Buy a neon sign from Gods Own Junkyard, Walthamstow

Tucked away on an industrial estate this is the place to go if you’ve ever wanted to buy a neon sign. Or just to look at someone else’s collection of them. Although housed in a relatively small unit it’s packed with neon lights and retro signs.

Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St
Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St

Out the back there’s a small cafe; grab a coffee and slice of cake to enjoy in the courtyard garden whilst you contemplate where to put a neon sign in your home.

8. Sir John Soane’s Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields

A museum worthy of a longer visit but doable in an hour. This architect’s house is packed full of antiquities, paintings, sculptures and a sarcophagus. It’s eclectic, cramped and definitely quirky.

Sir John Soane’s museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free, no photography allowed.

9. Ride the Emirates Air Line across the River Thames

A fun way to cross the River Thames. The cable car provides great views of London and it’s much cheaper than many other viewing experiences in the city.

Cable car across the Thames

We combined our visit with a trip on the DLR and a boat ride along the Thames, taking full advantage of our London travelcard.

10. Hunt out street art

We enjoyed searching for street art in the area around Brick Lane. It’s easy to find (sometimes with help from the Internet) but if you’d like to find out more about the artists and their work I’d recommend joining a street art tour.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of quirky things to do in London in an hour. What else would you add to the list?

Exploring Bristol with older children

Bristol is only an hour from home but most of our previous visits have been to two of its outlying attractions, the airport and IKEA. Our recent two night trip allowed us to discover the city at leisure, without the distraction of missed flights or Swedish meatballs!

There’s plenty to keep younger children occupied in the city, from At-Bristol to SS Great Britain, but what’s there to do for older children in Bristol?

Ferry boat trip

Faced with a longish walk from Bristol Temple Meads railway station to our accommodation I thought a ferry trip into the centre might head off some of the grumbles.

Bristol ferry
Bristol ferry

It was the right decision. We were the only customers on board so the ticket lady treated us to a mini-tour of the river highlights. En route we passed another Bristol Ferry Boat full of litter pickers fishing rubbish out of the river. It may well be due to their efforts that we later spotted a kingfisher, watching us from the river bank.

Street art tour

Back in 2009 we visited the Banksy Bristol Museum takeover and in 2015 we enjoyed Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare so you’ll probably realise I’m a Banksy fan. Discovering Banksy art in Bristol is also on my 100 things to do in the UK bucket list so I was looking forward to ticking off another item.

Banksy art, Bristol
Banksy art, Bristol

But there’s a lot more to Bristol than Banksy as we found on a street art tour. Starting from City Hall and winding our way up through the city centre to Stokes Croft we learnt about the techniques used, artist backgrounds and the meaning behind some of the pieces.

One artist that stood out for me was JPS, who stencilled Spartacus (below, left). Previously homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol JPS was inspired to paint after visiting Banksy’s Bristol musum takeover. There’s a definite Banksy likeness to some of his creations but he’s now a well known street artist in his own right. Heck, he’s even appeared in the Guardian and has a street art trail in his home town of Weston-super-Mare.

Bristol street art
Bristol street art

Part way through our tour the guide managed to loose half of the group at a busy traffic crossing. We watched from afar as the rest of the group disappeared down an alley. Ten minutes later, with the help of Head Office, we were reunited, but not before we’d jokingly decided to run our own self-directed tour.

Depending on your point of view, our final destination, Stokes Croft, is either full of drug dens and brothels, bohemian and edgy or gentrified and expensive to live in. Whatever your thoughts there’s definitely lots of street art to see.

St Nicholas Market

Leaving our street art tour behind we headed back to the city centre via the indoor St Nicholas Market. The market has the usual clothing and knick-knack stalls but what sets it apart are the food outlets. With options from all over the world it wouldn’t look out of place in Borough Market. One particularly alluring stand, Aah Toots, was named after my childhood nickname and aptly full of cake.

Saint Nicholas Market, Bristol
Saint Nicholas Market, Bristol

Cabot tower

Whenever I visit somewhere new I always climb a tower for a bird’s eye view of the area. For someone with particularly bad spatial skills it’s my way of making sense of my surroundings. Cabot Tower, set in parkland on Brandon Hill, gave me the views I needed to decipher Bristol.

Cabot Tower, Bristol
Cabot Tower, Bristol

Built in the 1890s to commemorate the journey of John Cabot from Bristol to Canada the tower is free to visit. There’s a 360 degree panoramic view from the top although getting there may involve a squeeze. The spiral stairs are pretty narrow and things get interesting when you meet someone coming the opposite direction!

Bristol harbourside

Continuing our Bristol exploration we finished our day with a riverside walk. I’d originally planned a short stroll to see the SS Matthew, a replica of the ship that John Cabot used for his voyage to Newfoundland. Yet we arrived at its mooring point to discover a missing ship, along with a note stating it was in dry dock further along at Underfall Yard.

View from near Underfall Yard, Bristol
View from near Underfall Yard, Bristol

For some reason I thought it would be good to continue walking on to Underfall Yard, a historic boatyard. Twenty minutes later we found SS Matthew, closed to visitors. As was most of Underfall Yard. Despite trying its best to attract tourists it’s probably better to visit when the cafe and visitor centre are open.

Sunset over Bristol harbourside
Sunset over Bristol harbourside

The kids were wilting by this time. Not surprising really as I later discovered we’d walked about 10 miles. Fortunately our walk home was accompanied by a paddleboarding dog (OK, its owner was paddling, the dog just balancing) and a great sunset.

Clifton Observatory – The Giant’s Cave

Next morning we continued our walking theme with a stroll out to the affluent suburb of Clifton. Clifton is the polar opposite of Stokes Croft with expensive interior shops, lots of coffee shops and estate agents full of houses we could never afford. We were there to visit one of Bristol’s most iconic attractions, Clifton Suspension Bridge, but were side-tracked into visiting Clifton Observatory first.

Giant's cave, Clifton Observatory
Giant’s cave, Clifton Observatory

Clifton Observatory is home to two attractions, a Camera Obscura and Giant’s Cave. We took advice from the ticket lady and left the Camera Obscura for a sunny day. Instead we opted for the cave, once home to two giants, Goram and Ghyston. It would be wrong to suggest this is pure myth but I wonder how the giants negotiated the 200ft tunnel to the cave. I bent my head as I walked down the steps and I’m definitely no giant.

Even if there is a touch of make believe about the tale, the steps lead out onto a platform with an impressive view of the gorge and bridge. You can just make out the bright yellow platform jutting out in the picture above. It’s probably not for you if you’re nervous of heights!

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

I’ve seen Clifton Suspension Bridge from afar many times but its taken me 40+ years to walk over it. Was it worth the wait? Yes, of course. The bridge spans the Avon Gorge and is probably one of Brunel’s most famous designs (although some dispute the extent of his involvement).

Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol
Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol

On the far side there’s a small visitor centre. I enjoyed looking at the drawings submitted for the bridge design competitions. The kids played with a weighing machine that tells you how many of yourself can stand on the bridge without it collapsing. Quite a few fortunately!

I had a vague plan to walk beside the river back into the city but we decided it was probably a step too far after the previous day. Instead we explored Clifton further before returning to our hotel to pick up our luggage.

Eating out

One of the great treats on our city breaks is eating out. The family seem to think I’m a little fussy in my choice of venue. After I’ve checked the Trip Advisor reviews I’ll generally check their hygiene score and the menu. And did I mention I’m vegetarian? Anyway, the following met my standards:

For mice and men

Enjoying a cheese toastie, For mice and men
Enjoying a cheese toastie, For mice and men

Advertised as a travelling grilled cheese muncheonette we found this pop up stall at the Harbourside Market. My daughter and I highly recommend one of their bespoke toasted cheese sandwiches.

Under the stars

A floating tapas boat moored at the Harbourside. Lots of tasty veggie options, reasonable size portions and a quirky venue.

Urban Tandoor

An Indian restaurant with great service in a small (and dark) venue so book in advance. I probably chose the wrong item as it was a lot spicier than I expected but everyone else enjoyed their meals.

Swoon gelato

An ice cream treat for the kids with lots of different flavours to choose from. As it was a cold February day I stuck to coffee but quality checked both ice creams. Very tasty.

Accommodation

We stayed in a Premier Inn. Not quirky or characterful but a central location and very good value for a family room. And we love the breakfasts.

More info

  • Cabot Tower is free. Check opening times before you visit; it is currently closed on Friday afternoons.
  • Clifton Observatory is usually open daily. Entry to the cave costs £2.50 for adults, £1.50 for children (must be 4 or older).
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge is free to walk over (£1 for drivers). The visitor centre is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year from 10am-5pm.

Magical Lantern Festival 2017, Chiswick House, London

It’s the Chinese New Year this Saturday. And it was my birthday last weekend. What better way for us to celebrate both events than with a trip to the 2017 Magical Lantern Festival in London.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

This is the second year of the London festival. From my perspective it’s a much more relaxing way to celebrate the Chinese New Year than getting squished at the festivities in London’s Chinatown. Although a lot of other people have the same idea.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The 2017 festival theme is ‘Explore the Silk Road’. One of those exciting sounding places that I have always wanted to travel along. The marketing blurb promises a journey through Central Asia, India and China. Via Aladdin and the Houses of Parliament.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The trail, through the grounds of Chiswick House, took us about an hour to walk round. It’s flat and accessible for all but there were bottlenecks at some displays. Each lantern is accompanied by a couple of lines of explanatory text in Mandarin (I presume) and English.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

It sounds really obvious but remember to dress for the outdoors. It was freezing during our visit, although we’d probably not helped the situation by roaming the Richmond Park tundra until sunset. The upside of the weather was the frozen lake. I love how it blurred the reflections of the lanterns around it.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are not the floating fire starters that you imagine. In fact, impressive though they are, I wouldn’t think of them as lanterns. More like giant illuminated sculptures. I’d love to know more about they how they were made.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

One of the surprising highlights for me was Chiswick House. I’ve never visited in the daylight but loved the glimpses of statues, architectural details and the villa itself. I’m not usually one for historical houses but I am inspired to return.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are very well displayed and make the most of their setting. It’s hard to pick out favourites but I enjoyed these pandas. They weren’t the biggest or most intricate, I just like pandas!

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

At the end of the trail there’s a group of food and drink stalls, including an ice bar. There’s also an ice rink which looked much smaller than the advertised 600 square metres. As I had no desire to celebrate my birthday with a broken leg we didn’t try it out.

Magical Lantern Festival, London
Magical Lantern Festival, London

Overall we were really impressed. If you’re looking for something a little different to do in London over the next few weekends I’d definitely suggest checking this festival out.

More info:

  • The Magical Lantern Festival runs in London until 26 February. It’s open Thursday-Sunday evenings, and throughout half-term. Buy your ticket and book a timed entry slot in advance on the festival website. An advance purchase weekend family ticket costs £56.
  • Chiswick House is a 10 minute walk from Turnham Green underground station.

Visiting the Old Bailey and Inns of Court, London

Have you ever watched a court case? I’ve wanted to visit the Old Bailey ever since I realised the general public were allowed to observe trials. When a recent child free day came along I jumped at the opportunity to see the Old Bailey and other law related places in the city.

The Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court)

The Old Bailey deals with major criminal cases, mainly from the Greater London area. There are eighteen courts covering serious cases such as murder, terrorism and drug related crimes.

Despite being on the right side of the law I was a little nervous walking towards the public gallery entrance. I rang the doorbell, hidden down Warwick Passage, and waited to be called up for the security check. After passing through security I asked one of the guards about the best trial to visit.

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

The courts were relatively quiet on the day of my visit and the only option was a terrorism trial. The case related to four defendants, accused of supporting the funding of terrorism. The case had already been ongoing for several days; I entered the public gallery as the prosecutor was giving his closing speech to the jury.

The court room was smaller than I expected but familiar from TV court dramas. Visitors sit in a small balcony area, opposite the jurors. To my right sat the four defendants, to the left the judge. In the middle sat the Court Clerk and barristers. Their wigs intrigued me. Made from horsehair, evidently the older and grubbier they look the better!

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

It was really interesting to listen in and watch the workings of the court. I’m not going to write about the trial itself as it impacts real lives. Suffice to say the evidence was compelling and the subsequent outcome wasn’t a surprise.

Once in the courtroom there is a 30 minute minimum stay. However time passed quickly and I stayed for a couple of hours. Leaving as quietly as possible I crept out of the galleries and headed to my next destination, Temple Church.

The Temple Church

It’s hard to imagine that the serene Temple Church is just a couple of minutes walk from Fleet Street. Founded in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar it’s modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 1608 the Temple was granted to two societies of lawyers, the Inner and Middle Temple, who look after it to this day.

Knight effigies, Temple Church, London
Knight effigies, Temple Church, London

The most distinguishing feature of the church is its round nave. Certainly impressive but I enjoyed the interior stonework just as much. On the floor of the nave lies the effigies of nine knights, whilst all around are grotesque gargoyles.

The nave contains a lot of display boards detailing the history which I really should have read.  But I was more interested in climbing the winding staircase to the clerestory for views back across the church.

Inns of Court

The area around Temple Church is surrounded by two of the Inns of Court. These are the professional associations for barristers; every barrister needs to belong to one of them. There are four Inns in London; Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple; I explored the lanes and gardens of the latter two.

Middle Temple Lane, London
Middle Temple Lane, London

Wandering down the lanes it was hard to believe I was in central London. Lined with barristers’ chambers and intercepted by gardens and courtyards it feels more like a film set. I half expected Sherlock Holmes to walk down the street. There are maps dotted around the area but it’s more fun just to stroll around.

View from Middle Temple Gardens
View from Middle Temple Gardens

The buildings themselves are off limits to casual wanderers. Fortunately I didn’t need to be a barrister to enjoy the gardens. The borders were in full bloom, perfectly demonstrating the beauty of high summer. If I ignored the background sound of car horns, I could almost imagine I was enjoying a town garden.

Temple gardens, London
Temple gardens, London

As I reached the front of one garden, bordering Victoria Embankment, I realised the last time I’d been near here was whilst running the London Marathon. I’d struggled the last few miles and this section didn’t hold particularly good memories! It was good to reminisce in less painful times.

Temple gardens, London
Temple gardens, London

Royal Courts of Justice

Close by is one of the other major legal buildings, the Royal Courts of Justice, and my last stop of the day. The Law Courts house the High Court and Court of Appeal and preside over civil, not criminal, trials. It’s a huge Victorian Gothic style building on the Strand, just opposite Temple Inn.

Royal Courts of Justice, London
Royal Courts of Justice, London

Although there was an airport style scanner to pass through once in you appear to be free to wander. I picked up a self-guided tour leaflet from the entrance desk; it’s also possible to book guided tours. I walked around the Main Hall, past a small costume display to the Painted Room and then along past court rooms.

In a similar way to the Old Bailey it’s possible to watch trials. Although personally I think criminal trials sound much more interesting! I’d definitely like to visit another Old Bailey trial at some point, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of our legal system.

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More info

  • The Old Bailey is for those aged 14+ years only; you may be asked for photo identification. Court generally sits on weekdays from 10am-1pm and from 2-4.30pm but do check before you visit. Security is strict. Cameras, mobile phones, large bags and refreshments are not permitted. You can leave mobiles at the nearby Capable Travel Agent at a cost of £1 per device. Details of the cases are posted on the boards outside.
  • The Temple Church website details its varied opening times. It’s generally open on weekdays from 10am-4pm. Entry charge is £5 for adults, free for under 16s.
  • Middle and Inner Temple Gardens are open to the public from 12-3pm on weekdays during the summer. There is no entrance charge.
  • The Royal Courts of Justice is open on weekdays from 9am-4.30pm. Entry is free.