London’s Lesser Known Sites: Time Machines, Rollin’ Royals, and Galloping Guards
London is full of world-class sights and historic palaces fit for a queen, but I’m going to show you several destinations in the British capital that most tourists miss. As an avid anglophile who’s been to London five times, take a trip with me to these four lesser known but equally smashing London attractions.
#1 A Time Machine to the Past
You’ve wandered into the home of Huguenot silk weavers, and as you peak around the corners and meander up the creaky stairs, no matter where you turn, the family always seems to be just out of sight. Wigs and clothing have been tossed onto the back of chairs, and unfinished plates of food have been left on the elaborately set table in the midst of dinner. With a blob of fresh ink on the paper, someone has stopped writing in mid sentence, a letter to a trusted confidant. In the candle-lit kitchen, a pipe, still emitting the faintest amount of smoke is left, as if the user is just about to return for another puff.
Visitors freely move through the Dennis Severs’ House in silence, allowing them to ponder the sights and smells of each room, to piece together the mystery of what they’re witnessing, and to wonder if they just stumbled out of a time machine. The house is set up as a “still life drama”, that feels more like you’ve stepped into an immersive theater experience than a museum. And that’s exactly how Severs wanted it to be. He devoted his entire life to restoring his 19th century home in a way that recreated scenes of Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian life, complete with period furnishings and lack of electricity, in order to vividly portray how a single, fictional family lived, from rags to riches, over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
As a historian and teacher, I’ve been to countless museums, and the Dennis Severs’ house is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I don’t say that lightly.
Be aware that due to the special nature of their museum experience, the Dennis Severs’ House is only open on certain days of the week and at particular times . . . usually on Sunday afternoons, Mondays at lunch time, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. I highly recommend the Silent Night candlelit tour, held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. Check their website for specific opening hours and to book your self-guided experience.
#2 The Other Changing of the Guard
We’re all familiar with the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Soldiers in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats march in precision to the beat of military music, while gaggles of tourists watch, awestruck by all of the royal pageantry. But did you know there’s another changing of the guard in London; one that fewer tourists know about and attend? And this one involves horses!
Every day, no matter what the weather, members of the Queen’s Life Guard ride from their Hyde Park barracks to Horse Guards Parade to take over their duties as guards for the royal residences. The ceremony, with all its pomp and circumstance, takes place daily at 11:00AM. At this Changing of the Guard, unlike the one at Buckingham Palace, you won’t have a giant iron fence blocking your view or be jumping up and down in the air in a vain attempt to see over the heads of hundreds of tourists standing in your way. Arrive around 10-15 minutes early, stake your place at the ropes, and wait to watch the spectacle unfold right in front of you.
If you miss the ceremony, you can still see two mounted members of the Queen’s Life Guard on duty from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM at the Whitehall entrance to Horse Guards Parade. At 4:00PM, the cavalry soldiers dismount and remain stationed there until 8:00PM. You’re welcome to take a selfie but don’t get too close!
#3 House Hunters Through Time
Do you enjoying peering into the homes of others by watching shows like House Hunters on HGTV and other DIY channels? Then you’ll love the Geffrye Museum of the Home! This unique museum is dedicated to showing how home decor, style, and taste have evolved from the 16th century to the present. You’ll see a chronological sequence of recreated living rooms from Tudor times, through the Victorian Era, to the 1960’s and today. As an added benefit, the museum is set in a restored 19th century almshouse with award-winning, picnic-worthy, period gardens. The Geffrye Museum (closed on Mondays, except for bank holidays) is a fascinating glimpse into the past and a tranquil oasis in a busy urban metropolis.
#4 Transportation Fit for a Queen
During the summer months, tourists flock to Buckingham Palace to tour what is, perhaps, the most famous residence in the world. Even if you’re not in London during the summer, you can still catch a glimpse of royal life and see how the monarch travels in royal style. The Royal Mews, which house the Queen’s working stables and the royal collection of coaches and state automobiles, are located immediately adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Visitors can admire an array of gorgeous coaches ridden in by members of the royal family and visiting heads of state, the horse-drawn carriages used in royal weddings, jubilees, state visits, and the State Opening of Parliament, and even several classic automobiles which once ferried around Queen Elizabeth II. The newest member of the fleet is the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, which was first used in 2014 for the Queen’s 80th birthday and contains wood from Admiral Nelson’s flagship, H.M.S. Victory, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and other palaces and cathedrals scattered throughout the country. Whether you’re there to see the state coaches or visit with the magnificent horses, a trip to the Royal Mews makes you feel like a monarch, even if only for a short time. You might even catch a glimpse of the daily messenger coach that has been bringing royal mail
between Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Palace since 1843! Be aware that the Royal Mews are closed on Sundays.
The Dennis Severs’ House is located at 18 Folgate St. in the Spitalfields area of London. The closest Tube stop is Liverpool Street. Visit their website to book your tour. Click on the map for directions.
The Changing of the Life Guard is held daily at Horse Guards Parade at 11:00AM. Horse Guards Parade is located on Whitehall, with the closest Tube station being Charing Cross, on Trafalgar Square. Click on the map for directions. From Trafalgar Square, walk up Whitehall until you see the two mounted cavalry soldiers. Walk through the arch and into Horse Guards Parade.
The Geffrye Museum is located at 136 Kingsland Rd. in the Hoxton area of London. The easiest way to get there is to take the Overground (marked as orange on subway maps) to the Hoxton Station, which is located immediately behind the museum. Alternatively, you can take the Tube to Liverpool Street Station and then Bus 149 or 242 to the Museum (or walk for 20 minutes). Click on the map for directions.
The Royal Mews is located on Buckingham Palace Road. Click on the map for directions. With Buckingham Palace in front of you, walk to the left of the palace, past the Queen’s Gallery, and up Buckingham Palace Rd. You’ll walk along the wall that separates the palace gardens from the city and eventually see the Royal Mews on your right.