London is so full of iconic landmarks, such as Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament to name but a few, it's little wonder some of the lesser known monuments get completely overshadowed. Here is a list of the top 5 landmarks that tourists rarely give the time of day but are equally as fascinating and awe inspiring as their more recognisable counterparts.
5) Cleopatra's Needle
Some of the world's most premiere cities boast their very own Egyptian obelisk, Paris, New York, Rome... and London is no exception. However, ordinarily they occupy pride of place in some great plaza for all to see, few are as discreetly tucked away as Cleopatra's Needle.
Stationed on the river front, and all but missable unless passing by boat, this great monolith can be easily overlooked, especially when taking into account it is practically opposite the massive London Eye and just a few minutes walk from Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
It is however very striking, and has an interesting history too; forming a pair with the one that stands in Central Park, New York, it was originally erected in Heliopolis by Thutmose III, around 1450 BC. It was presented to the UK in 1819 by Muhammad Ali of Egypt and Sudan to commemorate Britain's efforts in keeping the French from invading Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars. The British, although welcoming the gesture, declined to fund the Needle's transportation to London.
In around 1815 Italian-born Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Father of modern Egyptology, personally funded the transportation of the Needle from Cairo to Alexandria. He was unable however to fund its onward journey to London, so it stayed in Alexandria for about the next 60 years.
Finally in 1877 distinguished anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson paid for the Needle to be placed inside a specially built iron cylinder and transported by sea. The voyage met with disaster however when a storm in the Bay of Biscay made the cylinder uncontrollable. When a rescue boat arrived to help those steering the cylinder it capsized and all six of the crew were lost; they are named on a bronze plaque attached to the needle's mounting stone. The Needle drifted lost for four days until it was discovered by Spanish trawlers, and subsquently rescued by a British steamer.
It finally arrived in London in 1878, and was erected where it stands today on the Victoria Embankment. A time capsule was placed inside the front of its pedestal which contains items such as a set of 12 photographs of the best-looking English women of the day, a complete set of contemporary British coins, a portrait of Queen Victoria and copies of the Bible in several languages.
The Needle is flanked by two faux-Egyptian sphinxes, one of which shows signs of WWI bomb damage. These sphinxes were installed incorrectly, looking at the Needle rather than guarding it, and this is how they remain to this day.
An interesting and impressive monument, it is well worth a look!
4) All Hallows-by-the-Tower
Just a short walk from The Tower of London you will find All Hallows-by-the-Tower. Admittedly it's not the most visually interesting of structures that you will find in London however this ancient Anglican church is a grade 1 listed building placing it in the same category for significant historic and cultural importance as Buckingham Palace and St Paul's Cathedral.
What is impressive about this much overlooked building is just how old and unique it is. The original structure was established in 675 by the Anglo-Saxons on top of a former Roman site and is one of the oldest churches in the City of London. Traces of the older Roman structure are still present both in the recycled tiles within an Anglo-Saxon archway (the oldest church fabric in the city) and a portion of pavement in the crypt.
The church survived an explosion in 1650, albeit being badly damaged and in need of repair; the only example of building work done on a church during the Commonwealth era. It also survived the Great Fire of 1666, during which the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys climbed its spire to watch the progress of the blaze.
It was all but levelled by German bombs during the Blitz and was subject to extensive reparations during the 1950s.
On account of these numerous reparations at different periods in time this ancient church is a real hodgepodge of the different influences and architectural styles which will be immediately obvious as you walk around it outside, and observe the checkerboard of different brickwork and masonry.
Step inside the church, which is free to enter, and you will be struck by an instant state of blissful tranquility, its walls shield those seeking sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city and offer an oasis of perpetual calm in the heart of London.
The decor is also stunningly beautiful; natural light pours in from all sides through the magnificent stained-glass, softly illuminating the airy interior, it is so soothing to the eye that on leaving you will be immediately hit by how seeringly harsh and angular everything now appears.
All Hallows also boasts some incredible artifacts such as a Croke Altar Tomb which was smashed into over 150 pieces by an air-raid in 1940 and subsequently restored, and a crucifix made of wood from the Cutty Sark. You can also head underneath the church and observe the original Roman pavement along with many other incredible items in the Crypt Museum.
This is definitely one not to miss! The Tower of London will cost you up to £24.50 per person, so make sure that you head along to All Hallows before or after your visit for a good full day out!
3) Monument to the Great Fire of london
London's most famous column has stood pride of place in Trafalgar square, crowned with the immortal stone effigy of Admiral Horatio Nelson for over 170 years, however The Monument to the Great Fire of London is equally as impressive, with the added bonus that you can climb it for the sum of just £4 per adult.
Neatly tucked away down a back street and surprisingly easy to miss, The Monument stands 202 ft (62 m) high, making it the tallest isolated stone column in the world. Its height is actually significant; 202 ft from where it was erected is the place that the Great Fire first broke out at a bakery shop on Pudding Lane in 1666.
Capped with a great urn gilded in gold leaf, it was designed by the legendary Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, who also collaborated on St Paul's Cathedral, the Royal Greenwich Observatory and many other great architectural feats.
It's definitely worth taking a look! A word of warning however; if you plan on climbing the 311 steps of narrow winding staircase to the top just make sure to be physically and mentally prepared, as it really does take it out of you!
2) Royal Albert Hall and The Albert Memorial
Our penultimate entry is a twofer; the colossal Albert Memorial and stunning Royal Albert Hall which have stood facing each other, solemn and proud, for over 140 years.
Situated between Kensington Gardens and the museum district, these two magnificent structures are rarely listed as top sights to see in London, which is a great shame.
Both were completed in the early 1870s in dedication to Queen Victoria's beloved husband, Albert, the Prince Consort, who died of typhoid in 1861. This whole area, centred around Exhibition Road containing these two structures and all the top museums is known as "Albertopolis", named after the Prince. Albert was a great patron of the arts and sciences; it was he the real driving force behind The Great Exhibition of 1851, which took place just up the road in Hyde Park, and was used to showcase Britain's innovation and position as the global leader of industry.
The Albert Memorial is elegant and impressive in a Gothic Revival style, and features allegorical sculptures depicting the key areas of Victorian achievement and preoccupation; agriculture, commerce, engineering and manufacturing, along with representations of the four corners of the empire; Asia, Africa, America and Europe. In the centre sits a huge gilded bronze statue of Albert himself which was ceremonially set in place in 1875, and has sat there ever since.
Opposite the memorial is the Royal Albert Hall which is best known as the venue of The Proms, an eight week long summer orchestral event held annually, but also hosts a variety of live events throughout the year including The Classic Brit Awards.
The building itself is seriously impressive; an immense ellipse plan structure with major and minor axes of 272 ft (83 m) and 236 ft (72 m), encircled by a phenomenal great mosaic frieze, depicting "The Triumph of Arts and Sciences", and ultimately crowned with an enormous glass and wrought iron dome 135 ft (41 m) tall. It simply has to be seen!
Before revealing what makes it to our number 1 spot, here are some honourable mentions;
Often it's all about your surroundings; it's pretty hard for Marble Arch to capture the imagination to any real extent sat unceremoniously and without purpose on a traffic island at one of the far corners of Hyde Park. Now imagine it positioned as it should have been, and once was, at the State entrance of Buckingham Palace about at the site that the famous balcony stands today and it will paint a completely different picture.
The arch was another feat of Victorian architectural success and although it pales somewhat in comparison to some of the other great European arches, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin spring to mind, it still deserves a place somewhere on this list for its understated and overshadowed elegance.
The Millennium Dome (The O2 Arena)
The Millennium Dome is best known to the British as a giant white elephant and a huge waste of time and money. It's basically unknown by everyone else on the face of the planet, and that's a huge part of the problem.
Completed to coincide with the turn of the millennium, and seen by many as little more than a glorified circus tent, The Dome was originally built to house "The Millennium Experience". The Experience was billed at the time as being an event which would rival The Great Exhibtion in terms of showcasing a sense of British prowess and national pride. Then Prime Minister (now war criminal) Tony Blair said at the time "In the Dome we have a creation that, I believe, will truly be a beacon to the world". It wasn't.
The Dome cost around £1.66 billion (in 2015 pounds) to build which it was meant to easily make back through ticket sales to The Millennium Experience in just one year. It didn't. People caught on quickly that The Experience consisted of little more than shameless advertising for big brands and was a major disappointment. I was one of the schoolchildren who did actually make it along to The Dome during the millennium year, and can honestly say I remember more about what I had for lunch that day (cheese and onion slice and a banana, which squished everywhere in my bag) than what was inside the exhibition.
The Dome stood unused, but for an event or two for a few of years, until it was bought up in 2005 by telecommunications company O2 and rebranded as The O2 Arena.
The central arena is seriously big and now hosts many concerts and live events, which have included the artistic gymnastics and basketball during the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Despite the hate The Dome itself still remains a remarkable feat of late 20th century engineering and is definitely worth checking out, it's just a shame that it's so hard to see it from almost anywhere in the city.
To soak in this controversial masterpiece why not plan ahead to take in a concert during your stay and experience it up close and personal.
1) The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is yet another example of phenomenal 19th century architecture, completed in 1880 and clad in beautiful blue and beige terracotta to resist the smoggy atmosphere of Victorian London, it stands as an eternal monument to the life sciences.
Now this may seem a strange choice for number one on this list, tourists flock to The Natural History Museum every day, in fact it receives over 5 million visitors annually, but what I mean to say is that the museum as a structure is completely overshadowed by the incredible array of artifacts that it contains. These artifacts include dinosaur skeletons, the body of a giant squid, and of course the famous full-sized replica of a blue whale, to name but a few. The collection is really impressive, there is no denying that, but so is the building itself, it's like a classical palace or a cathedral, albeit one dedicated to the worship of science. Indeed it is sometimes dubbed the cathedral of nature, and for good reason; it was actually custom built to house the collection that we still see there today.
The museum was the brainchild of palaeontologist Richard Owen, who was Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum during the 1850s. Owen saw that the natural history department needed more space and The Natural History Museum (officially known as British Museum (Natural History) until 1992) was the result of his vision.
Everything was purpose-built in hommage to the natural world and perfectly compliments the collection housed within. Gaze up in awe at the chimerae which adorn the outer walls and notice that rather than being grotesques they actually depict a vast array of flora and fauna, both living and dead. On Owen's request the living and extinct species featured on the west and east wings respectively. This explicit seperation of the two classes of creature has been seen as a statement against Darwin's attempt to link present species with past through the theory of natural selection, something which Owen refuted. It has often struck me when gazing at the hundreds of stone monkeys, which climb their way up the magnificent columns within, just how Darwinesque they seem in appearance. Perhaps this too was an opportunity that Owen took to ridicule Darwin, in the same way that contemporary publications chose to do through the use of caricature at the time. However, it was Darwin who ultimately had the last laugh, his laws of natural selection have stood the test of time and a larger than life sized marble statue of him now sits pride of place on the central staircase of the museum.
When visiting the museum you really owe it to yourself to take all of this in; climb to the top of the stairs and just look out across the vastness of the enterance hall. Make note of the exquisite floral paintings on the ceiling and the sculptures on the walls, and how the colosal arches and columns make it seem almost as if you are standing beneath the ribs of some ancient fossilised giant.
Over 130 years old and yet as stunning now as it must have been when first gazed upon by Victorian eyes; make sure to fully open your own and appreciate this incredible London landmark for the spectacular feat that it is.
Happy sightseeing! Make sure to sign up to the mailing list and please do drop me any comments and thoughts that you have about this list, I would love to hear them. Also, any suggestions for future articles and reviews are most welcome so don't hesitate to let me know!