You don’t end up with a city population of over 8 million without attracting people with some unusual interests and passions. This is of course one of the many reasons we all love London – it can be home for all: the masses and the individual, the average and the eccentric. What this diversity means is that in addition to the standard whitewash-walled galleries, typical museums, restaurants and events, Londoners also have access to some of the stranger places, exhibitions and events the UK has to offer. Here are some of my favourite unusual things to do in London:
The Hunterian Museum
Stepping inside the Hunterian Museum, you might be forgiven for thinking you have entered the lair of a cartoon villain. The glass cabinets that line the walls of this unusual place are filled with preserved specimens of human remains. Expect to see human brains, limbs, penises, toes and even foetuses as well as insects, birds and an assortment of animals.
For some this unique museum will be a place of nightmares, a horror show. For others the rooms will be a treasure trove of science and nature that offers up to public view an otherwise hidden world of human and animal anatomy. If you have a weak stomach for such things, or have young children prone to nightmares I would strongly recommend you give this place a wide berth. If, however, you are comfortable (or as comfortable as one can be staring at the preserved half-face of a six-year-old-child floating in a glass jar) with the anatomical then the Hunterian Museum is totally fascinating.
Dennis Severs’s House
Dennis Severs’s House is best described as walking through a Georgian town house with a time machine strapped to your back. The house – which is, incredibly, still someone’s home – is full of sights, sounds and smells which transport you through the history of Spitalfields, from the point of view of the silk weavers imagined by the late artist Dennis Severs, and is something that needs to be experienced!
UK Rock Paper Scissor Championship:
We can’t all be sport stars, in rock bands or famous because we were once on that reality TV show on Channel 5. We can all, however, have a shot at becoming the UK Rock Paper Scissors Champion. And whose mum wouldn’t be proud to have their son or daughter achieve that accolade?
No experience is necessary, nor is prequalification. Sign up on the website, bring a friend and (as the event is, naturally, held in a pub) your drinking boots. A brilliant night out and – you never know – you might just become a champion.
Grant Museum of Zoology
The Grant Museum of Zoology is the last university zoological museum in London, though I can’t imagine there are all that many of them knocking about elsewhere either. The small museum hosts around 67,000 specimens covering the full spectrum of living organisms, and makes you feel like you have wandered into some quirky professor’s laboratory. In many ways you have.
The wooden cabinets in the Museum are a jumble of skeletons, specimen jars and models. There are extremely rare exhibits, including extinct species (Quagga, anyone?!), as well as many that even in their post-mortem state are very recognisable. There are skeletons of tigers, monkeys, snakes, bats and turtles amongst others from land, sea and sky. In what is really a small space there appears to be a Noah’s ark of species and animals on display.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
Not everything was always made in China. London used to make all sorts of things other than rich bankers, and one of those things was bells. In fact the Whitechapel Bell Foundry does still make bells (including, recently, the Jubilee Bell), but perhaps more famously it was also the birthplace of America’s Liberty Bell and London favourite Big Ben.
Making bells at its Whitechapel location since 1738 (having been established in 1540) you can now take tours around the Foundry. The guide – a member of the Hughes family, owners since the early 1900s – has a fantastically dry sense of humour and spits out cutting but friendly retorts to questions. The tour takes in and explains the bell-making process and how the Foundry, whilst embracing modern techniques, still manufactures bells mainly using centuries-old traditional methods.
Leighton House Museum
Located close to Holland Park, this house/museum/gallery is the former home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). The house is lavishly decorated in a strange but attractive mix of Victorian and Middle Eastern styles, with over a thousand Islamic tiles covering the walls and decorative carpets underfoot. The vivid colours and exquisite detail is seen throughout the site and is almost certainly unique in London.
Old Operating Theatre
Located in the loft of St Thomas’s Church, close to London Bridge, seems the unlikeliest place to find an operating theatre you can imagine. It makes more sense after you learn the south wing of St Thomas’s Hospital used to be located adjacent to the church.
Firstly there is the loft area, full of medical equipment, samples, medicine jars and antique medical paraphernalia. It’s like a bizarre Aladdin’s cave of medical history, serving as an antechamber to the Old Operating Theatre itself, where the saws, amputation knives, stained surgeon’s apron and the operating table (complete with sawdust underneath to soak up the blood…) make you thoroughly thankful for modern medicine.