London's Alternative Autumn Museums
Having spent a long summer soaking up the sun and lazing in London's parks, the arrival of autumn sparks a mass exodus into London's indoor attractions and museums. Indeed a bracing walk on a windy autumn day is pleasantly followed by a visit to a London museum. However, if you want to escape the crowds and discover some new, interesting and utterly unique places, London has a wonderful smattering of curious museums that often escape the mainstream radar. We have put together a comprehensive list of some very special places to visit this autumn. Affordable, fascinating and off the beaten tourist track we Londoners are staunchly proud of these wonderful, idiosyncratic little establishments.
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A
On a bleak autumnal day, when the capital’s trees are sending leaves spiralling to the floor in gusty spells, the cosy elegance of this remarkable museum makes for a fascinating retreat from the weather. A tribute to the eclectic imagination of the capital's most venerated Georgian architect, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields is a wonderful little museum.
Sir John Soane was an incredibly talented architect and upon his death he decided to bequeath his most treasured project to London – that of his own house. The eight or so rooms are teeming with an appealingly jumbled array of idiosyncratic antiquities and artworks. Works by Turner and Canaletto adorn the walls, while Hogarth’s eight canvasses of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ make for an attractive showpiece. Don’t miss the hieroglyphic sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I from around 1200 BC; this particular piece is both haunting and compelling. The house itself is sated in architectural value. From the sweeping domed ceiling of the breakfast room to the grand courtyards overflowing with ancient stonework, visitors can rest assured they are standing under the hallowed eaves of something truly spectacular. For a particularly atmospheric visit, try and go on one of their late openings on the first Tuesday of every month. As the autumn winds rattles the old windows, you can explore the hidden treasures of this cavernous museum with only the gentle glow of flickering candlelight to guide you round.
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48 Doughty Street, WC1
"Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own".
Charles Dickens' well-chosen words are particularly true of seasons in London. He once described the streets of London as "sparkling and cheerful" on a "bright autumn morning" and we can only agree - the fresh autumnal mornings bring a heartening shine to London quite unlike any other season. As such a perceptive fan of autumn days in the capital we have added Charles Dickens’ House to our list of unusual museums. An elegant four-story Georgian terraced house, Dickens lived there for two years while he scribed away at Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby between 1837 and 1839. The house is actually the only one of the many London houses Dickens occupied that is still standing.
The museum has worked tirelessly to recreate the house as it would have been when the author lived there. The drawing room, wash house and wine cellar have been done meticulously. The drawing room has actually been furnished with his original furniture. Crammed with Dickens paraphernalia, visitors can gently peruse a raft of first editions, manuscripts, personal effects, letters and old photos. A particular favourite is the tall clerk’s desk which perches in the corner. Dickens would stand up here writing, often while chatting with visiting friends and relatives – a talent in itself one might argue! The abode is surprisingly simple although now something of a shrine to the writer. The museum is the ultimate authority on Charles Dickens, so for anyone interested in the author it makes for a very special visit. Incidentally, if you can’t make it during the autumn, Christmas is also a delightful time to visit when the place is adorned in Victorian seasonal garb - you may even be able to munch on a mince pie or two.
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18 Folgate Street, E1
It is incredibly hard to, firstly, describe exactly the nature of this curious little place and, secondly, do justice to it. The establishment would be outraged that we had dared to place the house in a ‘museum’ section. It is not deemed as such – both its creator and caretakers would rather have it perceived as a piece of conceptual art. Even this might be an inadequate definition.
Essentially, it’s a time capsule – a wonderful higgledy-piggledy atmospheric place where open-minded people can utterly escape the 20th century. Dennis Severs created the house. His objective was to use his visitors' imagination as his canvas. The house has ten rooms and each harbours ten evocative places in history designed to engage with the visitor and re-create moods from 1724 to 1914. Eccentric to the last, Dennis Severs actually lived in the house before he died with no electricity or modern comforts, much as its inhabitants might have done in times gone by.
Visitors are invited to explore the rooms and are greeted by half-eaten food, abandoned clothing, smoky fireplaces, flickering candles, creaking floorboards, hollow footsteps, babies crying, the gentle ticking of a chiming clock, eerie whispers and arresting reflections. Severs aimed to bombard the senses in a bid to kick-start our imaginations. The rooms are beautifully and intricately designed. The experience of walking round the house is conducted in silence and harvests different reactions and encounters for every individual. It’s a wonderfully warm place. You feel like you’ve just walked into a room that an 18th century character has just left. There’s a cosy familiarity to it that is just so clever.
I think it's fair to say it’s one of the oddest but also one of the most intriguing places in the capital. Thought-provoking, unique and really very bewitching, a visit to Dennis Severs' little kingdom is wholeheartedly recommended.
For the record, the caretakers strongly maintain that cynics and children are very much discouraged. It's an adult experience for people that are interested in the past and are happy to open their minds to all different types and approaches to art.
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17 Gough Square, EC4A
Samuel Johnson had an unforgettable passion for the English language and, of course, for London. In this elegant Queen Anne style property, he compiled his famous dictionary.
Productive, chaotic, engaging and a jolly eccentric fellow, the house on Gough Street pays tribute to this great London figure. When Johnson lived there, the house was in a state of disarray. Short of funds, organisation and any sense of order Johnson was happy to live in squalor. Thankfully, the establishment hasn’t attempted a full period reconstruction of the literary pigsty. Instead they have created a fine place to gently browse some fascinating memorabilia on a windy autumn day. There is just so much to read and a collection of the big book itself. The dictionary is not only famous for its use of literary precedents but also for Johnson’s wicked sense of humour that permeates every page. His work took place in the top room of the narrow house and all four floors have been furnished in a pleasing style adorned with wooden panelling, period furniture and portraits. With a whole raft of displays on various Johnsonisms, the house is full of entertaining titbits from a man whose great wit pervaded every part of his idiosyncratic life.
To snatch some respite we can’t recommend a visit to nearby Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese enough. A cosy rabbit-warren of bars and dining rooms decked in dark oak beams it’s a cosy and incredibly historical venue for an autumn tipple. Incidentally, Johnson spent many a happy hour supping fine ale under the hallowed eaves of this watering hole. The fact that he squandered his advance of 1,500 guineas for the dictionary before the book was even completed, surely has nothing to do with his proximity to the pub... has it?
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Wentworth Place, Keats' Grove, NW3
Just a stone's throw from the Heath in Hampstead, nestled among overhanging branches and marooned by beautiful gardens, lies the poet Keats' stunning, white, Regency-style house. Keats lived here for just two years from 1819. However, its significance is great. It is said he penned his most famous poem, 'Ode to a Nightingale', while quietly sitting under a plum tree in the garden. The beautiful setting is also rumoured to have inspired some of Keats' most memorable work. Not only that, but it was here that he fell madly into a doomed love with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door.
Under the supervision of the Corporation of London in 1997, the elegant property has undergone an extensive and ongoing refurbishment. Rooms display various items of Keats memorabilia, manuscripts and letters, while the garden is perfect for exploring - there is a beautiful mulberry tree that survives from the Romantic poet’s day.
Hampstead itself is exquisitely beautiful at this time of year, when an explosion of autumn colour splashes across nearby woodland. While trees gently sway in the autumn winds, leaves spiral to the floor in delicate columns covering the Heath in a sparkling carpet of yellows, oranges and reds. The idyllic tree-lined avenues of residential Hampstead look equally as lovely.
This really is a very special, inspirational spot and visitors can soak up the wonderful setting just as Keats did all those years ago. Whether you are a dedicated Keats afficionado or our just looking for an atmospheric treat for an autumn jaunt, a visit to this museum and to Hampstead both come highly recommended.
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18 Stafford Terrace, W8
For a virtually untouched and immaculately preserved slice of Victorian living, visit this delightful building. One of the only genuine Victorian townhouses remaining and virtually unchanged it has become something of an unknown national treasure. Home to the Victorian cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne and his family from 1874 it remarkably survives with almost all of its furniture and fittings intact.
The house is found nestled amid a string of smart Kensington mansions in Stafford Terrace. When young Sambourne decided to move in there with his new wife they opted to furnish their home in the modish aesthetic and artistic style of the period. Passed through members of the family who decided to care for the house and preserve its traditional garb, it was finally handed over to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea who - with the help of the Victorian Society - now take responsibility for its upkeep.
Stained glass windows, fancy Oriental porcelain, dark patterned wallpaper, rich rugs, grand brass beds and ebonised wardrobes are just some of the Victorian goodies adorning the high-ceilinged rooms of this property. It’s a bit of a jumble – a heady mixture of clutter and styles that really does typify Victorian décor. It’s a deeply evocative place and somewhere unobtrusive, where you really do feel like you are stepping back into the past.
All visits to the house are guided tour only with set tour times on Saturdays and Sundays and at other times by appointment. Weekend tours are led by an actor in period costume who not only shows you the best the house has to offer but also provides a compelling insight into the lives of the Sambourne family.
Although there may be a limited number of tickets available to buy on the day, it is advisable to book in order to avoid disappointment.
Incidentally, it is worth getting in touch with the property regarding their Christmas Twilight Encounter - an evening of Victorian intrigue and drama, during which you will be treated to a wonderful performance in the house whilst tucking into mulled wine and mince pies.
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Hogarth Lane, Great West Road, Chiswick, W4
It can be a bit tricky to find this house. Contradictory signposts and a rather busy road can make life difficult - the 18th century residence of painter William Hogarth now lies a few minutes from the rather frenetic and very ugly Hogarth Roundabout. Hogarth once described the area as “a little country box by the Thames” – oh how times have changed. Nevertheless this one-time, country house still boasts a lovely, sheltered garden secreted behind a towering, traditional red-brick wall. This, in itself, may be the last remnant of the sprawling rural retreat that Hogarth so loved.
Thankfully, the noise of the traffic quickly dissipates as you step through the wooden gate. The house itself is exquisite and, despite bomb damage, has been immaculately restored. A striking casement window, wonderfully grand chimneys and attractive brickwork all compliment this architectural gem. Inside, restoration has recreated a surprisingly accurate take on life as it was when Hogarth was alive. Now, however, it’s also a gallery and museum. The property contains a fascinating exhibition charting Hogarth’s life, work and interests. There is also a collection of his prints and engraved copies, including ‘Harlot’s Progress’, ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’.
A bit of a hidden treasure in London’s sprawling suburbia this wonderful little place harbours some worthwhile attractions. The garden will look stunning this time of year. Shrouded in trees and foliage it will radiate a colourful spray of autumn colours.
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96 Euston Road, NW1
Where better to escape the blustery autumn winds than amid the plethora of books lining the walls of the British Library. The establishment has over 150 million items including a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland. There are also some key historical works that literary buffs can’t wait to lay their eyes on. These include the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and many more.
The largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century, the scale of this organisation is just incredible - you can lose yourself for hours exploring the cavernous spaces and labyrinth of corridors and aisles. Each year alone it incorporates three million new items meaning that the shelf space grows by twelve kilometres every year. You can scan the manuscript scrawlings of over 300,000 volumes from Jane Austen to the Beatles. Even if you plunged in and spent a whole autumnal day glancing through the exhibits you wouldn’t get very far – a person inspecting five items a day would take 80,000 years to see the whole collection.
Some personal favourites however are the first edition of The Times from 18th March 1778 and the remarkably clear recording of Nelson Mandela’s trial speech.
From the street, the building itself is not known for its aesthetic appeal. Its straight lines of plain red brick and dark green trim are somewhat overshadowed by the Victorian splendour of next door St Pancras. Nevertheless, inside the cool acres of white stone and the clever diffusion of lights and placing of wide steps make the building a joy to explore.
It’s the kind of place you want to return to again and again. Each time you visit you can gently expand your field of interest and roam a little bit further. If you are going simply for a curious jaunt we do recommend booking yourself on a guided tour – especially if you only have time for one visit. The experienced guide will navigate you through the main treasures and make the intimidating enormity of this vast repository wonderfully approachable.
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9a St Thomas St, SE1
Buried in the cavernous enclaves of the roof space in the St Thomas Baroque church, visitors stumble across an extraordinary survival from the 19th century. The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is an astoundingly well-preserved surgeons' demonstration theatre, dating from 1821. Both facets really work to drive home the incredible developments that have been made in the world of medicine in the last century. The museum offers an unparalleled insight into the past using original exhibits to illustrate the history of surgery and herbal medicine.
The small attic is U-shaped and is lined with tiers of standing stalls for students and spectators all facing towards the centre of the room where a battered, dog-eared, unsavoury operating table stands above a sawdust box. Incidentally, the sawdust box was there to stop blood dripping through the floorboards into the church below. The sinister display of sawing, cupping, bleeding, trepanning and childbirth implements are particularly stomach-wrenching especially when one considers the lack of antiseptic and anaesthetic surgery - a feature of the time. The viewing gallery leaves one to wonder at the morbid crowd who assembled to watch the amputation of limbs and generally bloody exploration of the human body. The pickled specimens of extracted body parts, including lungs, brains and hips, are also on show. It’s all rather gruesome and sobering for our modern sensibilities.
The Herb Garret next door is rather less disgusting and was used by the apothecary to store and cure herbs in medicinal compounds. There’s even an opportunity to try your own hand at pill making. Special events talks and demonstrations are included in the admission price. If you can tolerate a little guts and gore it’s a really educational and thoroughly entertaining autumnal jaunt.
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