Category Archives: London confidential

41: Look down from the top of Westminster Cathedral’s Tower

Located in Victoria, Westminster Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in England, should not be confused with Westminster Abbey (part of the Church of England). Its Byzantine design, quite different from the traditional architecture of Great Britain’s cathedrals, contrasts with Victoria’s modern surroundings.

Westminster Cathedral

But what tends to be less known about Westminster Cathedral is that it is actually possible to take a lift up to the top of the bell tower.

View from Wesminster Cathedral's Tower: Wesminster Abbey Of course, the panorama of Westminster Cathedral’s Tower is clearly not worth that of other popular sites such as the London Eye; but going up the bell tower is only £5 (£2,5 for concessions) and the venue is far less crowded (we were actually alone in the tower when we visited it).

View from Wesminster Cathedral's Tower: Vincent's Square At 65 metres high, visitors are rewarded by views encompassing the Parliament, Buckingham Palace or the towers of Battersea power station – though, surprisingly, the Thames, only a few hundred metres away from the Cathedral, is nowhere to be found.

View from Wesminster Cathedral's Tower: Battersea

Tube Station: Victoria

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40: Find Mount Street Gardens

benches in Mount Street Gardens

Walking in Mayfair, I was amazed to find these peaceful public gardens, which contrast with the bustle of the urban surroundings. Mount Street Gardens are quite small, but immaculately maintained and the numerous benches invite for a nice break under the plane trees’ shade. With Phoenix Garden, this small shaded green space is one of London’s nicest secret public gardens in central London.

Mount Street GardenNearest tube stations: Green Park, Bond Street

36: Get Zen in Kyoto Gardens

Kyoto Gardens

With July’s warm days, I find myself looking for shade and fresh air in gardens, parks and green spaces of all kinds. An enchanting and often forgotten one of them is Kyoto Gardens. It is set in the heart of Holland Park, a calm and fine park welcoming pigeons and peacocks alike and located in one of London’s poshest neighbourhoods (see the post on Holland’s Park here).

Peacock in Holland Park

The Park is named after Holland House, a mansion visited by Lord Byron and Disraeli in its finest hours at the end of the 19th century. Though no ghost can be found in the sterilised ruins, the new Japanese garden, inaugurated in 1991, is a haven of peace. With its pond and waterfall, stone lantern and small bridge, is a pleasant place to pause.

Waterfall in Kyoto Gardens

Nearest Tube Station: Holland Park

34: Find Phoenix Garden


Phoenix Garden 3

Hidden behind the noisy Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, 10 minutes away from Neal’s Yard, Phoenix Garden is another of those London’s secret places – and an Eden for urban wildlife. This tiny community garden, managed by volunteers, is an entanglement of plants, trees and flowers that seem to have grown out of control.

Phoenix Garden 2

Phoenix Garden is open all year round from 8 to dawn.

Phoenix Garden 1

Phoenix Garden’s Website

Nearest Tube Station: Tottenham Court Road

33 : Find Neal’s Yard

In the heart of the West End, 5 minutes away from Covent Garden, Neal’s Yard is a tiny hidden square that looks more Californian than British.
Neal's Yard 1
It is accessible via a small tunnel from Soho’s Monmouth Street. Though it is not always easy to find it at first – I was myself taken there by a friend – it is a rewarding discovery. Away from the noise of the city’s traffic, it’s a friendly place with multi-coloured houses and small plants. It hosts two cafés (belonging, it seems, to the same company) that serves what seems to be Brasilian organic food (maybe a little too organic to my taste) and fresh fruit juices and welcomes a mostly English clientele.

Neal's Yard 2

Nearest Tube station: Covent Garden, Tottenham Court Road

23: follow Regent’s canal from Camden Town to Regent’s Park

Regent's Canal from Camden market

Regent’s canal is only a small part of London’s larger network of canals, and connects the Grand Union Canal (near Paddington) in the west and the Limehouse basin and the Thames in the East.

a jogger at Regent's Canal

Exiting Camden market and its noisy and animated atmosphere, the peace of the canal is even more striking.  The traffic noise and crowd of Camden are replaced by still water, trees, the occasional passers-by and… Banksy’s graffiti.

banksy's graffiti at Regent's canal

At mid-way, it is possible to leave the canal and walk up Primrose Hill for a panoramic view over London. Then, the canal will lead you to the London zoo, in Regent’s Park North-East corner. This walk could take no more than half an hour.

Regent's Canal

Photographs: Julien Stievenard

Nearest Tube: Camden Town

18: Pay tribute to Karl Marx

If on a weekend you want to escape London’s frenzy and breath some fresh air, you can make for Highgate cemetery in North London, a few miles from Hampstead Heath.

Highgate West Cemetery door

Highgate Eastern cemetery (3 pounds) is home to the tombs of some famous names, including George Eliot, Foyle (the Bookseller), or Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, his tomb is the one garnished with pens…). Some of them are less known but their stories can be worth hearing, like that of Harry William Thornton, a pianist who held the record of continuous piano playing: 21 hours, 17 minutes and 56 seconds! Note that accordingly, his tomb is piano shaped.

The best-known inhabitant of the cemetery is with no doubt Karl Marx, whose memorial is surmounted by a huge bust of the author of The Capital, and surrounded by the tombs of other communists.

Highgate West Cemetery 1

On the other side of the road, Highgate West cemetery is much more expensive (7 pounds) and only accessible by guided tours lasting an hour. In the beginning of February, the combination of half-fallen statues covered up by ivy, the pale light and frozen ground, was creating a breathtaking atmosphere.

Highgate West Cemetery 2

If at first sight the place seems peaceful, after an hour spent wandering around the tombs I felt that the cemetery was in fact engaged in a fierce battle against nature. Visitors are not allowed to walk freely around the cemetery, as some of the tombs are unstable: in fact, the cemetery’s ambience is more one of dereliction than one of peacefulness. The cemetery had indeed been abandoned for several decades, until in the 1970s the Friends of Highgate cemetery formed to restore the place, most of their funds coming from the guided tours they organise.

Highgate West Cemetery 3

After the out of the time, thick atmosphere of Highgate Cemetery, Waterlow is a refreshing park attended by families and dog walkers.

Nearest Tube: Archway station