Overlooked London: The HMS Belfast

The United Kingdom used to have the largest navy in the world and it still packs a major punch today. One ship from the glory days is the HMS Belfast, docked on London’s South Bank near London Bridge. This World War Two light cruiser also saw service in Korea and is now open to the public under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum, one of the best war museums anywhere.

Clambering up and down the nine decks and into turrets and engine rooms is lots of fun, and the video displays and signs tell you all about the history of the ship and life on board. One interactive display, the Gun Turret Experience, puts you in the middle of a WWII battle. In the Operations Room you can control an entire fleet at sea.

If you go in the winter, visit in the afternoon and catch the early sunset over the Thames, its bridges, and both its busy banks. Watching nightfall from the prow of this historic ship is a memorable experience.

The HMS Belfast is undergoing remodeling and will be even better when it reopens on May 18.

Check out more London attractions most tourists miss in our Overlooked London series!

Top photo, courtesy Steve Parker, shows the HMS Belfast as it appears today. The bottom photo, courtesy the Imperial War Museum, shows the ship bombarding the coast of Normandy in support of the D-Day invasion.

Overlooked London: Saint Bartholomew The Great Church

London is a city full of historic churches. Some can be a bit hard to find and get missed by the casual visitor. One of these is Saint Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield.

Built by a courtier of King Henry I, it has been open for worship since 1143 and was the center of a large complex of church buildings before the Dissolution of Henry VIII took away most of its lands and two-thirds of the church itself.

What remains, however, is grandiose. After passing through the narrow gate shown here, you enter a church with high Gothic vaulting, a semicircular aisle going around the nave, and numerous old graves.

A brown marble tomb shows the busts of Percival and Agnes Smallpace (died 1558 and 1588), complete with frilled collars and period costume along with the inscription, “Behowlde youre selves by us sutche once were we as you and you in tyme shalbe even duste as we are now.”

Food for thought.

Overlooked London” is a new, occasional series on lesser-known but still cool sights of London. Stay tuned!

[Both photos courtesy Christine McIntosh]

Overlooked London: The Bookshop Theatre At The Calder Bookshop

Welcome to “Overlooked London,” the first in an occasional series on the lesser-known sights of one of the world’s greatest cities!

Anyone who loves theater will love London. From glitzy musicals to serious drama or weird experiments, London’s theater scene has it all. One place that has become a shrine of sorts for alternative theatergoers is The Bookshop Theatre. By day it’s the Calder Bookshop, stocking fiction, philosophy and plays. At night, the stacks are cleared away and it hosts plays, movies, lectures and other events.

The space is tiny. When I attended a play by Samuel Beckett, the 25 or so people in the audience filled the back room. The actors were so close I could have touched them. It was like being part of the performance.

The theater was founded by John Calder, who has been at the forefront of London’s theater and independent publishing scene for decades. Through his publishing company he helped popularize Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs and many other leading figures in the literary and theater world. On more than one occasion he had to fight for the right to publish controversial authors – fights he always won.

His theater reflects that scrappy, independent outlook by hosting experimental plays, lectures about avant-garde literature and, to commemorate the anniversary of the Falklands War, a documentary on British Imperialism.

The Bookshop Theatre is located at 51 The Cut, near the more famous theaters of The Old Vic and The New Vic. It’s served by Waterloo and Southwark Tube stations and there are plenty of dining opportunities nearby. So if you like your theater experience a little more intimate, check out their website and see what’s on.

Five overlooked attractions in London

London is full of great places to see. No matter what your interests are, this city has something for you. In fact it has so much there are some incredible attractions that are overlooked by the majority of visitors. Here are five you might want to visit.

Kew Bridge Steam Museum
The Kew Bridge Pumping Station, built in 1838, once supplied water and power to London through massive steam engines. The British were early masters of turning water into power by heating it into steam. This unusual museum shows how it was done, as well as the immense variety of machines built to power the Industrial Revolution. Only selected machines still work, and only on weekends, when they puff away as if they’re still powering the Empire. There are special days when additional machines are started up. They’re all quite loud with massive moving parts, making them popular with kids. Check out the schedule here.

The Wapping Project
This is a unique art space in London and a personal favorite. Set in a converted power station like the Tate Modern, it differs from that more famous art space in that the curators left most of the machinery intact. This lends the building a ghostly atmosphere and a postindustrial charm. A succession of top artists have done a great job adapting their work to the surroundings. There’s also a good restaurant onsite. Check out their webpage here.

Jewel Tower
This stone tower is one of the few surviving parts of the medieval palace of Westminster and dates to around 1365. Outside you can still see part of the original moat. The ground floor is the best preserved, with an original vaulted ceiling and sculpted bosses. Originally the clerk’s office, it’s now a cafe and gift shop. The first floor contains an informative history of Parliament that’s helpful to read before visiting the Houses of Parliament across the street. The second floor covers the history of Jewel Tower, beginning with its construction by Edward II to hold his personal wealth. The Crown Jewels were, and still are, held in the Tower of London since they’re the property of the kingdom. The website is here.

Richmond Park
Get away from the city without leaving it! This park has 2,500 acres of hills, meadows, woodland gardens, and ponds. Swans, mallards, 650 roaming deer, cycle and jogging paths, and ancient oaks all combine to make it my favorite park in London. It has been a reserved area since medieval times and is now an official National Nature Reserve. It’s not all countryside–you’ll also find cafes, playgrounds, and a golf course. Check out the website here. Also check out our article on other quiet spots in London.

The British Dental Association Dental Museum
Ah yes, the good old days. . .when cavities meant a trip to the marketplace where a guy with a grimy pair of pliers who hadn’t washed his hands in three months yanked out the rotting stump with nothing but brute force and a good swig of rum (usually for him, victims had to supply their own). Displays show early drills, toothbrushes, and the dentures of royalty. You can learn more at their website. Want some more pain? Check out our article on London’s surgery museums.

Do you have a favorite overlooked attraction in London? Tell us about it in the comments section!