Brit stops: Hopping trains and tubes to find hidden gems in and around London

By Nancy Truman

There’s always plenty of reasons to visit Royal haunts when travelling to England but it must be said that many of the country’s charms are of a smaller scale — and they’re just a Tube or a train ride away from the madding crowds. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

London No visit to London is complete without a visit to Westminster Abbey, The Tower of London and the London Eye, but once that’s out of the way, hop a Tube to Temple station. The slower tempo of Holborn is a nice respite.

My first gem, Temple Church, was put back on the map after its appearance in The Da Vinci Code (2006), reached via a wooden gate off Fleet Street. The Round Church was built in 1185 by the Knights Templar — the order of monks formed to protect pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem — in the likeness of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is one of three Norman churches still standing in Britain, despite taking a direct bomb hit in the 1941 London Blitz. Most of the damage was to the oblong chancel added in the 13th century.

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London’s Temple Church, reached via a wooden gate off Fleet Street, was put back on the map after its appearance in The Da Vinci Code.

Following my guidebook, I arrived to find the church closed to the public for a communion service being held at 1:30 p.m. (For visiting hours it’s recommended you contact the Verger at verger@templechurch.com.) However, the service, performed at the heart of the Round Church, proved to be the perfect way to soak in the beauty of the ancient Purbeck marble columns and the cross-legged recumbent marble effigies of the knights, which rumour has it is so they can spring into action to protect pilgrims. If you have seen The Da Vinci Code, you will know there are no crypts to explore.
To get to my next gems, I cross Fleet Street and head up Chancery Lane to the gate opening on to Lincoln’s Inn Fields — London’s largest square, laid out in 1640 around Lincoln’s Inn, the first Inns of Court.

On opposite sides of the Green, you will find The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons and Sir John Soane’s Museum. Two stellar collections of men who practised in polar disciplines — medicine and architecture.
… the service, performed at the heart of the Round Church, proved to be the perfect way to soak in the beauty of the ancient Purbeck marble columns and the cross-legged recumbent marble effigies of the knights, which rumour has it is so they can spring into action to protect pilgrims.
Rows of glass cases full of pickled, dissected specimens from sea creatures to mammals greet visitors to the Hunterian. The human skeletons on display of Irish giant Charles Byrne (1761-83) at 7-foot-10 and Sicilian dwarf Caroline Crachami, who was 1-foot-10 at her death in 1824 at the age of nine, were a curiosity for 18th-century Londoners, although today’s visitors might find it a bit macabre. Edinburgh natives and brothers William and John Hunter amassed much of the collection. Later additions include early surgical equipment among which are the instruments of Joseph Lister (1827-1912).
Sir John Soane’s Museum is chock full of man’s artistic achievements. From 1794 to 1823, Soane, a famed architect and professor, acquired and lived in Nos. 12 through 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which now house his collection of antiquity, paintings and sculptures. Buy the brochure at the entrance; it is your only guide to this lovely collection, with the exception of an attendant in the Picture Room, who is eager to answer your questions. This room, lit from a skylight, houses three Venetian scenes by Canaletto, William Hogarth’s series of paintings entitled A Rake’s Progress and paintings Soane commissioned of his architectural visions.

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Farther afield The resort town of Whitby on the North Yorkshire Coast, which sprang up as a monastic community in the seventh century, is worth the four-hour-plus train/bus trip from London, but plan for an overnight stay. Divided by the River Esk, east and west Whitby are joined by a swing bridge over the River Esk.

While visiting Whitby in 1890, Bram Stoker was so inspired by the view from the western cliff, he used it to plot out the opening scenes of his bestseller Dracula, published in 1897. Today, visitors can follow Count Dracula’s route from the Tate Hill Sands where his ship the Russian schooner Demeter ran aground, up the 199 steps to St. Mary’s Church. Let your imagination do the work, rather than visit Dracula Experience, a show using animation, special effects and actors to bring the “scene to life.”

The best view of the town and harbour is from the Whitby Abbey ruins, which stand on the site of the first monastery razed by Danes in 867. The ruins date from 1220 to 1539. It was here in the 17th century that the Anglican Synod decided when English Christianity would celebrate Easter.

The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre is where you will find the town’s genuine gem, jet, which was at its zenith in the Victorian era. Co-owner Hal Redvers-Jones eagerly points visitors to a Victorian Jet Workshop, found sealed behind the walls of this Church Street building. The red-dust that coats everything in the shop and museum, Redvers-Jones tells me, is because jet isn’t stone, it’s the fossilized remains of a Jurassic period tree found only along a 12 kilometre stretch of the North Yorkshire coast. Tempted by a pair of Victorian-style earrings, I happily hand over £49, while Redvers-Jones explains how the Internet is helping his business.

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Bettys Café Tea Room in St. Helen’s Square was a favourite haunt of Canadian airmen stationed near York in the Second World War.

While York isn’t exactly a hidden gem, despite Prince Andrew being its Duke, the city doesn’t make much fuss about the Royal Family. A stroll about the Shambles, named by Google as the most picturesque street in Britain in 2010, is doable without knocking elbows with other shoppers. Where butcher shops once thrived, merchants now sell an eclectic mix of upscale wares from jewellery, to Scottish wool sweaters, perfume, carpets and more. Pick up a map at York’s tourism office and check off some of the more interesting historic points passed between shops.

Bettys Café Tea Room in St. Helen’s Square, a favourite haunt of Canadian airmen stationed near York in the Second World War, is a favourite of locals and visitors alike. Lineups for tea in the café crafted by the designers of the Queen Mary ocean liner can be daunting. If you’re short on time, stop at the pastry counter to buy a Fat Rascal (a scone packed with almonds, cherries and citrus peel), then ask for a peek at the mirror on the lower level that is etched with the airmens’ signatures. Of course, there’s more to York than the Shambles; its many gems include its famous Minster and the National Railway Museum.

IF YOU GO

Getting around

• BritRail Passes eliminate the worry about driving on the “wrong” side. With a network of more than 2,500 train stations in big cities or small towns you can explore England, Scotland or the entire United Kingdom. For prices and bookings: ACPRail.com or call 1-866-938-RAIL.

Offbeat museums

• Sir John Soane’s Museum  13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London soane.org

• The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre  123b Church St., Whitby, whitbyjet.co.uk/ . Chat with the owners while they craft jewellery from original Whitby jet, check out the Victorian era tools and browse the display case.

Memorable teas
• Grays Court  Grays Court Chapter House St., York, grayscourtyork.com. After walking about the cobblestone streets of the Shambles, sinking into a sofa in an historic English country house’s tearoom is heaven. Add a lavender shortbread tower with blackberries and cream and it is simply nirvana. Google it and you’ll find many people agree.

• Bettys Café bettys.co.uk. York has two locations — a smaller two-storey café at 46 Stonegate, the Shambles is a stone’s throw from the Minster; the larger 6-8 St. Helen’s Square location, opened in the 1930s, boasts the art-deco elegance of the Queen Mary ocean liner, whose designer was commissioned for the project. A pot of tea with scones, strawberry preserve and farm clotted cream is about half the price of a full traditional tea with sandwiches, scones and cakes. Reserve for tea, there is always a long queue.

Best fish and chips
• Magpie Café  14 Pier Rd., Whitby, magpiecafe.co.uk. If you don’t mind a queue, the fish and chips at this 40-year-old business is worth the wait. The menu offers an exhaustive selection of mainly fresh caught fish from the more common cod to coley and the elusive John Dory, all described in detail. An eight-ounce piece of cod or haddock wrapped in a crunchy batter and served with piping hot crunchy chips sprinkled with malt vinegar and a side of mushy peas makes for an ample lunch. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

• For more information on Britain and Yorkshire go to:  visitbritain.com, yorkshire.com

 

This article was published in the National Post in September 2011.

Update: According to the website the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons is closed until 2021.

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