London possesses a rich history going back two thousand years. Despite the ravages of the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz during the Second War War, many historic sites have withstood the test of time.
However, most of the 50 million tourists who visit the capital every year flock to the same predictable tourist destinations, such as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum.
Beyond these famous sites, there are hundreds of hidden gems that escape the throng of tourists but are stunning and historically significant nonetheless.
Here are 12 of London’s secret historical sites.
1. Roman Temple of Mithras
The “Mithraeum” lies below Bloomberg’s European headquarters. This Roman Temple to the god Mithras was built in c. 240 AD, on the banks of the River Wallbrook, one of London’s “lost” rivers.
It caused a huge stir when it was excavated in 1954; crowds queued for hours to glimpse the first Roman temple ever discovered in London. However, the temple was then removed and reconstructed across the road, to make way for a car park.
In 2017, Bloomberg brought the temple back to its original location, 7 metres below the streets of London.
They have created a dynamic multimedia experience in their new museum, complete with the sounds of Roman London and 600 of the Roman objects found on the site, including a miniature gladiator’s helmet fashioned in amber.
2. All Hallows-by-the-Tower
Opposite the Tower of London is the oldest church in the city: All Hallows-by-the-Tower. It was founded by Erkenwald, the Bishop of London, in 675 AD. That is 400 years before Edward the Confessor started the construction of Westminster Abbey.
In 1650, an accidental explosion of seven barrels of gunpowder shattered every single window of the church and damaged the tower. 16 years later it narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London when William Penn (who founded Pennsylvania) ordered his men to knock down the neighbouring buildings to protect it.
It was almost razed to the ground by a German bomb during the Blitz.
However, despite the heavy restoration it has required over the years to keep it standing, it still possesses a 7th Century Anglo-Saxon archway, a stunning 15th century Flemish painting and an original Roman pavement in the crypt below.
3. Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery is well known for being the resting place of Karl Marx, one of the most influential political thinkers of the 20th Century. It is also the resting place of George Eliot and George Michael, among many other familiar names from history.
It also worth visiting for its beautiful funerary architecture. The Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon are stunning examples of Victorian masonry.
4. Oldest door in Britain, Westminster Abbey
In August 2005, Archaeologists identified an oak door in Westminster Abbey as the oldest surviving door in Britain, dating back to reign of Edward the Confessor in the Anglo-Saxon period.
For much of the Middle Ages it was believed to have been covered in flayed human skin, as a punishment for a robbery known to have occurred in 1303.
5. Roman Amphitheatre below Guildhall
On the pavement below Guildhall, the grand ceremonial centre of the London, loops a dark grey circle 80 metres wide. This marks the location of the Roman amphitheatre of Londoninium.
Amphitheatres existed in most big cities across the Roman Empire, holding gladiator fights and public execution.
The ancient ruins are now complemented with digital projections of the original structure. As well as the amphitheatre’s walls, you can see the drainage system and some of the objects found in the 1988 excavation of the site.
6. Winchester Palace
It was once the palatial 12th century residence of the Bishop of Winchester, complete with a great hall and a vaulted cellar. Backing onto his palace, and also owned by the bishop was the infamous “Clink” prison, open for five centuries and housing the worst criminals of the Middle Ages.
Not much is left of the palace of Winchester today. However, these walls rise high above you, giving a sense of the scale of the original palace. On the gable wall is an impressive rose window.
Hidden in a backstreet of Southwark by London Bridge, Winchester Palace still has the capacity to evoke awe when you stumble upon it.
7. St Dunstan in the East
St Dunstan in the East speaks to the resilience of London monuments in the face of violent destruction. Like other sites on this list, St Dunstan fell victim to both the Fire of London and the Blitz.
While the 12th century church was mostly obliterated by a german bomb in 1941, its steeple, built by Christopher Wren, survived. Rather than demolish more of the beleaguered capital, the City of London therefore decided open it as a public park in 1971.
Creepers now cling to the tracery and trees shade the church’s aisle. It offers a brief moment of tranquillity in the frenetic centre of London.
8. Roman walls of London
The Roman city Londinium was ringed by a 2-mile wall, complete with bastions and a fort. It was built in the late 2nd century AD to protect the Roman citizens from Pictish raiders and Saxon pirates.
Various sections of the Roman walls survive today, including some bastions. The best surviving sections are by Tower Hill underground station and on Vine Street, where it still stands 4 meters tall.
9. Temple Church
Temple Church was the English headquarters of the Knights Templar, a military order set up to fight for the Crusader states in the Holy Land. With a network of offices across Europe and the Holy Land, they became a sort of medieval international bank, offering travel cheques to pilgrims and becoming fabulously wealthy.
The Temple Church was originally just the Round Church, which now forms its nave. The round style was imitating the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It was actually the Patriarch of Jerusalem who consecrated this church in 1185, while on a journey across Europe to recruit armies for a crusade.
The original chancel was pulled down and rebuilt larger by Henry III in the 13th century. In the same century, William the Marshall, the famous knight and Anglo-Norman Lord was buried in the church, after being inducted into the order with his last words.
Then, following the dramatic dissolution of the Templar order in 1307, King Edward I gave the building to the Knights Hospitaller another medieval military order.
Today, it is hidden amidst the Inner and Middle Temple, two of the four Inns of Court in London.
10. Jewel Tower
With Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament looming over this fairly small 14th century tower of Edward III, one can forgive tourists for overlooking this little gem of a monument.
Built to house “the King’s Privy Wardrobe” which essentially meant the personal treasures of the monarchy, the museum in the Jewel Tower still holds some precious objects today, including an iron age sword and the Romanesque capitals of the original building.
Between 1867 and 1938, the Jewel Tower was the headquarters of the Weights and Measures office. It was from this building that the imperial system of measurement spread across the world.
11. The London Stone
This hefty lump of oolitic limestone, encased in the wall of Cannon Street, does not look like a promising historical monument. However, strange stories have surrounded the stone and its importance since at least the 16th century.
Some claim the London stone was the Roman “millarium,” the spot from which all distances in Roman Britain were measured. Others believe it was a druid’s altar on which sacrifices would take place, although there is no evidence it was in place before Roman times.
By 1450, this random rock had taken on extraordinary significance. When Jack Cade rebelled against Henry IV, he believed striking the stone with his sword was enough to make him “lord of this city.”
12. Crossness Pumping station
Right at the eastern edge of London is a Victorian pumping station, built between 1859 and 1865 by William Webster. It was part of an effort to prevent recurrent cholera outbreaks in London by building a new system sewage for the city.
It was described by German architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian cathedral of ironwork”. It has been lovingly preserved, and the pump’s huge beam engine still rises and falls today.
Featured Image: Temple Church. Diliff / Commons.