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City poet Tom Chivers chooses his five secret London spots

Posted at 5:30 pm, March 14, 2013 in Secret London
Pissarro's bridge in Sydenham Hill Woods

We’ve been inspired by many things in our time at the Time Out blog. Usually they are things pertaining to cats, or the London underground, and if we’re honest, they’re not often noble. We find it especially impressive, therefore, when we discover people helping to fill the internet with thought-provoking and cultural things. Tom Chivers is a poet and writer based in the East End who’s working on ADRIFT, Cape Farewell’s first climate change poetry commission. He’s shared his favourite secret London spots, which might help us to get a bit more cultured in real life, as well as online. But before we do, we’ll try to find some more animals on the tube. Ashleigh Arnott

Dulwich & Sydenham Woods, SE21 (above)
‘I’m hesitant to recommend this, because it’s one of the few spots in South London where you could feasibly walk for an hour in daylight and not see another soul. The last remaining wedge of the Great North Wood, this urban forest is carefully managed nowadays but still feels as authentically wild as when ‘Matthews the Hairyman’ lived here in 1802. As a moody teenager I used to wander the woodland paths writing inexecrable poetry (some things never change) – memories of hidden thickets and bluebells bursting out between dense oak forest have taken on increasingly sinister/psychedelic undertones. The Victorians thrust a railway through the Woods to ferry tourists to the Crystal Palace, and you can still see the line of the tracks, as well as an iron footbridge and a huge abandoned tunnel entrance. The Ambrook, a tributary of the River Effra, has its source up here, and if you’re lucky you might stumble across the ruins of a chapel (actually a Victorian folly) deep inside the wood.’

Mouth of the Walbrook

Mouth of the Walbrook,  Thames foreshore, Dowgate Stairs, EC4R
‘Bisecting the gravel hills of Ludgate and Cornhill, the River Walbrook once formed the eastern boundary of the early Roman City of London. By the 2nd century AD, its middle reaches were home to industries from pottery to butchery, and a substantial temple to the Persian god Mithras stood on its banks near Cannon Street.  Now little more than a dribble in one of Bazalgette’s sewers, you can only see its mouth at low tide. Descend to the Thames foreshore from Dowgate Hill / Cousin Lane, and pick your way around the rusting barges to your right. The Walbrook appears as a choked-up storm drain – a concrete tongue slumped at the river’s edge. If it’s a weekday you could have a drink at The Banker afterwards as reward for finding one of London’s ghost streams.’

St. Etheldreda's Church

St Etheldreda’s Church
‘England’s oldest Roman Catholic church boasts neither grand entrance nor towering spire. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find it at all. Situated half way down a gated cul-de-sac off Holborn Circus, St Etheldreda’s is wedged between smart Georgian terraces of legal chambers. Built around 1290, the church was originally part of the Bishop of Ely’s Palace. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon are said to have dined in the crypt, and there are some intriguing links to Shakespeare too. The atmospheric chapel is dominated by a radiant stained glass window and the statues of eight English martyrs – reminders of a time when ‘Papery’ was outlawed. A space to recharge the mind, and heart. Sung Latin Mass on Sunday (11am) is recommended. During the week a visit can be combined with a pint a few doors down in The Mitre.’

The Faraday Memorial,  Elephant & Castle, SE1
‘I have always been entranced by the giant silver cube isolated in the middle of Elephant & Castle roundabout. I used to imagine it as an alien spaceship, or maybe some misplaced set from the Crystal Maze. In fact, the cube is an electricity substation for the Tube, appropriately dedicated to Michael Faraday. According to urban legend, the musician Aphex Twin used to live inside it. That’s nonsense, of course, but the liminal space of the Elephant lends itself to bizarre fantasies. Like, say, the theory that the whole area sits on top of an ancient peat bog. Actually, that one’s true.’

The Bell, 50 Middlesex Street, E1 7EX
‘The Bell is an island of sanity amidst the Ripper tourists and smart-suited bankers of Aldgate. Formerly known as The Market Trader, this friendly Victorian boozer is located next to Petticoat Lane, London’s oldest street market. Whilst the interior is eccentrically decorated with antique prints and taxidermy, and the outside sports a bottle-top sign by Brazilian artist Robson Cezar, I can assure you The Bell manages to keep just the right side of trendy (i.e. not). There’s pool and darts in the basement – a room with dark memories for me – and the upstairs hosts regular talks by the London Fortean Society, London Historians and others. Avoid the landlord’s chilli vodka if you want to remember the rest of the night.’

For more from Tom, visit whatisadrift.tumblr.com or follow @thisisyogic on Twitter.

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