A Londoner’s guide to (WONCA) London Part 4 – what to see!

London is a vast city and there is so much to see. What are you going to see when you are not at the workshops and plenaries? I’ve broken down some sites by interest based on 40 years of knowledge accumulated over my lifetime. You will not be bored in this city!

The WONCA Europe exec (and President’s wife) enjoying London

History of London

London was originally built by hunter-gatherers in 6000BC and has been taken over by the Ancient Romans (43 AD) and the French (1066 AD). Every nook and cranny of London is full of history and it’s incredible to see a mix of the old and the new nestled next to each other. The old City of London (which is essentially the modern financial district) was open to the world via the seven gates – Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate – that were closed at night. You might recognise some of the names as tube stations! But over time, the city has spilt over and now has a population of over 9 million. Here are a few suggestions on how to enjoy the depth of the history of London.

The Monument at the tube stop Monument is a historical landmark to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666 which ravaged the city for three days. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (who also built St Paul’s Cathedral) and is 61m high and exactly 61m from where the fire started in a bakery shop. The Great Fire of London is one of those things that you learn at school as a major event in London History – new fire regulations were implemented and there is a theory that it ended the Great Plague. I’m not sure if other countries have this but, as children, we learn nursery songs in the UK which I have only found out as an adult that they were about very serious historical events! An example here is “London’s burning” which is about the Great Fire of London and “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” which is about catching the bubonic plague.

Monument which is 202 feet high and 202 feet away from the point where the Great Fire of London started

I have an intense geeky love of British post boxes. Post boxes have been around since the mid-19th century and each box is marked with the initials of the monarch who was on the throne at the time that it was erected. The majority are ERII (which stands for Elizabeth Regina II i.e. Queen Elizabeth II who has just celebrated her 70th year as queen) but occasionally you will see ERVII (King Edward VII), GR (King George – the one made famous in the film “The King’s speech” with Colin Firth) and VR (Queen Victoria) and so you have an idea of how long that post box has been standing on that spot. Keep an eye out!

A VR postbox outside my GP surgery

It might feel a bit morbid to visit a cemetery but Highgate Cemetery is well worth a visit. Occupiers include Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy), Lucien Freud (artist), George Eliot (novelist), Christina Rossetti (Poet) and Karl Marx (communist political figure).

If you wander around London, you will notice enough blue plaques on the walls (see photo below). These are markers of someone famous having lived in this building or something historical having occurred there. The photo below shows a blue plaque on the corner of my university hospital which shows where penicillin was discovered. It’s always a total pleasure to stop and find out more about the beautiful homes in London and who were their famous ex-residents.

If you look closely at the blue plaque, you will see that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin on the windowsill above (not pictured) – this is on the side of St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.

The music lover

If you love British music, you will love London. It has been the home to the likes of Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Blur, and Amy Winehouse and has been in multiple music videos and album covers.

If you love the Beatles, you will have undoubtedly seen the cover of the album Abbey road. The iconic photo of the Beatles crossing the road outside the studio that it is named after is world-famous. It is completely normal to stop all traffic in order to get a photo taken and then to sign your name on the wall. The closest tube is St John’s Wood in West London.

The legendary music venue, The Dublin Castle in Camden is famous for championing new music and is often a place where big British acts start off such as Madness, Blur, Coldplay and Amy Winehouse who all kickstarted their careers here. Click here to learn about pubs in the UK and how to order like a local.

“I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want…” The video for the Spice Girls’ debit single “wannabe” was filmed at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in King’s Cross. It’s also super close to the RCGP headquarters so you can always pop to both. Other notable mentions are Berwick Street in Soho which was the location for the cover of Oasis’ “What’s the story, morning glory?” and Primrose Hill which was where the Rolling Stones shot the cover for “Between the Buttons.”

Third man records was opened by Jack White from the White Stripes and is the first one to be built outside of the U.S. On their opening day in October 2021, I happened to walk past it to see Jack White giving a performance on the roof which was such a fantastic gig. These moments are the reason why I love living in London.

Ronnie Scott’s jazz club is Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and nothing could ever replace it. In the heart of Soho, it is a venue that is well known, loved and respected. I saw a Cuban jazz band there and there’s something super atmospheric about it. If you love jazz, you need to get a ticket to see a live act here.

It’s currently closed for refurbishment but the Handel and Hendrix is a museum dedicated to the classical music composer and guitar legend who happened to live in next-door buildings 200 years apart. Just the idea of a museum dedicated to both sounds amazing but you will have to wait until 2023 before you can have a look!

The public health and medical history lover

If you love public health, you will love the story behind the John Snow pub in Soho, central London. John Snow was a local doctor who connected the cholera outbreak with the water delivered by the Broad Street pump. He noticed that the cholera deaths were clustered around the pump but yet the local brewery staff did not contract the water-borne disease because they had their own water supply. His public health measure was to take the handle off the water pump which single-handedly stopped the outbreak. The current pump there is a replica and you will need to look for the pink kerbstone which marks the spot of the original.

I love the Old Operating Theatre. It’s tucked in behind Guy’s Hospital and the Shard and you enter through a very unassuming door and up some pretty steep steps. It houses an old operating theatre (as suggested by the name) from an era when operations could be watched by medical students whilst the patient was held down as the surgeon operated. The museum also touches on the history of anaesthesia and pharmacology with plenty of games to play in the museum’s very musty and atmospheric attic.

On Praed street in Paddington, there is a small blue plaque on the corner of St Mary’s Hospital stating that penicillin was invented on the window above. We all know the story of Alexander Fleming who left his petri dish on the window sill resulting in the discovery of a history-changing mould.

I absolutely love the area where St Bart’s hospital museum is located because it is so steeped in history. Barts, founded in 1123, is one of the oldest hospitals in London and was set up, like many hospitals, by the local monks to serve the very deprived population. It’s where the elephant man skeleton replica is kept but most amazingly of all, there is a painting by Hogarth on the landing which you might be able to get a sneaky look at. Of note, the church on the grounds is where the classic British film “four weddings and a funeral was filmed.” It’s a lovely area to have a wander around after. You could never imagine it now but this used to be a very poor area and is famous for being where legendary serial killer, Jack the Ripper, found his prostitute victims (see also the Ten Bells Pub in Shoreditch).

The film lover’s London

London has been the location of many films – both foreign and home-grown – and its iconic skyline makes it immediately recognisable. It’s common to see film crews casually parked up but I’ve never had the guts to ask what they were filming. Here are a few examples of places to see.

  • I love Borough market anyway but it is famous for being where Bridget Jones lived.
  • As mentioned earlier, “Four weddings and funeral” was filmed at the Church at St Bart’s Hospital
  • Following on with more Hugh Grant films, “Notting Hill” was filmed in (surprisingly) Notting Hill with the book shop still going strong in Portobello market. Part of it is also filmed at the Savoy Hotel.
  • The final scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” were filmed around the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank.
  • Not quite where it was filmed but you can always visit the 9 3/4 platform at King’s Cross Station for a decent photo op to emulate Harry Potter and co as they go to Hogwarts.
  • If you have seen the British classic “Withnail and I,” my estimation of you has just gone up. This black comedy is based around two men who live in a flat in Camden but there are plenty of references to other parts of London such as the “Camberwell Carrot.”
  • If you have seen the new Marvel film, “Eternals”, you will know the scene where they first encounter the Deviant which is set in Camden

There are plenty more and this is by no means an exhaustive list!

Art lovers London

I love art. And we are spoilt for choice in London with the art choices here. Temporary exhibitions at most major London galleries are free but special exhibitions are usually around £20 a ticket and need to be booked in advance. Here are a few of my favourite spots around London.

National Portrait Gallery – just between Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus is a nice place to drop in. I don’t know what it is about it but it’s one of my more favoured galleries.

Tate Modern – I went to see Yayoi Kusama here a few weeks ago. The permanent collection is fantastic and free and the local area (Southbank) is a favourite haunt of mine.

Barbican – I LOVE THE BARBICAN as a building and a venue but I can’t remember the last time I was blown away by one of their exhibitions. However, the Brutalist architecture and iconic buildings are worth a visit anyway. They have an amazing indoor garden which is a bit apocalyptic but insanely good. A word of warning – it is impossible not to get lost in the Barbican complex; meet your friends outside and go in together.

This is a secret that not many people know but there is a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, the Winged Figure, on the outside of the Eastern wall of the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. I love gazing at it when running errands just knowing that no one else is noticing!

This one is for my Japanese colleagues but the famous writer, Natsume Soseki, who wrote Kokoro and I am a cat and whose face is on the 1000 yen note, lived in Clapham from 1900 to 1902. He doesn’t hold back on how miserable he was during that time but it’s generally accepted that his work was hugely influenced by his time here!

Banksy, the great anonymous graffiti artist, has many murals in London. Generally speaking, East London is pretty great for graffiti so most of his work seems to be concentrated in East or North London. Click here for some examples.

Final words

There’s only a week left until WONCA London and I am beyond excited to welcome you. Feel free to come find me and say hello, especially if you read my blog. I know I have had a long break writing and it would be nice to hear if people still enjoy reading it!

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