The cash-lined streets of the City of London
aren’t known for being quiet places to relax and unwind. But among the shiny high-rise offices and chain sandwich shops sit peaceful nooks and historic corners that yearn to be explored. And when the offices and trendy bars shut their doors for the weekend, the Square Mile is so deserted that not even Pret bothers to open again until Monday morning (yes, it’s *that* quiet).
Middle Temple and Temple Church
Sneak down Inner Temple Lane (next to the signs for Prince Henry’s Room) on Fleet Street to enjoy a quiet corner of seclusion that’s covered in British history. You’ll be in good company, too: Shakespeare loved this area so much that he based the red and white rose scene in Henry VI in the gardens of Middle Temple Hall (‘Within the Temple-hall we were too loud; The garden here is more convenient’), and the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night also took place here. Just around the corner sits Temple Church, which was built in 1185 by the Knights Templar. Unlike many medieval churches in the area, it was undamaged by the Great Fire of London. But its good fortune didn’t last: the church was gutted by fire during World War II.
They welcome public visits; entry is £5 (free if you’re visiting for prayer or are under 18).
Temple Church, Temple, London, UK, +44 20 7353 8559
You’d be forgiven for walking past this 18th-century square hundreds of times on your daily commute — it’s hidden between Fleet Street and Chancery Lane and known only to those who have ventured far enough in. Put your feet up and enjoy a spot of people-watching on the benches before paying Dr Samuel Johnson a visit — he who uttered the infamous phrase ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ called Gough Square his home for 11 years while he compiled his dictionary in the garret at the top of number 17. The house is now a beautiful and atmospheric museum (appropriately called Dr Johnson’s House) with many original features and a statuesque tribute to Johnson’s beloved cat Hodge, which sits in the square outside.
Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, London, UK, +44 20 7353 3745
St Dunstan in the East
Another medieval church that has been through the wars (literally), the stunning St Dunstan in the East garden was created from the ruins of a 12th-century church of the same name; the church was bombed in World War II and then turned into a lush green garden. It’s now popular with local suits on their lunch breaks during the week, but visit on a weekend, and you can enjoy tranquility here for hours.
Saint Dunstan in the East Church Garden, Dunstan’s Hill, London, UK, +44 20 7374 4127
The imposing Guildhall next door to the Bank of England is still in use today for state and civic banquets, as well as being the home of the City of London Corporation. The Great Hall was the scene of some of the most famous trials in history, including ‘Nine Days Queen’ Lady Jane Grey. Underneath the Guildhall sits one of London’s largest medieval crypts and the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. It’s hard to believe, but all of the building’s highlights (including the adjoining art gallery) can be visited for free.
Guildhall, Gresham Street, London, UK, +44 20 7332 3700
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and Church
St Bart’s Hospital may now be known as the site of Sherlock’s ‘fall’ in the BBC series, but St Bartholomew’s was worthy of note way before Cumberbatch and his prolonged stares into the middle distance arrived. Some of the hospital buildings — including the church of St Bartholomew’s the Less within the hospital grounds — date back 900 years. The little known St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum (open Tuesday to Friday) houses 12th-century documents, art, surgical equipment and an agreement from Henry VIII to re-found the hospital. On your way in, give Henry a wave: his (portly) statue glares down at you from the nearby Henry VIII Gate.
Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum, W Smithfield, London, UK, +44 20 3465 5798
Barbican Cinema Café and Conservatory
Barbican Cinema Café and Conservatory
The Barbican Centre is pretty peaceful at most times, but the Cinema Café has an edge. There’s free wifi available, plenty of space and it’s open every day, as well as being quiet enough to concentrate at the weekends. If you’re there on a Sunday, pop round the corner to visit the Conservatory on the roof of the Barbican Centre. This oasis of tropical plants sits in stark contrast to the brick and concrete of the centre’s exterior and is one of the most striking spots in the City of London.
Barbican Centre, Silk St, London, UK, +44 20 7638 4141
Christchurch Greyfriars Rose Garden
Christchurch Greyfriars was once one of the largest churches in the City of London (second only to St Paul’s) and the burial site of four queens. The original church was destroyed during the Great Fire of London, and Christopher Wren’s smaller replacement was almost completely destroyed during World War II, before the site was turned into a dramatic and beautiful rose garden that mimics the layout of the church.
Fun fact: Wren’s tower is now a swanky 10-storey home.
Christ Church Greyfriars Rose Garden, King Edward Street, London, UK, +44 20 7374 4127
Hidden in the Bishopsgate Institute opposite Liverpool Street station, this stunning old library is quiet enough to write, work or study for hours on end. Their impressive special collection of history books is available to dip into on request, plus it’s open to the public without registration. They have speedy free wifi, too. This hidden gem is open until 5.30pm during the week.
Bishopgate Institute, 23C Bishopsgate, London, UK, +44 20 7392 9270
Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice
The final spot on our peaceful tour of the Square Mile is poignant and tranquil in equal measure: we’re finishing at Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. The memorial was the brainchild of George Frederic Watts, whose original proposal of a park commemorating those who died saving others was eventually realised in this modest but captivating dedication. The ornate Victorian tributes are incredibly moving (a typical story: ‘David Selves, aged 12 of Woolwich supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms’).
Postman’s Park, St Martin’s Le Grand, London, UK, +44 20 7374 4127