One of travel’s purest thrills comes from discovering something unknown or rarely visited. It’s stumbling upon an unexpected view, or sharing an experience you’re unlikely to replicate ever again. There’s just something about being in on a secret that makes travel more exciting – as if you’re really getting the most out of your trip. But is it really possible to achieve all of this in London – one of the world’s most-visited cities?
It turns out: yes. The UK capital still has its secrets; in all their enticing, mysterious glory. With hip drinking hotspots, hidden art installations and a whole treasure trove of other places that fly under the radar, London is a secret seeker’s wonderland.
Read on to discover some of the best secrets hidden within the Big Smoke.
In a world where information and entertainment are available on demand, taking people by surprise can be challenging, to say the least. But, some London companies do it on a daily basis, with imaginative ideas that breathe new life into buildings, areas, and traditional norms. “London is just one of the amazing cities which changes weekly. It’s tough to keep up!” agrees Christopher Peel from Evans and Peel Detective Agency. “I always find it fascinating how areas develop so quickly, from nothing. It was Angel, then Shoreditch, then Brixton, then Stoke Newington… it just continues; so many talented ideas continue to be generated."
One such talented idea is the aforementioned Evans and Peel Detective Agency. This basement bar masquerading as a detective agency is based in Kensington, West London. You must make an appointment before you show up, and speak to The Detective before entering. What awaits you is a swinging speakeasy, with exposed brick walls, atmospheric soft lighting, and superb cocktails.
We wondered what inspired such a project. Christopher explains: “A huge passion for all things prohibition, from the classic drinks to the décor, glamour and illicit parties! It’s a time I would have liked to have lived in. However, I see myself as more of a bootlegger!”
And how strong a role has its secretive nature played in the bar’s success so far? “People come to experience the Agency entrance, but are always surprised that it’s actually the hidden venue that is the most beautiful, atmospheric part,” says Christopher.
Across the city in East London lies another secret spot, Caboose, who describe themselves as a café, restaurant, street kitchen, supper club and occasional disco.
But what, exactly, is a caboose? “A caboose is the last carriage on a train, a rolling cabin where the railway workers of yesteryear used to eat, sleep, play cards and hang out,” says owner James Bostock. “After seeing a derelict caboose, we decided this would make an excellent space [in which] to serve our food, which has itself made its own slow, smoky journey. In the spring of 2013 we set about building our own Caboose from the ground up. We rolled into East London three months later and have been there ever since.”
Like Evans and Peel, it’s a place where you can lose yourself in your surroundings, getting into character as far as you choose. However, with its cosy dining space, Caboose is the perfect secret spot to experience with friends. “The cabin is really a special place,” says James. “It’s incredibly intimate, and the seating arrangement means it’s an amazing way to catch up with old friends, as everyone is facing each other.” It’s the attention to detail that gives Caboose reputation-building staying power, too. “The U-shaped table is actually handmade from a 150-year-old eastern European mantelpiece we reclaimed ourselves,” says James. “The layout is inspired by the old Victorian ‘cab man’s shelters’ you see dotted around London, now mostly defunct, which had a similar configuration inside.”
With so many unique and personalized venues popping up around London, it seems as though people are now on the lookout more than ever to explore and experience an evening’s entertainment. “I think with the quality and accessibility of food as high as it is, more and more people in the hospitality industry are having to be novel in the way they approach things,” explains James. “It’s not enough anymore to simply serve amazing food; the location, ambience and service all have to be incredible too.”
“I believe the days of just opening the doors of a restaurant and expecting people to turn up have gone,” agrees Christopher. “People need more. They need to be transported into a different world.”
This is, of course, great news for those in London – not just visitors, but residents too. “I’ve lived in London for 31 years (my whole life!) and I’m still constantly surprised by what’s on offer,” says James. As a resident, then, what are some of James’ other favorite secret spots to grab a bite to eat in East London?
A relaxed, informal supper club held in Hackney. Enjoy delicious, home-cooked Vietnamese food as you socialize with fellow diners.
Apart from a fantastic name, this East London food spot boasts a trendy warehouse setting and a sophisticated menu.
Show-stopping food served up in Shoreditch. Get stuck into nine courses from a set menu that changes daily.
Also based in East London, this is the best place to enjoy imaginative, inventive dishes. Expect memorable theatrical effects with your food.
It’s not all about the food. Here are some other relatively unknown and unusual attractions across the rest of the city – keep them to yourself!
St Dunstan in the East
What: A secret garden
Where: Between Monument and Tower Hill
Why: This former churchyard is the perfect place for finding calm in the city. Not even many locals know it’s there.
What: A quirky museum
Why: Discover a fascinating collection of (mostly Victorian) antique toys, which includes the world’s oldest surviving teddy bear. Be sure to pick up a souvenir from the toy shop.
What: A unique artistic installation
Where: Secret locations in Soho
Why: Artist Rick Buckley created these plaster noses to protest the appearance of CCTV cameras across London back in 1997. Find all seven, and it is said that great wealth will come your way!
So it seems as though secrets take on a variety of guises in London, but there’s one we haven’t mentioned yet. Movies. As one of the most popular secret experiences in London, Secret Cinema are the perfect testament to just how appealing such events can be.
To Secret Cinema, transporting people to different worlds has become second nature. Founder Fabien Riggall describes their greatest strength as the ability to not reveal the details of each event. “In the last 10 years, Secret Cinema has brought over 300,000 people to experience films in a new way, where instead of just watching a film you become part of an interactive, immersive experience: you watch the film and it comes to life around you,” he explains. Boundaries between the performer and audience are constantly pushed, as people slowly come to realize that anything could happen.
Featured films have included Back to the Future, Dr Strangelove, Star Wars, and 28 Days Later. Live actors take the audience with them on a whirlwind journey through movie worlds that seem so real, it’s hard to distinguish the line between fiction and reality. There’s something about these blurred lines that audiences respond to and rave about.
These large-scale events have the ability to take audience members back to childhood, when their imagination was constantly active. “As a child, when you go to the cinema you don’t really see the difference between what’s real and what’s fiction,” explains Fabien. “The cinema is much bigger and much larger than life [then], and the idea of being able to essentially walk through the screen and live inside the film is kind of a crazy one.”
Crazy perhaps – but apparently not impossible. What also amps up excitement levels is the secrecy. The audience don’t know where the event is held until the very last minute, and they often don’t know what the movie is going to be until they turn up. And of course, the venues themselves are often as unexpected as they are awe-inspiring. “We brought around 140,000 people to this essentially vacant abandoned newspaper factory and we changed the course of it[s history],” says Fabien. “It’s now becoming a 5000 capacity nightclub, and they’re turning it into a massive art center.”
The building Fabien is describing is the Printworks in Canada Water – a former newspaper factory with massive potential, but still a relative secret in London.
What’s the appeal of secrets?
Discovering secrets in this age of information is difficult, with a wealth of facts, figures and irresistible venue reviews at people’s fingertips. “We’re in a position where we are completely and utterly glued to screens wherever we are,” says Fabien. “We are ‘need junkies’, and are obsessed with information.”
This is perhaps the reason why Secret Cinema has been so successful. It’s escapism at its finest – switching off and getting lost in a story with very real actors and surroundings. “The feeling is that culturally, people are looking for something where they can lose themselves,” continues Fabien. “So we take people’s phones away – we seal them in bags so they can’t use them for the evening. It’s incredible, the amount of people who email us and say thank you for that.”
Sharing secrets also delivers a very satisfying human connection – actual social networking, without any social networks. “You are connecting with other human beings in a non-virtual environment,” says Fabien. “I think it’s a huge opportunity across the board really. We’re just tapping the surface of what it could be.”
Across the board, but across the pond too, as Secret Cinema is taking its participatory cinematic experiences to US shores. “Our US launch is in development, and we are getting closer all the time,” says Fabien. The location will be the ultimate concrete jungle, New York – a step that Fabien describes as “very exciting!”
Interestingly, they have also branched out into music. “If you go to a traditional concert, it’s quite frustrating now with the amount of phones that are in front of you,” says Fabien. “It’s hard to be intimate in a space and really listen to the music anymore, because it’s noisy and there are phones everywhere. So we’re really interested in how we can create unusual and special music experiences where you can go and see bands in different ways, and the album comes to life in different rooms with different songs.” There has also been talk of film production – the details of which remain shrouded in tantalizing secrecy…
Forget the mind – travel also broadens the imagination. Follow this last piece of advice from Fabien: “Build your own secrets. Create them, and let other people find them.”