London's ever changing skyline and shifting configurations at street level undoubtedly make for a dynamic (and in some places, depressing) urban landscape. But there are even more gems lying in wait for those looking to escape the streets. Here we take a step inside to explore the intriguing stories and unexpected interiors to be found behind some of the city’s closed doors.
The Gamble Room, V&A
While London institutions such as Claridges and Sketch come to mind for afternoon tea, the unexpected glamour (and kinder price tag) of the world’s original museum café makes an enticing alternative. Opened in 1868 along with the adjoining Morris and Poynter rooms, this exquisite room at V&A museum certainly makes a statement. Named after one of its designers, The Gamble Room is a decadent symbol of Victorian design: every surface is tiled, painted, plastered and covered in ornate cherubs and elephants, whilst the painted windows drench the room in atmospheric dusk light whatever the hour. The museum advertised itself back in the 80s with the line ‘an ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached’. The room is brash, bold and unapologetic and we couldn’t love it more.
The Old Operating Theatre
Only a stone’s throw from The Shard and tucked away in the attic of the old St Thomas’ Hospital is Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre. Once used to store medicines and herbs by the apothecaries, the space was transformed into an operating theatre in 1822. It was designed to meet a need for a dedicated space for demonstrating surgical skills to medical students. Built in timber, the horse-shoe space was lined with tiered seating and topped with a large skylight. Following its relocation in 1862, the space was concealed with limited access until 1956, when the writer Raymond Russell – researching the history of the hospital – happened to come across the entrance by chance. This piece of medical history has been lovingly preserved and is open to visitors of the Old Operating Theatre Museum. Here you can learn about the fascinating and somewhat gory history of surgery and imagine a young doctor in-training learning their trade in an era before anaesthetics.
Conservatory at The Barbican
Londoners have a love-hate relationship with the brutalist design of the Barbican but the centre is also a nature sanctuary in the city. Situated directly above the Barbican theatre, you’ll find the second biggest conservatory in London (after Kew) – and a place that thousands of species of tropical plants, insects and fish call home. This secret garden is rich with foliage and lush greenery everywhere you look. Sounds of trickling water and buzzing bees offer a calming soundtrack to visitors. An afternoon spent wandering these tropical avenues is just the ticket for compressed city living.
Wilton Music Hall
This Grade 2 listed building, located a few short minutes from the Tower of London is the world’s oldest grand music hall. Originally conceived as five separate houses in the 1690s, the buildings were altered and reconstructed in various iterations, eventually combined by John Wilton in the 1860s. Replacing a rather more modest concert room, Wilton conceived a bold and beautifully furnished hall resplendent with mirrors, chandeliers and paintings lining the walls. After reopening in various guises including a church and rag warehouse, the hall once again opened in 1997 to become a thriving – and rather easy on the eye – cultural venue.
Blue Mountain School
Created by the owners of luxury design house Hostem, Blue Mountain School is a townhouse of curated design objects, fashion, furniture, music and art to discover at leisure.The building was a former belt factory, now re-imagined by 6a architects known for projects including Raven Row, South London Gallery, Paul Smith and Sadie Coles HQ.The six-storey space commands a striking presence in Shoreditch with its silver-hued facade. Visitors are buzzed in via a discreet entrance and taken round the thoughtfully arranged space by a member of staff. The building also accommodate Maos – Nuno Mendes’s new micro dining club – British perfumer Lyn Harris, exhibition space Blue Projects, the Hostem Archive and furniture company BDDW.
Daunt Books, Marylebone
With the stately air of a university library, elegant interiors and discerning staff, Daunt Books original store in Marylebone is a special place for book lovers in search of their next fix. The main reading room is overlooked by oaken galleries filled with books categorised rather charmingly by country, not author. Light streams from the looming antique window at one end of the room and the skylights overhead, creating a space to get lost in. In the calming company of books or the throws of Oxford Street on a Saturday? We know where we’d rather be.
Cover imagery credit: Barbican/Max Colson