London may be one of the world’s great cities, but many of its suburbs are like individual villages — each with its own unmistakable character and fascinating history.
Pinning down a London ‘suburb’ is, in itself, no mean feat. Officially, there are 32 London ‘boroughs’ (administrative wards), but even they are often made up of a cluster of individual ‘areas’ — sometimes no more than a few streets, but still with a unique history.
Here are four of the must-see historic neighbourhoods in London.
Greenwich is the jewel in the crown of London’s historic suburbs, and has strong ties to English royal, naval and scientific history. The one-time Saxon village became a favourite haunt of the Tudor kings and queens, as its riverside setting was perfect for staging magnificent pageants and processions.
In the second half of the 17th century the Royal Observatory was constructed in Greenwich. It was the first scientific institution in Britain to be funded by the state. The Observatory’s premier position in world astronomy was recognized when Greenwich Mean Time was adopted in 1884 as the baseline for all global time-zones. Today you can visit the Observatory and have your photo taken on the Prime Meridian Line at 0° longitude. Be warned: there are queues!
Over time, several of the original royal palaces were absorbed into the naval buildings that make up the UNESCO Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. Don’t miss the magnificent National Maritime Museum, including the fine collection of paintings at the Queen’s House. The Old Royal Naval College is an architectural masterpiece, and you can walk all around, through and under the legendary Cutty Sark, once the world’s fastest sailing ship.
Seventy-four hectares of grassland, trees and landscaped gardens make up Greenwich Park. Originally a royal hunting ground, the Park provides a wonderful sense of space and elevation, with spectacular views of the London skyline.
You’ll find a wide range of drinking and dining options as you walk the elegant Georgian streets of the town centre. Greenwich Market is great for books, antiques and artisan crafts.
How to get there: Take the Docklands Light Rail from Bank to Cutty Sark station, or travel by river on a Thames Clipper from the London Eye.
If Greenwich is the official face of maritime London, Rotherhithe — which sits on a bulge of land jutting into a loop of the River Thames — is its underbelly.
Surrounded by water on two of its three sides, Rotherhithe was for centuries a hub for British maritime trade and exploration, with geographic connections mirrored in its evocative place-names: Odessa Street, Jamaica Road, Canada Wharf, Greenland Dock.
Several famous journeys began here. The Mayflower, London’s oldest Thames-side pub, marks the spot from which the Mayflower first set off in 1620, stopping next at Plymouth before making its epic crossing to America. Captain Cook stayed at The Angel Inn while preparing for his voyage to Australia. And in fiction, Rotherhithe or ‘Redriff’ (as it was also known) was the home of literature’s most famous traveller, Captain Lemuel Gulliver.
As a sailors’ haunt, Rotherhithe attracted more than its share of pirates and smugglers, and was also home to a thriving trade in ‘bodysnatching’ or grave-robbing. One place-name, Cuckold’s Point, gives you an idea of some of the other activities the suburb was famous for!
In 1843 the first Thames tunnel opened at Rotherhithe, constructed by the famous Brunel father-son engineering team. Today you can visit the Brunel Museum to learn more about this and other marvels of Victorian engineering.
For more things to do in Rotherhithe visit the picturesque St Mary’s Church with its many voyaging associations, walk along the riverfront to enjoy an excellent view of Tower Bridge, and explore the beautiful but little-known Russia Dock Woodland.
How to get there: Take the Underground’s Jubilee Line to Canada Water station, then a London Overground train to Rotherhithe station.
An exclusive residential area in north London, leafy Highgate has the atmosphere of an eighteenth-century village, its High Street lined with classy shops and elegant eateries.
This suburb is big on green spaces, being bordered by Highgate Woods, Highgate Golf Course and the famous Hampstead Heath. Nearer to the village itself is the 11-hectare Waterlow Park, donated by Sir Sidney Waterlow in 1889 to be ‘a garden for the gardenless’. The park’s landscaped grounds are well worth a visit. Its three historic ponds are fed by natural springs, providing a habitat for wetlands birds. For humans, there’s the charming Lauderdale House, with its arts centre and café.
Adjoining Waterlow Park is Highgate Cemetery, an absolute must-see. The historic burial ground is one of the best places in the world to experience the Victorian cult of mourning and memorials. Take a guided tour (£12), spot famous graves such as those of philosopher Karl Marx and novelist George Eliot, or simply admire the over-the-top funerary architecture and the romantic stone angels that peep out from the tangle of trees and shrubs.
At the bottom of Highgate Hill is the Whittington Stone, said to mark the spot where legendary London mayor Dick Whittington received his mystic summons to ‘turn again’ and seek his fortune in the city. A statue of Whittington’s cat sits atop the stone and many people consider it good luck to give it a pat as they pass by.
How to get there: Take the Underground’s Northern Line to Archway or Highgate station.
At first glance, Richmond looks a bit like a second Greenwich. The town centre has a similar atmosphere of eighteenth-century elegance, but its park is a different story entirely! Where Greenwich Park is green, lush and manicured, Richmond Park is wild, brown and rugged — and has a history as an ancient royal hunting reserve.
It’s hard to believe terrain like this exists within the limits of a metropolis like London. At 1,000 hectares, this is the largest of the city’s green spaces. As you wander over tussocky grass and between the eerie silver skeletons of fallen trees, you feel as if you are traversing remote moorland. The sense of being in a wild place is only increased by glimpses of red and fallow deer that roam freely.
More traditionally garden-like is the Isabella Plantation, a 16-hectare gated zone inside Richmond Park, where flowers can grow without being molested by the deer. Great for picnics and children’s play, the Plantation is at its most colourful in late spring, when masses of rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom.
Next head down to Richmond Riverside for a change of scene. Cafés, beer gardens and restaurants line the riverfront.
From Richmond Bridge, there’s a lovely walk along the Thames Path. You’ll feel as if you’re in the countryside as you walk alongside meadows punctuated by the odd historic house. Six kilometres will bring you to Teddington Lock, which marks the end of the tidal Thames. If you’re up for a 13 km hike, you can walk all the way to Hampton Court Palace. Otherwise, just go as far as you want, before heading back to Richmond village for a meal or a drink.
How to get there: Take the Underground’s District Line to Richmond station.
Do you have any tips for must-see historic neighbourhoods in London? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.