10 places in London that every geek should know about23rd March 2015
You’ve done the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum is full of kids and fake dinosaurs, and the Royal Observatory is on top of a massive, gruelling hill. Despair not, for London is replete with other places to indulge your geek tendencies.
Here are 10 of the best, including a few obscurities that even the diligently curious might have missed.
Looking for geeky things to do in London this week? We’ve done you a list right here…
6-9 Carlton House Terrace, SW1Y 5AG. (Charing Cross)
Often muddled with the Royal Institution (see below) thanks to the pair’s insistence on using bafflingly similar, non-descriptive names. This is the older of the two, stretching back some 350 years to the time of Newton and Wren.
The society opens its doors three or four times a week for public lectures, usually with a big-name scientist. Talks are normally free, and on a ‘just turn up and hope to hell you get a seat’ basis.
Geek fact: the door handles on the main entrance are shaped like DNA double helices.
21 Albermarle Street, W1S 4BS. (Green Park)
This Mayfair mainstay packs a powerful history, with 14 Nobel Prizes and the discovery of 10 chemical elements all under its fair roof. A small museum in the basement tells that story, including the singular contribution of Michael Faraday, but the real emphasis is on the here-and-now.
Perhaps most famous for the annual Christmas Lectures (kicked off by Faraday all those years ago), the RI also has a weekly programme of adult lectures from some of the biggest scientific names on the planet (or off it… astronauts sometimes speak, too). Also, this one’s got a good bar. Always a bonus.
Geek fact: the Royal Institution was so popular in the 19th century that authorities had to make Albermarle Street one-way to cope with the influx of carriages. This was London’s first one-way street.
183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. (Euston Square)
“The free destination for the incurably curious,” reckons the tagline. Indeed, if the curious of London wanted to declare a geek republic, this place would be its seat of government.
The magnificent art deco building draws together stories from the history of medicine, with a commendable habit of blending science and art. Recent exhibitions have explored sexology, forensics, narcotics and death — much like a typical thinking bob event. Throw in a superbly curated book shop, an ever-bustling cafe and the peerless Wellcome Library, and you have a venue you will never want to leave.
Geek fact: a secret passage runs from the Wellcome Collection building underneath Euston Road to another office block, owned by the organisation.
British Postal Museum and Archive
Unit 7 Imprimo Park, Lenthall Road, IG10 3UF. (Debden)
Changes are afoot for the keepers of the postal service’s history. In a couple of years, a new public centre will open in Clerkenwell and eventually offer access to Royal Mail’s disused tube line. Until then, you should make the trek out to Debden to explore the museum’s store.
Items on show include every design of post box ever made and an unlikely range of vintage vehicles used to deliver the post — from motorbikes to pneumatic wagons.
Geek fact: the post office even experimented with penny farthing-style bikes, but never put them into service.
New London Architecture
The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, WC1E 7BT. (Goodge Street)
You could pay 30 squillion dollars to go to the top of the Shard and view London from above. Or, you could head to New London Architecture for free and take as long as you like over their humungous 3-D map of the capital. It shows every building in Zone 1 and much of Zone 2, with new or upcoming buildings shaded a different colour.
The centre also mounts regular temporary exhibitions about housing, architecture and development, and has a quiet little café that’s much more civilised than many of the offerings on nearby Tottenham Court Road.
Geek fact: the 3-D model occasionally gets decorated with imaginative additions, like a rubber T-Rex or Subbuteo players. I blame students.
Luxted Road, Downe, BR6 7JT. (Orpington)
It’s a bit of a bugger to get to this old house on the fringes of south London (try the R8 bus from Orpington if you don’t have a car or bike). But the slog is worth it, for Down House was home to one of the most important human beings who ever lived: Charles Darwin.
See the room where the big man penned On The Origin of Species, take a stroll along Darwin’s ‘thinking path’, a beautiful garden designed to stimulate creative thoughts. The hand-held guided-tour machine is voiced by none other than David Attenborough, offering a double dose of genius.
Geek fact: as a child, Darwin only washed his feet once a week. Ug.
Trinity Buoy Wharf, Orchard Place, E14 0JY. (Canning Town)
Among his many contributions to the world, Michael Faraday spent plenty of time dicking about in lighthouses, attempting to improve their visibility. London’s only lighthouse can be found on an obscure peninsula at the mouth of Bow Creek. Lurking beneath it is The Faraday Effect, a shed-cum-museum dedicated to the electric tinkerer.
While you’re there, be sure to take a look at Container City — a set of studios built from shipping containers — and the memorable Fat Boys American Diner.
Geek fact: while walking from Canning Town, look closely at the pavement. You’ll spy some subtle chewing-gum art from Ben Wilson.
Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE. (Holborn)
London has been a centre of medical excellence for centuries, which means that its museums have accumulated a grisly and gristly collection of bodily curiosities.
The free Hunterian Museum hides itself away within the Royal College of Surgeon’s building, and contains the capital’s pre-eminent accumulation of historic body parts, pickled animals and other grotesques. Just don’t go straight for dinner afterwards.
Geek fact: John Hunter, after whom the museum is named, helped his brother William run a semi-illegal surgery school. They would acquire bodies from grave-robbers and cut them up on the site of Covent Garden Apple Store. Apple don’t make a big thing about it for some reason.
Kirkaldy Testing Museum
99 Southwark Street, SE1 0JF. (London Bridge)
A museum devoted to ‘testing’? What? What? Testing, it turns out, in this case refers to the process of bending, stretching and twisting metal to check it’s up to standard. This is an important prelude to engineering, to make sure your bridge or skyscraper won’t fall down.
The tiny museum only opens one day a month, but is worth a visit just so you can tell your friends that you went to a ‘museum of testing’.
Geek fact: look for the pediment above the main door, which dogmatically reads FACTS NOT OPINIONS.
More information: www.testingmuseum.org.uk
London Museum of Water and Steam
Kew Bridge Road, Brentford TW8 0EF. (Kew Bridge)
Another obscure centre of engineering, this time out by the river at Kew Bridge. The museum’s centrepiece is a set of vintage steam engines, which are fired up a couple of weekends every month for the edification of the public (and the volunteers and staff who take a great pride in their machines).
The museum also tells the fascinating history of London’s water supply — something we now take for granted, but was once a matter of life or death.
Geek fact: the engines here first started pumping water around in the 1830s. You’ve probably noticed the ornate standpipe tower, the tallest structure in the area.
Editor-at-Large of Londonist.com, a recovering scientist and an all round geek.
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