The real fun of travelling anywhere you’re not familiar with anywhere in the world is to seek out not necessarily what everybody else visits, but to get off the beaten track and – don’t doubt it – in London there’s no end of alternative, quirky but marvellous museums and institutions to check out, especially if you’re staying at one of the hotels near Lancaster Gate, like the Park Grand London Lancaster Gate hotel…
Grant Museum of Zoology
(Rockefeller Building, UCL, 21 University Street WC1E 6DE)
Be warned: the UCL’s museum of zoology isn’t for the faint of heart. Elephant skulls, jars of moles, shark vertebrae and bisected heads are among the gruesome exhibits on display. For added shivers, head to one of their evening events, like their regular ‘Dead Life Drawing’ sessions (£8), where you can improve your drawing skills by sketching something stuffed or pickled.
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History
(11 Mare Street E8 4RP)
Don’t expect anything you see to make a lot of sense – instead, just let your jaw drop to the floor when you see all the bizarre things piled together in this weirdest of wunderkabinetts, including Happy Meal toys and celebrity stool samples. Their regular menagerie nights give you the chance to pet some interesting creatures too, like lizards and tarantulas. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Leighton House Museum
(12 Holland Park Road W14 8LZ)
You’ve got to love the Victorians’ habit of travelling the world, collecting every shiny thing in sight, and then returning to Blighty to show it all off. In the 1860s Frederic Leighton commissioned his friend, the architect George Aitcheson, to build him a house for this purposes in Holland Park. Here, he stashed all his classical acquisitions, as well as his own art and that of his contemporaries. Venture inside, and you’ll find the very model of nineteenth-century opulence.
Pollock’s Toy Museum
(1 Scala Street W1T 2HL)
In a pair of unrestored Fitzrovia townhouses, you’ll find this quirky collection dedicated to the world of play. And no, it’s not all Barbies and Kens: you’ll find some downright creepy displays of board games, marbles, puppets, wax dolls, dolls’ houses. Oh, and the world’s oldest teddy bear, and an Ancient Egyptian toy mouse, made out of Nile clay.
Old Operating Theatre Museum
(St Thomas Church, 9a St Thomas Street SE1 9RY)
Restored with original fixtures and surgical instruments, the UK’s oldest purpose-built operating theatre sits in an attic at the top of a Southwark church. Climb a vertiginous wooden staircase, and you’ll find yourself transported back to the world of nineteenth-century medicine, when surgery tended to involve things like brandy and hacksaws. Yet another one to avoid if you’re squeamish.
(57 Fitzroy Street W1T 6DX)
Two illustrious figures have lived at Fitzroy House. One was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw; the other was sci-fi supremo and Scientology founder and L Ron Hubbard. This museum is dedicated to the eccentric author and his output. (You’ll have to head to the Scientology Centre on Goodge Street if you want your thetans measured, mind.)
18 Stafford Terrace
Here’s where Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne lived with his family in the late nineteenth century, in the very epitome of genteel, well-heeled Victorian middle-class living. Curiously, it’s the humdrum stuff here that’s really fascinating: stuff like Sambourne’s bills and correspondence.