In this instance Hidden Treasures – lovingly compiled and written by Michael McNay, a former Fleet Street journalist and designer – does what it says on the jacket, though many of its entries are hardly as hidden and revelatory as the Buckland Newton carving: Kensal Green Cemetery, one of the world’s great necropolises, and Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria – the thinking druid’s Stonehenge – surely no longer qualify as best-kept secrets. Such reservations aside we’re all suckers for lists these days and Hidden Treasures is a useful vade mecum, for both armchairs and gloveboxes.
McNay – who, in Philip Larkin’s description, is definitely “one of the crew/That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were” – has taken as his starting point AJP Taylor’s assertion that England’s parish churches are its greatest treasure. Pevsner, Betjeman and Simon Jenkins may already have been there and done that, but McNay concentrates “on the things to which the others normally devote a sentence at most”. With an acute eye he also gets out of the church, into high streets, country houses, art galleries and even seaside promenades in search of the unheralded and the strange.
His book is but the latest in a recent glut of titles that promise to reveal hidden, lost, undiscovered, neglected or otherwise adjectivally appended versions of Britain. They aim to do for the national narrative what unauthorised biographies do for the individual – present a picture that goes beyond the official and mainstream, as found in our royal castles and palaces, stately homes, great cathedrals and so on.
So extensive is this genre of guidebook that one might feel there can be hardly anything marginal or quirky left to pull out of the hat. But one would be wrong. Britain is a ragbag of cultural heritage so commodious as to be bottomless, as I have discovered in the course of my own travels and research.
Below I choose 10 entries from Hidden Treasures of England, and follow them up with my own choice of 40 examples of the instructive, the exquisite and the downright weird, venturing into Wales and Scotland as well as England. Some you can visit, some you can stay or drink in, and some you can only gaze at. But all will make you stop, think and feel.
10 hidden treasures
Found on top of a cupboard in 1949, The Circle of the Life of Man is an allegory along familiar Blakean themes of earth and heaven.
Arlington Court, near Barnstaple, Devon (www.nationaltrust.org.uk – search for “Arlington Court”)
Better known for his paintings of New York night life, Burra produced this luminous moorland vision in 1975.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter (www.exeter.gov.uk/ramm)
A set of eight windows by Laurence Whistler depicting both nostalgic English landscapes and more symbolic, mystical scenes. Church of St Nicholas, Moreton, nr Dorchester, Dorset
Built near Margate by John Pollard Seddon, who imported the idea of one-storey living from India, in the 1880s.
Tower Bungalows, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent
In this South Downs church are beautifully faded frescoes dated by Pevsner to c1140.
Church of John the Baptist, Clayton, West Sussex
Dating from the 2nd century AD, this rich man’s farmhouse is one of the key sites of Roman Britain.
Lullingstone, north of Sevenoaks, Kent
A rare survival, Old Soar Manor retains its “solar” room, chapel and staircase.
Plaxtol, east of Sevenoaks, Kent (www.nationaltrust.org.uk)
Before the Lincolnshire Fens were reclaimed, Crowland Abbey presided over a watery world of islands, marsh and sea.
Crowland, south of Spalding (www.crowlandabbey.org.uk)
A rococo riot, apt setting for regular performances by Prof Chucklebutty, aka Ken Dodd.
Grand Theatre, Blackpool (www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk)
A remarkable half-mile at Blackstone Edge in the Pennines.
Off the A58 above Littleborough
40 neglected gems
One of his favourite photographs of himself – used to promote the Scorsese film No Direction Home – was taken at a now derelict ferry terminal in 1966.
Aust, Gloucestershire, south of Severn road bridge
Laid out along the west bank of the River Wye to provide viewing points in keeping with Picturesque principles.
Piercefield Park, alongside A466 in Monmouthshire (www.piercefieldpark.co.uk)
High on boulder-strewn moors, this derelict hovel was visited by the artist Mark Rothko and, some say, the occultist Aleister Crowley.
Zennor Carn, south of Zennor village, west Cornwall
Part pagan, part early Christian, the Zennor Mermaid is carved on the end of a pew.
Church of St Senara, Zennor, west Cornwall
Belonging to the church where Samuel Pepys is buried – and where he saw his wife’s dancing teacher, called Pemberton, leer at her during a sermon.
St Olave’s, Hart St, London EC3
A delicate late 15th century window showing St George on horseback slaying the dragon.
St George’s, Kelmscott, Oxfordshire
The chapel where, in 1856, the idea of setting up a Welsh community in South America was first aired.
Engedi Chapel, New Street, Caernarfon
A small whitewashed church is all that remains of the village of Wythburn, which was drowned a century ago to make way for Thirlmere reservoir.
Wythburn church, to the east of the A591 at Thirlmere, Cumbria
One of the most tranquil settings, on the shore of Loch Achray, of any church in Britain.
Trossachs church, A821 at Brig o’ Turk.
Or one of them, anyway. St Bart’s in Brighton was vilified when it was built in the late 19th century as a “cheese warehouse” and a “brick parallelogram”. Judge for yourself.
St Bartholomew’s, Ann St, Brighton (www.stbartholomewsbrighton.org.uk)
The chair in which JMW Turner sat to paint the River Thames through the vestry window is still collecting dust in this lovely riverside church.
St Mary’s, Battersea Church Road, London SW11
Beatrix Potter lived round the corner from Brompton Cemetery, where the graves commemorate plenty of MacGregors, a Jeremiah Fisher and a family called Nutkins.
Brompton Cemetery, Fulham Road, London SW10 (www.royalparks.org.uk)
One of the most mysterious and beautiful of all the Lake District’s traditional cottages, once lived in by the opium-eater Thomas De Quincey. Privately owned.
The Nab, Rydal Water, Cumbria
The lads drank here after gigs in the Cavern, when Pete Best was still the drummer. A photograph of them hangs on the wall, as does some of the 1960s wallpaper.
The Grapes, Mathew St, Liverpool
This Snowdonia hotel is marooned in the 1950s – no room keys, televisions or telephones; and a gong summons guests to breakfast and dinner. Charming.
Pen-y-Gwryrd Hotel, Gwynedd (01286 870 211, www.pyg.co.uk)
This rare wooden 1930s cafe featured in the 1959 remake of The 39 Steps with Kenneth More.
Brig o’ Turk Tea Room, off A821 in the Trossachs
The Harbour Bar in Scarborough is a fabulously kitsch Formica and neon confection from the 1940s.
The Harbour Bar, Sandside, Scarborough
This is not my description but that of Edwin Heathcote in his excellent book London Caffs. Pellicci’s in the East End is a riot of art deco peopled by geezers, codgers and arty types.
E Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Road, London E2
Alongside the A1(M) near Peterborough, a memorial marks the former existence of a camp for French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars: 1,770 died.
Norman Cross Memorial, near Jn 16 of A1(M)
There are just 21 left of the thousand or so boxes in classic postwar black-and-gold livery once located at remote roadside spots.
A good example is at Dunmail Raise, north of Grasmere on the A591, Cumbria (www.theaa.com/history)
The Edward Thomas Stone, near Petersfield in Hampshire, commemorates the country and war poet and commands glorious views of the South Downs.
On Shoulder of Mutton Hill above the village of Steep
Now extinct, it was like a zebra. This extremely rare skeleton resides in a fantastical basement boneyard which is part of London University but open to the public.
Grant Museum of Zoology, Darwin Building, Gower St, London WC1 (www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology)
Just one among thousands of household items from Ancient Egypt.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, Malet Place, London WC1 (www.petrie.ucl.ac.uk)
Plus masonic toast rack, beautiful art deco interiors and the rather sinister Grand Officers’ Robing Room.
Museum of Freemasonry, 60 Great Queen St, London WC2 (www.freemasonry.london.museum)
Beautiful example of an auditorium – in this case in the roof space of a church – where students watched surgeons performing. Gruesome and compelling.
The Old Operating Theatre, 9a St Thomas St, London SE1 (www.thegarret.org.uk)
A unique example of a Victorian townhouse, the former home of the cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne, with almost all furniture and fittings untouched since the late 1890s.
Linley Sambourne House, 18 Stafford Terrace, London W8 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/linleysambournehouse)
“The pub where time was never called” – when the Valiant Soldier closed nearly half a century ago, everything was left as it was, down to the money in the till.
The Valiant Soldier, 79 Fore Street, Buckfastleigh, Devon (www.valiantsoldier.org.uk)
When the foundations of this pub in York were excavated in the 1980s they were discovered to contain a caldarium, part of a Roman legionary bathhouse.
The Roman Bath Inn, St Samson’s Square, York
A Victorian mansion deep in a Cotswold valley that was never completed. The workmen’s tools are still there.
Woodchester Mansion is near Nympsfield, Glos (www.woodchestermansion.org.uk)
Maggi Hambling’s Scallop celebrates the composer Benjamin Britten and is inscribed with these lines from Peter Grimes: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”.
‘Scallop’ is on Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk
Burghley House is our greatest Elizabethan house and its highlights are the room and the staircase that depict, respectively, heaven and hell, painted by Antonio Verrio.
Burghley House, Stamford, Lincs (www.burghley.co.uk)
Rudyard Kipling was named after a lake that was once a tourist honeypot where the tightrope walker Blondin performed. Rudyard Lake is near Leek, Staffs (www.rudyardlake.com)
A memorial garden celebrates acts of heroism and selflessness by ordinary people.
Postman’s Park is near King Edward St, London EC1
This block of flats designed by Wells Coates in the 1930s, and including Agatha Christie among its residents, revolutionised city living. Privately owned.
The Isokon building, Lawn Road, London NW3
A tiny Welsh village contains an ancient tumulus, a holy well, three standing stones and a pre-Norman preaching cross – with many treasures believed to be yet undiscovered.
Trellech is in Monmouthshire
A stunning work, occupying eight storeys, by Thomas Heatherwick hangs in the Wellcome Trust HQ.
‘Bleigiessen’ is at 215 Euston Rd, London NW1 (www.heatherwick.com)
A gorgeous work by the Abstract artist and architect decorates a council building in Newcastle. It is so neglected that posters are plastered on it.
Civic centre, Newcastle upon Tyne
Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, is buried in the graveyard of St Mary at Lambeth church, now the Museum of Garden History. Apparently his remains are skeletal but his long grey hair is intact.
Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 (www.museumofgardenhistory.org)
The clothed body of the radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832, sits in a wooden cabinet in the main building of University College, London. The head is wax.
UCL, Gower St, London WC1
A bijou boneyard is the sole remaining example of London’s medieval burial grounds. Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan all reside here.
Bunhill Fields, off City Rd, London
credited to telegraph.co.uk