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June 16, 2009

Fifty of Britain’s best-kept secrets

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Filed under : General Green
Even within small, crowded Britain, there are still discoveries to be made, as a new guidebook demonstrates.

We all know the Cerne Abbas Giant, don’t we? That excitably male figure carved on a Dorset hillside hundreds of years ago that should by rights have been arrested by now? A new guidebook, Hidden Treasures of England: A Guide to the Country’s Best-Kept Secrets, revisits the area around Cerne Abbas, but chooses to point us past the priapic to something “much smaller, tantalisingly mysterious and incomparably more splendid” – an eighth-century carving of Christ hidden away in a little-visited church.

The stone sculpture – “of awful aspect and irresistible power,” according to the guidebook – is in the Church of the Holy Rood in the village of Buckland Newton. Depicting Christ as a kind of coiled spring, it has the rawness of African carvings and is a truly startling find in an English parish church.

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

1 Forgotten William Blake masterpiece

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 ( – search for “Arlington Court”)

2 ‘Dartmoor’ by Edward Burra

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 (

3 Engraved church windows

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

4 Britain’s first bungalow estate

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

5 12th-century murals

In this South Downs church are beautifully faded frescoes dated by Pevsner to c1140.
Church of John the Baptist, Clayton, West Sussex

6 Roman villa

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

7 13th-century manor house

A rare survival, Old Soar Manor retains its “solar” room, chapel and staircase.
Plaxtol, east of Sevenoaks, Kent (

8 Vast ruined abbey

Before the Lincolnshire Fens were reclaimed, Crowland Abbey presided over a watery world of islands, marsh and sea.
Crowland, south of Spalding (

9 Victorian theatre

A rococo riot, apt setting for regular performances by Prof Chucklebutty, aka Ken Dodd.
Grand Theatre, Blackpool (

10 Fragment of Roman road

A remarkable half-mile at Blackstone Edge in the Pennines.
Off the A58 above Littleborough

40 neglected gems

11 Bob Dylan was here

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

12 18th-century theme park

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 (

13 Moorland ruin

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

14 Ancient wooden carving

Part pagan, part early Christian, the Zennor Mermaid is carved on the end of a pew.
Church of St Senara, Zennor, west Cornwall

15 Plague graveyard

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

16 Medieval stained glass

A delicate late 15th century window showing St George on horseback slaying the dragon.
St George’s, Kelmscott, Oxfordshire

17 Patagonia here we come

The chapel where, in 1856, the idea of setting up a Welsh community in South America was first aired.
Engedi Chapel, New Street, Caernarfon

18 Drowned village

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

19 Peaceful lakeside church

One of the most tranquil settings, on the shore of Loch Achray, of any church in Britain.
Trossachs church, A821 at Brig o’ Turk.

20 Britain’s tallest church

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 (

21 Turner’s chair

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

22 Inspirational headstones

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 (

23 Lakeland cottage

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

24 Beatles pub

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

25 Timewarp hotel

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,

26 Timeless tearoom

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

27 Classic ice cream parlour

The Harbour Bar in Scarborough is a fabulously kitsch Formica and neon confection from the 1940s.
The Harbour Bar, Sandside, Scarborough

28 The Savoy of caffs

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

29 Hidden history

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)

30 Sentry-style AA box

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 (

31 Hillside memorial

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

32 Skeleton of a quagga

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 (

33 World’s oldest shirt

Just one among thousands of household items from Ancient Egypt.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, Malet Place, London WC1 (

34 Churchill’s Masonic apron

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 (

35 Early operating theatre

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 (

36 House stuck in the 1890s

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 (

37 Pub stuck in the 1960s

“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 (

38 Pub with Roman bath

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

39 Unfinished masterpiece

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 (

40 Beach sculpture

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

41 Heaven and hell

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 (

42 Lake with a name

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 (

43 Heroes’ corner

A memorial garden celebrates acts of heroism and selflessness by ordinary people.
Postman’s Park is near King Edward St, London EC1

44 Living in the future

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

45 Mystical village

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

46 Glass sculpture

A stunning work, occupying eight storeys, by Thomas Heatherwick hangs in the Wellcome Trust HQ.
‘Bleigiessen’ is at 215 Euston Rd, London NW1 (

47 Victor Pasmore mural

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

48 Grave of William Bligh

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 (

49 Dead genius

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

50 More dead geniuses

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

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