London’s top horror movie locations

Viewed through the canon of classic horror cinema, it’s clear that London has horror in its blood, and blood on its streets, and on its walls, and even splashed around the tiled floors of the Underground. The British capital has been the setting for more horror films than you could shake a hastily assembled crucifix at, and London’s horror legacy is as hard to keep at bay as Christopher Lee’s Dracula.

Fans of the genre can drop by a veritable film festival of horror movie locations in London, though many landmark buildings from horror classics have been turned into luxury flats or franchise coffee shops – less spooky, but in some ways just as insidious.

If you’ve ever wanted to tread in the paw prints of An American Werewolf in London, or wander the zombie-infested suburbs from Shaun of the Dead, or stalk the same estates as the luminous-fanged aliens in Attack the Block, now could be the time.

Here’s my pick of London’s top horror movie locations. 

London’s handsome Royal Exchange ©Aurelien Guichard/CC by-SA 2.0

28 days of London landmarks

Serving up a  truly nightmarish vision of London, Danny Boyle’s plague-virus infested 28 Days Later offers a rich feast for fans of the genre. Boyle set his infected loose in a string of landmark London locations – the only challenge for fans is experiencing London in the same state of eerie emptiness as in the movie.

To recreate Cillian Murphy’s unnerving walk through the abandoned city streets, start off at first light, before the commuters hit the pavements. Time it right and you’ll have a reasonable approximation of the capital as it might appear after an apocalyptic outbreak; just be ready for whatever happens next… 

Stumble bleary-eyed onto Lambeth Palace Road by St Thomas’ Hospital, and cross Westminster Bridge to Horse Guards Parade and the Mall, then cross the city to the Royal Exchange (there’ll be a few abandoned copies of Metro and the Evening Standard to set the scene). Wind up at St Anne’s Church on Three Colt Street, near Limehouse Station, where Cillian Murphy fights off a Rage-virus infected priest.

Eerie-when-empty tunnels at Tottenham Court Road ©Tom Page/CC by-SA 2.0

Gore-ing underground

The London Underground has cropped up in a string of horror classics, from the famous to the obscure. And let’s face it, there is something undeniably creepy about the idea of being alone in the Tube tunnels, fleeing an unknown assailant but blocked by barriers at every escape route.

Donald Pleasance vehicle Death Line (1972) combined the stalker trope with prototype ideas about inbred, cannibal troglodytes, later fully realised in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In Death Line, Russell Square Tube station was where the first victim of the cannibal ticket guard was discovered, but the interior shots were actually filmed inside the abandoned Strand Tube Station at Aldwych. 

Featuring many of the same locations, slasher-movie-by-numbers Creep (2004) is probably best forgotten, but few would deny the power of the subterranean pursuit in An Werewolf in London, filmed from both the victim’s and the monster’s perspective at Tottenham Court Road Tube station. If you’re on an American Werewolf kick, you could also drop by London Zoo, Piccadilly Circus, and 64 Coleherne Road in Earl’s Court, where David Naughton undergoes his first, chilling transformation.

Highgate Cemetery’s Egyptian Avenue, spooky to this day ©seanbjack/CC by-ND 2.0

Abominable goings-on in Highgate

Few London locations have such a distinguished  horror pedigree as Highgate Cemetery. Such iconic structures as the Gothic gateway to the West Cemetery and the Egyptian Avenue have made their way into a string of classic British horrors, most famously, The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), with Vincent Price doing a bravura turn as the revenge-obsessed doctor enacting punishments from the Old Testament on the medical team who failed to save his wife. 

The cemetery also had cameo roles in a string of shlock horror B-movies from the 1970s – films such as Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Frankenstein & the Monster from Hell (1974) and From Beyond the Grave (1974) – as well as more recent outings in Dorian Gray (2009) and, less horribly, The Crimes of Grindelwalk (2018).

Appropriately, Highgate Cemetery was the centre of a real-life supernatural mystery – a moral panic involving grave-robbing, wandering ghosts, occult rituals and two self-styled ‘magicians’ that gripped the Britain’s tabloid newspapers in the 1960s and 70s. Graves were certainly desecrated at the time, but sightings of the ‘Highgate Vampire’  ceased as abruptly as they had started.

Dollis Hill, where Clive Barker raised hell ©Ian Wright/CC by-SA 2.0

Raising hell in Dollis Hill

When Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) was first screened at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, it marked a triumphant return of the capital to horror screens, after long being overlooked by the big studios. Much of the opening-a-portal-to-hell action takes place at an unassuming address in NW2 – 187 Dollis Hill Lane, near Gladstone Park – where Barker filmed most of the interior and exterior shots.

From 2012 to 2014, London had its own personal Hellraiser mystery, as VHS cassettes of the movie started appearing unexpectedly on the roofs of bus shelters around the capital, including on Old Kent Road and at Newington Green. Despite an anonymous call to a radio station claiming responsibility, the identity of the person leaving the tapes was never uncovered, but as the film warns, there’s a price to pay for solving puzzles…

The notorious tower of Fulham’s All Saints Church ©Jim Linwood/CC by-SA 2.0

Bad omens in Fulham

In the company of gore-fests such as the original Suspiria (1977) and other gruesome classics released in the late 1970s, Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) featured surprisingly little of the red stuff, though most of its protagonists still came to a sticky end. What it did have was atmosphere, and a sense of brooding menace that injected horror into ordinary London locations.

Early in the movie, the young spawn of Satan takes a family trip to Parliament Hill, and his American ambassador father is accosted by Patrick Troughton’s Revelations-obsessed priest at the former American embassy on Grosvenor Square (now replaced by a gleaming new embassy building in Vauxhall). Eventually, of course, Troughton pays the ultimate price near Bishops Park in Fulham, impaled by a falling lightning conductor at All Saints Church at the north end of Putney Bridge.

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India’s strangest street food

Everyone knows that the best eats in India are served on the streets. Street food is a way of life in the subcontinent, and generations of travellers have picked up the habit, feasting their way from Mumbai to Mamallapuram on a diet of aloo tikki (spiced potato cakes), vada pav (potato dumplings in a white bread bun) and chhole bhature (spiced chickpeas with fried bread).

India is one of the world’s greatest cooking pots, as well as one of its greatest melting pots, but amongst the familiar street eat treats are some more unusual offerings to tempt adventurous palates. Here’s my pick of the pavement menus:

Petha

Spend any time in the central plains and you’ll soon spot India’s petha-wallahs, their wooden handcarts swarming with hundreds of buzzing bees. The sweet treat luring all these winged hangers-on is a delicacy from the royal courts of Agra: candied cubes of ash gourd, enjoyed by residents of Uttar Pradesh for centuries.

Petha was allegedly a personal favourite of the Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, and despite the insects swarming over vendors’ stalls, its high sugar content acts as a preservative so it’s usually safe to eat on the street. Look out for it at bus stands, train stations and markets in Uttar Pradesh and beyond.

Red ant, a key ingredient in chaprah
Red ants – the special ingredient in chaprah © Rajeev Minj/CC by-SA 4.0

Chaprah

India was the birthplace of chutney – indeed, the word comes from the Hindi verb chatna meaning ‘to lick’ – and every region has its own unique take on this distinctively Indian condiment. But chutney made from red ants might be a step too far for all but the most ambitious eaters.

In Bastar in Chhattisgarh, red ants and their eggs are pounded with chilli, ginger and other spices to make a pungent, fiery relish. You’ll see chaprah being sold in bowls made from leaves in village markets across the region, eaten .

Eri Polu

Eating insects has become a traveller rite of passage in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find similar exoskeleton-covered treats in Assam, where Indian culture brushes up against the hill-tribe culture of neighbouring Myanmar and southern China. Assam is famous for its silk saris, but the industrious silkworms that make it also crop up as a portable snack.

Having spun their valuable cocoon, silkworm pupae are re-employed as a street food ingredient, boiled with ginger and other spices as a munchable street food delicacy for Assamese market shoppers on the go. Eri Polu is usually served with khorisa, fermented bamboo shoots.

Paniphal, a popular street food across India
Purple and green paniphal, ready to eat © Teacher1943/CC by-SA 4.0

Paniphal

In street markets across India, particularly around Kolkata and West Bengal, look out for piles of alien-looking pods, usually dark green or purply-black, like pint-sized props from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Congratulations, you’ve just had your first close encounter with paniphal (singhara): the Indian water chestnut, or water caltrop.

Hidden inside that weird-shaped pod is a white, starchy tuber, that stays deliciously crisp and crunchy, even when cooked. However, a little caution is required as uncooked paniphal can carry the parasitic flukes that cause fasciolopsiasis; stick to the boiled version to be safe and wash with clean water before peeling.

Tilli

For travellers used to sanitised, pre-packaged choice cuts of meat back home, the Indian enthusiasm for offal can take some getting used to. In the Maharashtran city of Pune, it’s chargrilled buffalo spleen that titillates local gourmet tastebuds.

Famed (or notorious, depending on why you speak to) for its sharp, almost acrid flavour, and sour, rotten smell, tilli is definitely an acquired taste. And not everyone feels the need to acquire a taste for meat marinaded in bile; try it and come to your own conclusion.

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Understanding India’s Shakti Peeth temples

If you spend any time in India, you’ll hear the term shakti peeth. In a country overflowing with sacred sites, these landmark Hindu temples have an extra level of significance. You’ll probably encounter your first shakti peeth by accident, but you’ll soon learn that these ancient shrines form a network stretching right across the subcontinent, part of a Tantric belief system dating back to the earliest days of Hinduism.

Stay a little longer and you may learn the origin story of these singularly sacred shrines. The tragic tale of the marriage of Lord Shiva and the goddess Sati, and the paternal snub at a ritual sacrifice that led Sati to immolate herself in the sacred flames, providing the inspiration for centuries of widows taking their lives on their husband’s funeral pyres.

As the story goes, the heartbroken Shiva marched across the heavens carrying his wife’s charred remains, and parts of her disintegrating body fell at different spots across the subcontinent. Each became the sacred site of a shatki peeth temple.

Most of the 51 shakti peetha (or 108, depending on which scriptures you believe) lie in what is now India, but a handful were separated off into Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal by the unthinking hand of colonial boundary makers.

So, having learned that shakti peeth temples are important, which of the 51 temples are the ones to visit? Here’s a top five:

Kolkata's Kalighat Kali Temple.
Kalighat temple is surrounded by crowded bazaars © shankar s./CC by-2.0

Kalighat Kali Temple, Kolkata, West Bengal

Being linked to the ancient cult of shakti worship, the veneration of divine feminine creative power, many of the shakti peeth temples are associated with ritual sacrifices. So it is at Kolkata‘s venerated Kalighat Kali temple, sacred to the most fearsome incarnation of the Hindu mother deity. It was here that the toe from Sati’s right foot fell as the great goddess crumbled.

In times past, human sacrifice was commonplace across Bengal, but today it is goats and pigeons who fall to the sacrificial swords at Kalighat. For those who would rather avoid the gruesome spectacle, it’s as interesting to wander the temple compound as crowds of devotees pay their respects in the Bengali hut-style temple, rebuilt on the site of a much older temple in 1809.

The Jagannath Temple, Puri
The imposing rooftops of the Jagannath Temple compound © International Vaishnavas Portal

Vimala Temple, Puri, Odisha

The ancient Vimala temple at Puri has been absorbed into the fabric of the legendary Jagannath temple, the setting for India’s most famous chariot parade during the Hindu festival of Rath Yatra in June or July. The shrine is said to mark the precise spot where Sati’s navel fell during Shiva’s cosmic march of grief.

Although the Vimala shrine represents just a small part of a much bigger temple, it has huge religious significance, and many devotees regard Vimala – another of the myriad incarnations of the mother goddess – as being more important than Jagannath, the patron deity of the complex.

In many ways, the temple at Puri is the physical embodiment of the power struggle between Shiva worship and Vaishnavism that has defined the evolution of Hinduism through the centuries. Befitting the reputation of the Shakti cult, devotees once threw themselves under the wheels of the chariots at Rath Yata to die in the sight of the divine.

Taratarini temple, an ancient shakti peeth temple near, Brahmapur
The ancient stone chapels of the Taratarini temple © santosh.nahak12/CC by-3.0

Taratarini Temple, Brahmapur, Odisha

Lying off the tourist circuit on the southern coast of Odisha, the Taratarini Temple at Brahmapur marks the resting place of one of the breasts of Sati, adding special significance for followers of the cult of the mother goddess. Set on a green hilltop overlooking the Rushikulya River, the ornately carved shrine is a fine example of the Kalinga architectural style.

Rising to an amalaka (notched disk) finial, the temple’s tiered levels were carved from local stone in the 17th century, but the tradition of worshipping the twin goddesses Tara and Tarini dates back much earlier. The name Tara is part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, dating the temple’s origins to at least the time of the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.

Kamakhya, one of the most important shakti peeth temples.
The distinctive beehive rooftops of the Kamakhya temple © Arpandhar/CC by-SA 4.0

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, Assam

Perhaps the most powerful of the shakti peetha, the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati, capital of Assam, marks the landing place of Sati’s yoni, or vagina, giving it very special significance in the Tantric tradition. Animal sacrifices are a long-standing custom here, and on feast days, the floor of the cramped, stone chamber at the centre of the temple runs red with sacrificial blood.

The first temple at Kamakhya was constructed in the 8th or 9th century, but this ancient structure was destroyed by the forces of the Bengali sultan Ala-ud-din Husain Shah in the 16th century, and Kamakhya was extensively rebuilt in the curious hybrid style seen today. It’s one of the most atmospheric temples in the Northeast, and a living link to traditions that predate the rise of Hinduism in the subcontinent.

Muktinath Temple, a shakti peeth in Nepal

Muktinath Temple, Jomsom, Nepal

From Northeast India to Nepal. Enshrining a natural gas flame that has reputedly been burning for centuries, the temple of Muktinath near Jomsom is perched at a breathless 3710m above sea-level. Revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, this ancient shrine is said to grant moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, to devotees who make the pilgrimage through the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range.

It is the scenery as much as the architecture that makes Mukinath so special. The tiny tiered temple, in the classic Nepali style, is surrounded by an amphitheatre of Himalayan peaks. Before the opening of Jomsom airport, Mukinath could only be reached after days of trekking from Pokhara, but today, it’s possible to get here in a day, albeit with a draining increase in altitude. Jeeps also rumble up to Jomsom via a rough dirt road from Pokhara.

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India’s most unusual temples

People often say that god exists in everything, and in India people take that idea to its logical conclusion. Dotted around this spectacular subcontinent are surprising shrines to sportsmen and Bollywood superstars, and temples paying homage to humble household objects. Even rodents get their time in the religious spotlight. Here’s a pick of the most unusual temples in India.

Karni Mata Temple, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Rajasthan punches above its weight when it comes to surprising temples, and at the Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke near Bikaner, the sewer rat is elevated to divine status. The 25,000 writhing rodents that seethe over the piles of food offerings left at this early 20th-century shrine are worshipped by devotees as the reincarnated children of the goddess Karni Mata, patron deity of the royal house of Bikaner. Visit and you’ll have rats literally crawling across your feet, but we advise against taking any of the prasad (sacred food) offered to pilgrims.

Deshnoke has its own tiny train station, within walking distance of the temple, but its just as easy to charter a vehicle in Bikaner, or swing by on one of the buses that zip between Bikaner and Jodhpur along Highway 62.

Master Blaster Temple, Atarwalia, Bihar

Few would deny that Sachin Tendulkar, scorer of the highest ever tally of international runs, is a cricketing god. The legendary batsman officially retired from the game in 2013, but the Master Blaster is still adored with almost religious devotion, literally at Atarwalia in Bihar, where a statue of Tendulkar is venerated in the first temple dedicated specifically to cricket. This unusual shrine was the brainchild of Bhojpuri actor Manoj Tiwari, and it comes with its own cricket ground and sports academy.

Atarwalia is a dusty detour off the highway between Varanasi and Aurangabad in Bihar, hear the town of Bhabhua, but you can continue by road from Aurangabad to Gaya and Bodhgaya, where the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Om Banna Shrine and its sacred motorcycle
Another busy day at the Om Banna shrine © Clément Bardot/CC by-SA 4.0

Om Banna Shrine, Jodhpur, Rajasthan

The Enfield Bullet motorcycle is the king of the Indian road, so it seems only appropriate to give it the full religious treatment. At the Om Banna shrine in Pali near Jodhpur – known locally as ‘Bullet Baba’ – a miraculous motorcycle is the focal point for devotion, after it reportedly teleported back to the scene of the accident that killed its rider in 1991. Motorcyclists stop by daily to shower the venerable Enfield Bullet with flowers and light incense sticks and sacred lamps to pray for safe passage on India’s perilous highways.

The Bullet Baba shrine sits beside Highway 62 between Jodhpur and Pali, an easy leaping-off point for the outrageously elaborate Jain temples at Ranakpur. From Ranakpur, it’s an easy trip south to Udaipur with its palaces and mirrored lake.

Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara, Jalandhar, Punjab

For many Indian workers, a visa to work overseas is a golden ticket for a higher wage and a better life. Millions pray for an H1B or H2B visa to work in America, and devotees hope to tip the odds in their favour by leaving offerings of model airplanes at the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara in the village of Talhan near Jalandhar. Locally, the Sikh gurdwara is known as hawai jahaj, the airplane shrine, and as many as 100 model aircraft can arrive at the shrine daily, left by devotees hoping for a ticket to a new life abroad.

Jalandhar is a busy city of over a million in the dusty plains northwest of Delhi, but most visitors zip past on the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Amritsar. Stop by, and you can visit a string of temples, monuments and museums.

Brahma Baba Temple, Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh

There’s nothing unusual about praying for more time, but at Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, things go the other way. Devotees flock to the temple to offer clocks to the supreme deity in the hope of having wishes granted. As the story goes, a local man left a clock as an offering in the tree beside the shrine and his dream of becoming a truck driver was fulfilled. Word got out, and today, pilgrims from all religions visit the shrine to offer their own timepieces in the hope of a similar result.

Jaunpur is off the tourist trail, but worth a visit in its own right for its interesting collection of Mughal monuments, including the imposing Atala and Jama Masjid mosques and the Shahi Bridge, built on the orders of the emperor Akbar. It’s an easy detour northwest from Varanasi.

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Sri Lanka: a time of danger

The ripples that spread out following the deadly terrorist attacks that struck Sri Lanka on 21 April are growing in intensity. In the last few days, anti-Muslim riots have struck the towns of Kiniyama, Hettipola, Chilaw and Puttulam in Northwestern Province, as Christian anger over the attacks has bubbled over into violence.

A social media ban – including Twitter for the first time, alongside Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat – has been reimposed, to prevent the stirring of inter-communal tensions, and a curfew has been introduced in North Western province as police try to contain the unrest.

However, the violence has already claimed one life – a 45-year-old carpenter killed in his workshop by rioters in Puttalam District. Elsewhere, Muslim-owned business have been burned to the ground and mosques and other religious sites have been attacked by angry mobs. Disorder has spread far beyond Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa – the sites targeted on 21 April.

Politicians from all communities on this pluralist island are appealling for calm, and the government has promised to bring the riots to an end. In an interview with the BBC, presidential advisor Shiral Lakthilaka said: ‘What we want to say is that the government is very determined to control this and from tonight onwards it shall be completely controlled.’

Interior of Jami ul-Alfar mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka
The interior of Colombo’s historic Jami ul-Alfar mosque © Dan Lundberg /CC by-SA 2.0

The United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, and the United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Karen Smith, have issued a joint statement urging the government to protect religious minorities in the country.

However, this may be easier said than done. The authorities are already overstretched investigating the 21 April bombings, and the riots near Colombo have created a new front in the battle to keep order. And public anger about government failings in the run up to the attacks continues to grow.

The army has threatened to use maximum force to bring the rioters under control, a statement that has powerful resonance in a country still emerging from the shadow of civil war. The coming weeks will be an important test of the government’s commitment to a multicultural, pluralist society, and its ability to govern in the interests of all Sri Lankans.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka
Serenity in Kandy, but tensions are rising elsewhere © Potier, Jean-Louis /CC by-ND 2.0

Against this backdrop, the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka continues to decline. Tourist arrivals in April are down 7.5 percent compared to 2018, and the government is expecting a 30% drop in overall visitor numbers by the end of the year.

How quickly Sri Lanka can turn its fortunes around will depend on how quickly the government can reassure tourists that Sri Lanka is safe to visit. For many of the tourists looking on, the situation in the country still appears too unstable to gamble on a holiday to Sri Lanka at the present time.

If you are thinking of travelling to Sri Lanka, check the latest travel advice from your government, and review local media for the latest developments in the country – infolanka.com/news is a useful resource for news stories from various Sri Lankan publications. Also see the article Where Now for Sri Lanka?

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An ode to Jet Airways

With the suspension of flight operations by India’s Jet Airways, and rival airlines lining up to take over its airport slots in Delhi and Mumbai, it feels like the end game for another of India’s private airlines. Like Kingfisher before it, Jet grew too big, too quickly, and put optimistic acquisitions ahead of sound business decisions.

From a personal perspective, though, I’ll mourn Jet’s passing. Jet was always my go-to airline in India, an island of calm in a chaotic subcontinent. Even though the airline’s much touted ISO 9001 rating was for service rather than safety, Jet always felt like a stable, safe operation.

Boarding at a small, regional airport such as Leh or Bagdogra, climbing onto a Jet aircraft felt like entering the genteel, comforting world of international airspace, even for a short domestic hop. In-flight amenities were international standard, with neat subcontinental flourishes, like the cooling jal jeera (lemon juice with mint and cumin) served when boarding in business class.

In short, Jet Airways felt like a grown-up airline, with a network befitting a national carrier, whereas the national domestic carrier, Indian Airlines (since subsumed into Air India) seemed to be stuck in a 1980s time warp, from the livery down to the lackadaisical service. I still remember being served a lunch hand-made in the departure lounge to carry on board myself on my first internal flight on Indian Airlines in the early 1990s.

Plane wing with mountains on the approach to Leh
Mountains crowd in on the hair-raising approach to Leh © Joe Bindloss

By contrast, service on Jet was generally excellent, delays were infrequent, and the fleet was regularly refreshed with gleaming new planes that offered reassurance for nervous flyers, particularly when changing from the heirloom aircraft used by carriers such as Alliance Air to buzz around the Northeast States.

It may be that Jet finds a sponsor to save it from liquidation, in which case the cessation of flights will be temporary, as promised on the Jet Airways website. But with staff being poached by other companies, that may be a thin hope. In the meantime, I’ll be preparing a lone bugle salute for the airline that carried me safety through the Indian skies for more than 20 years.

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London in 5 great beards

Walk down any street in London circa 1870 and a man without a beard would have been the rare exception. The capital, and the nation, was gripped by a beard obsession, as Victorian males aped the soldiers returning from the Crimean War, the first generation permitted to wear whiskers by the British Army.

Prior to the outbreak of war with Russia, a full face of hair was strictly prohibited for military men, but the freezing temperatures on the Crimean peninsula necessitated a change of heart. To stave off the chill, soldiers at Sevastopol and Balaclava started cultivating beards, and the Great British public followed with gusto.

Plus ça change. Leap forward 150 years and the streets of the capital are once again awash with beards: the essential street accessory for the male half of the millennium generation. So in these pogonophilic times, it seems timely to remember the great London beards of the past, as sported by its greatest writers, scientists and thinkers.

Charles Darwin statue with one of London's finest beards
Darwin guards the steps at the Natural History Museum © CGP Grey / CC by-2.0

Charles Darwin

If grandfatherly beards are your thing, it’s hard to improve on the snow-white stunner cultivated by father of evolution, Charles Darwin. The renowned evolutionary scientist was actually beardless in earlier life, including during his famous voyage on HMS Beagle, and only sprouted whiskers in 1866, reportedly to diminish the effects of eczema.

Nevertheless, this explosion of facial hair coincided with the rise of popular photography, and that famous portrait of an elderly Darwin peering sternly over a thick hedge of white beard became the definitive image of the great Victorian. Today, he proudly leads the honour roll of great London beards.

This is how you’ll see Darwin represented in gleaming white marble on the imposing stairway at the end of Hintze Hall in the Natural History Museum. The 2.2 tonne sculpture by Sir Joseph Boehm was unveiled in 1885, but it hopscotched around the museum before being returned to its original location in 2008.

While you are here, you can spot many specimens personally collected by Darwin dotted around the museum, particularly in the ornithology gallery and the hi-tech Darwin Centre, accessible on behind-the-scenes tours.

London cricket icon WG Grace, and his famous beard
WG Grace defends the wicket in The Champion © Matt Brown / CC by-2.0

WG Grace

Few beards have gripped the sporting world quite like the bushy bristles of WG Grace, cricket legend and Victorian extraordinaire. The great amateur cricketer – amateur, only in the sense of not being employed to play cricket full-time – clocked up an impressive 44 seasons of first-class cricket, scoring the first ever test century, and lining his pockets handsomely in the process. He was also a famous grandstander, marching out ahead of the teams he captained, like a Roman general, to open the innings.

Grace was born near Bristol and lived much of his life in Gloucestershire, but he spent his final decades in a now-demolished house on Lawrie Rd in Sydenham, earning him a place on the roll call of London beards. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of ways to connect with the legendary cricketer in the capital.

Drop into the National Portrait Gallery to see Grace immortalised in paint, sepia print and lithography, or check out the trophies and portraits at the Kia Oval, where the cricketing hero played the first test match on British soil in 1880. Finish off with a pint at The Champion in Fitzrovia, below a stained glass portrait of Grace at the wicket.

The Dickens Museum in London
The Victorian home of Charles Dickens in Doughty St © jelm6 / CC by-2.0

Charles Dickens

Thanks to the iconic portrait photos taken by photographer George Gardner Rockwood during Charles Dickens’ 1867-68 tour of America, the great Victorian writer is forever associated with the ‘doorknocker beard’ – a theatrical creation, based on the classic goatee but splayed into a disorderly straggle at the chin. Dickens began his experimentation with facial hair two decades earlier on a separate tour of the states, but it was the 67-68 expedition that marked out the writer as one of the iconic London beards.

London overflows with Dickens locations, so start the tour at the Dickens Museum, set in the writer’s former home at 48 Doughty St in Bloomsbury, lovingly maintained in much the same condition as when Dickens lived here in the late 1830s. In these elegant Victorian rooms, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers.

A short hop east, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a location for much of the legal wrangling in Bleak House. On the north side of the quadrangle is glorious Sir John Soane’s Museum, with no direct Dickens collection, but an eclectic hoard of salvaged architectural trimmings, amassed by another great 19th-century Londoner, Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England. Just south on Fleet Street, the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese pub was a popular drinking spot for Dickens, and he alluded to it in A Tale of Two Cities.

The grave of Karl Marx, complete with beard
Karl Marx looks out for eternity over Highgate Cemetery © Ann Wuyts / CC by-2.0

Karl Marx

The world’s most famous revolutionary was born in Germany, and fired up with reformist zeal in Paris, Brussels and Cologne, but Karl Marx wrote some of his most famous works in London, where he also nurtured one of the world’s most famous beards. Much aped by lecturers in politics and social theory today, Marx’s signature beard and moustaches appear in all 15 surviving photographs of the father of socialism.

Marx died in 1883 – just a year after Charles Darwin – and was buried in the eastern part of Highgate Cemetery, a short hop from Hampstead Heath. The influential reformer was originally interred rather modestly, in the same grave as his wife – something he would no doubt have approved of. But in 1956, Marx was reburied beneath a huge stone bust by socialist sculptor Laurence Bradshaw, paid for by the Communist Party.

London protester with Guy Fawkes mask
Anti-elite protesters have adopted Guy Fawkes as their symbol © Hernán Piñera / CC by-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes

In these divided times, with Parliament gridlocked between warring Brexit parties, there would probably be quite a lot of sympathy if a modern-day Guy Fawkes rolled gunpowder into the basement to bring the whole edifice crashing down. Indeed, Guy Fawkes’ face and signature beard can be seen widely in central London thanks to the masks worn by anti-establishment protestors – inspired by the illustrations in David Lloyd and Alan Moore’s cult graphic novel, V for Vendetta.

Sadly, the House of Lords that Guy Fawkes tried unsuccessfully to destroy in 1605 is no longer there. The Palace of Westminster was ravaged by fire in 1834, and replaced in 1840 with the Gothic Revival structure depicted on a million sauce bottles and tourist postcards. But it’s still worth a visit to the Houses of Parliament to soak up the theatrical pomp and ceremony that still unpins much of British democracy.

Guy Fawkes was executed just yards from the building that he tried to raze in Old Palace Yard, the open area dividing the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Abbey. Contrary to popular legend, however, the leader of the gunpowder plot escaped being hung, drawn and quartered by jumping from the steps to the scaffold and breaking his neck. His lifeless corpse was later torn apart as a warning to other would-be conspirators.

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Surprising Indian history in Canterbury

Scratch the surface of British history in almost any situation and traces of colonialism will appear. On a Bank Holiday weekend trip to Canterbury Cathedral, I was surprised to discover not the spectres of Thomas Becket and the Black Prince, but the ghosts of the Sutlej campaign – one of the most mercenary missions by the East India Company in the quest to seize control of India.

Navigating the medieval stairways and stacked stone levels of Canterbury’s World Heritage-listed cathedral, I spotted a string of memorials to sons of empire amongst the tombs of ruff-collared 17th-century nobles. Men such as Colonel Bolton and Captain Willes, killed in the battle of Mudki, and Major Baldwin, fatally wounded in combat at Feroze Shah in the Indian Punjab.

Huntingdonshire Regiment memorial, listing battles from Indian history
Huntingdonshire Regiment memorial © Joe Bindloss

The majority of the colonial-era memorials inside Canterbury Cathedral date from the 1840s and the notorious Sutlej campaign, or First Anglo-Sikh War. This largely forgotten piece of Indian history lined up the chess pieces for some of the most bloody events during the Partition of India.

The Mughals were just one of many adversaries opposed to the British conquest of India, and the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh presented a major obstacle to the expansion of the empire into modern-day Pakistan. Despite cordial early relations, with the Great Game afoot, it was only a matter of time before the British pressed for an advantage.

Colonial memorial in Canterbury Cathedral
Aliwal memorial at Canterbury Cathedral © Joe Bindloss

Following the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh kingdom started to fracture, and the East India Company saw an opportunity to push westwards into the Punjab, which at the time was part of a kingdom extending as far as Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier.

After a string of now forgotten battles – at locations such as Mudki, Feroze Shah, Aliwal and Sobraon, in the little-touristed hinterland west of Ludhiana – the Sikhs were forced to sign the Treaty of Lahore, ceding Kashmir and the territory between the Beas and Sutlej rivers to the British.

Armoured gateway at Faridkot
Fearsome armour on a royal gateway in Faridkot © Joe Bindloss

Visiting this sleepy corner of Punjab today, with its dry farmland, wandering cow herds, dusty townships and immaculate, white gurdwaras, its hard to imagine any significant events happening here. But for a few brief years in the 19th century this was the front line in the Great Game between Britain and Russia.

Dotted around the countryside, in backwater towns such as Faridkot and Bathinda, are the time-ravaged fortresses from which Sikh regiments marched out to face the superior weaponry and rapacious ambition of the British empire. Indian history still bears the scars.

The East India Company later sold Kashmir back to the Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh, a piece of political chicanery that left a Muslim-majority province under the control of a Sikh maharaja, prompting communal resentment that spilled over with deadly consequences during the Partition of India in 1947.

After the Treaty of Lahore, the diminished Sikh kingdom limped on for a few more years, until the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848, when Lord Dalhousie annexed the whole of Punjab for the East India Company, placing all of the territory between Chandigarh and the Northwest Frontier under British control.

Colonial memorial in Canterbury Cathedral, recalling battles from Indian history
Memorial in Canterbury Cathedral to Frederick Mackeson © Joe Bindloss

Because of the number of Kent-born soldiers who served in globe-trotting regiments during the colonial period, the country has long ties to Indian history. A carved marble slab inside Canterbury Cathedral recalls the death of Frederick Mackeson, commissioner of Peshawar, born in Hythe and killed, to quote his memorial, by ‘a Mahometan fanatic’ and ‘foul assassin’, as the East India Company tried to extend its control over the Northwest Frontier in modern-day Pakistan.

Hythe still has links to the subcontinent today, thanks to the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who have been based at Shorncliffe Army Camp near Cheriton since 2001. The Major of Hythe is a regular speaker at events in the Nepal Embassy in London, recalling over a century of ties between the UK and the only nation in South Asia to evade the clutches of the British Empire.

A carved wooden door panel at Canterbury Cathedral
Moorish gate at Canterbury Cathedral © Joe Bindloss

Leaving Canterbury Cathedral after admiring the mesmerising stained glass, I spotted another incongruous carving: a time-worn wooden door plaque, with four faces divided by the cross of Saint George, immediately reminiscent of the flags of Sardinia and Corsica. With the family dragging me on towards a pub lunch, I made a mental note to start researching the links between Canterbury and the Four Moors, a symbol of the Crown of Aragon since the 14th century.

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Where now for Sri Lanka?

With the end of its 25-year-long civil war, Sri Lanka was enjoying an unprecedented period of growth. Despite ongoing friction between past and present presidents, peace reigned. Lavish new resorts were springing up along its sand-sprinkled shoreline. Tourists were coming in droves. But on 21 April 2019, the honeymoon was over.

Sri Lanka reeled in horror as nine Islamist bombers detonated bombs inside busy tourist hotels and at Christian churches during Easter Sunday services. More than 200 locals and tourists were killed in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo, and hundreds more were injured in one of the worst global terrorist attacks since 9/11.

On 20 April, Sri Lanka was riding high as Lonely Planet’s top destination for travel in 2019. On 21 April, headlines about Sri Lanka were filled with horror and bloodshed. Journalists immediately probed links to Sri Lanka’s long history of internal conflict, but over the following days, a sadly familiar pattern of radicalisation, overseas influence and ignored warning signs emerged.

Colombo skyline, Sri Lanka
Colombo skyline © Sergei Gussev / CC by 2.0

The massacre on 21 April turned out to be just the latest attack in a global campaign of extremist violence, as hard to predict or avoid as the attacks on London, Paris or Mumbai.

For most tourists, the immediate concern was security. As police staged raids across the country, the government imposed a state of emergency and a social media ban, to prevent the stirring of communal tensions. An overnight curfew was imposed, and tourists were required to present passports and plane tickets to travel by road to Colombo’s airport after dark.

The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth office and other foreign governments posted warnings on their websites, but initially fell short of declaring a ban on travel, leaving tourists in limbo – unable to claim on insurance for cancelling or curtailing trips – while stories of further terrorist cells and police clashes with militants emerged.

However, as the story developed, one by one, foreign governments upgraded their warnings to ‘avoid all but essential travel’ and flights filled with tourists leaving the island. Locals looked on bewildered, staring at the shattered dream of tourist growth, and wondering ‘why us?’, and ‘why now?’.

Carved Buddha at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Stone-carved Buddha at Polonnaruwa © Bianca / CC by-ND 2.0

The future of Sri Lanka’s tourism revival now hangs in the balance. When the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka was visited by just 448,000 visitors a year, but by 2018, this had swelled to 2.3 million. Already, travel agencies are warning of massive cancellations for 2019, and the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has predicted that visitor numbers could drop by 500,000 in 2019.

To reassure visitors, armed air marshals will be placed on Sri Lankan Airlines flights. However, with tourists scared off not just by the events of 21 April, but by revelations of warnings from foreign intelligence agencies that were ignored by the authorities, this may be too little, too late.

But is avoiding Sri Lanka a valid response to a real and present danger, or an overreaction triggered by blanket media coverage of a one-off terrorist attack?

Things seem to happen in a very predictable way after terrorist incidents. At first, bookings collapse, but tourism, while skittish, has a very short memory. Within a few years, most destinations recover from terrorist violence, at least in terms of visitor numbers. But that time can represent thousands of livelihoods lost.

Sunset over beach at Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
Sunset over sand at Batticaloa © Indi Samarajiva / CC by 2.0

The lesson of past attacks is that the pace of recovery depends on the reputation of the country in question. The tourist industry in Paris, for example, saw only a short dip after the Bataclan attacks in 2015. But Sri Lanka has the added baggage of its civil war and political instability to add to the mix.

In practical terms, Sri Lanka is probably more secure now than it has been for years, by virtue of the heavy police presence on the streets. The government is certainly taking no chances at the present time, and the island’s beaches, temples and tea plantations are fully open to visitors. But government failures in the run up to the attacks have done as much to harm Sri Lanka’s reputation as the actual events of 21 April.

The future of tourism to Sri Lanka will depend on how quickly and calmly the Sri Lankan government can wrap up its investigations and apprehend associates of the Easter Sunday bombers, and how quickly foreign governments are willing to relax their travel advisories.

Stuck in the middle, the thousands of ordinary Sri Lankans who depend on tourism for a livelihood have no choice but to sit and wait.

If you are thinking of travelling to Sri Lanka, check the latest travel advice from your government, and review local media for the latest developments in the country – infolanka.com/news is a useful resource for news stories from various Sri Lankan publications.

For an update, see the article Sri Lanka: a Time of Danger.

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