Travel Story Quirky venues add pizzazz to traditional London sights

The big city has off-the-wall tourist attractions to suit all tastes, from macabre to downright peculiar. 

London is like a second home for many West Australians, who have visited the dynamic English capital time and again. 

On your next trip forget about tourist icons such as Big Ben, the London Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace and enjoy some  lesser-known places and experiences. Head to the amusing Cartoon Museum, meet the world’s smallest private police force, take part in taxidermy workshops, or visit spots such as a strange yet  uplifting cemetery, and the pub where the Great Train Robbery was planned.

Absolutely stuffed

It is a truly disgusting act, yet an entire room full of people are doing it with glee. They have their fingers buried inside the anus of a dead weasel and are taking instructions on what to do next. 

It almost feels like a crime is taking place and I’m a silent bystander. But, no, this is a regular activity  in London and openly advertised.

The art of preserving dead animals, taxidermy has quite strangely become a popular pastime in London, with several taxidermists offering workshops for locals and tourists. 

The class I sat in on was hosted by Suzette Field, who explains the  basics of taxidermy to students in up to eight workshops each month. She teaches them how to skin, prepare, preserve, mount and position creatures like mice, squirrels, rabbits, crows and hamsters.

Tiny yet powerful

Decked out in regal-looking Victorian frockcoats, top hats and maroon waistcoats, the middle-aged man looks like an actor who has just stepped off stage from a period theatre drama. But Kevin McGrory is not to be messed with. Step out of line in his presence and you’ll swiftly find yourself in handcuffs.

 Mr McGrory is a member of the world’s smallest police force.

Known as the Beadles, these security guards for the best part of 200 years have been looking after Burlington Arcade, an up-market shopping colonnade in Mayfair, close to Piccadilly Circus and Buckingham Palace.

 Originally, however, this arcade was not so posh. It was crawling with prostitutes, who worked out of brothels on the second floor, and pickpockets who targeted shoppers in the colonnade. The Beadles were brought in to keep things in check and never left.

A great place to plan

It is one of the biggest heists in the history of Europe, a remarkably daring operation which netted a gang of robbers close to $100 million in money in today’s rates.

 It is a tale so bold that it sounds ripped from a Hollywood blockbuster. 

However,  truth is often stranger than fiction, and a pretty pub in downtown London acknowledges the little-known but major role it played in this incident.

The Star Tavern was the regular meeting place for the criminals who carried out the Great Train Robbery in 1963. Fifteen hold-up men wearing ski masks and helmets robbed the Glasgow-London Royal Mail Train just outside of London. 

Members of the group hatched the plan over pints of beer during meetings inside the Star Tavern. The pub proudly displays photos relating to the heist and detailing the role it played.

Buried memories

Located next to London’s wildly popular Borough Street markets is a cemetery,  home to a memorial garden and embellished by a colourfully decorated exterior wall. Beyond its bright appearance hides the darkest of pasts as a mass burial site for the city’s downtrodden — prostitutes, thieves and drug dealers.

The Cross Bones Graveyard was closed in 1853 after some 15,000 people were buried there in  the previous 300 years. 

But in recent times it has been reopened at selective hours as a garden, a site for macabre Halloween parties, and as a memorial for the city’s deceased homeless people, attracting many locals and tourists.

Comic relief

Like many Australian kids of my generation I grew up reading British comic books such as the Beano and Dandy. They were more than just comics to me, they were serious business. Fortunately, the proprietors of London’s Cartoon Museum feel the same way.

Opened in 2006, this comprehensive museum delves into the history of Britain’s comic book and cartoon industries, from kid-friendly fare such as Beano to satirical political cartoons long featured in the nation’s newspapers.

 There are nearly 1000 items on display, with some of these pieces more than 200 years old. Whether you want to relive childhood memories in animated form, or learn about British political satire, you will find something to engage you here.

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