Book review: Only in London

The subtitle to Only in London summarises the nature of this guidebook. It is ‘a guide to unique locations, hidden corners and unusual objects’ around the British capital.

The book is a joy to read. The tone is knowledgeable yet accessible. The pages are packed with useful information and dotted with a host of quirky facts, which can add value to a visit to the United Kingdom’s biggest city.

Did you know that the reliefs around the base of Nelson’s Column were forged from the bronze of captured French guns? Were you aware the Egyptian obelisk displayed between sphinxes on the Victoria Embankment has nothing to do with Queen Cleopatra but dates back to around 1450 BC and the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III? Did you know that even older sculptures – the Koptos Lions, dating from around 3,000 BC – are displayed within University College of London near the body of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham?

Written by Duncan J.D. Smith

The author of this book, Duncan J.D. Smith, divides his time between London and Vienna. This is the tenth title in the ‘Only In’ series of guidebooks and draws on Smith’s insider knowledge of the city. Guidebooks to Berlin, Prague and Vienna also feature in this informative and entertaining series.

Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Like his previous guidebooks, Only in London provides a wealth of erudite yet never stuffy historical information about the city in focus.

A number of the sites of interest mentioned in Only in London are located centrally yet simply don’t feature on the radars of most travellers. The author shares his passion for places such as the Art Deco Odeon cinema at Leicester Square, Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields) plus the so-called ghost stations of the London Underground. He also throws open the doors of the Society of Cogers, the world’s oldest debating body, which meets in the Old Bank of England pub (194 Fleet Street) on the second Monday of each month.

A sphinx on Victoria Embankment in London.
A sphinx on Victoria Embankment in London.

Ideas for travel within London

As a non-Londoner I enjoyed reading Only in London because it provides some great ideas regarding off-beaten track places to see and things to do. If you want to experience the city beyond popular, A-list attractions such as the Tower of London and the museums in the Bloomsbury area of London then it’s worth getting a copy of this guidebook, which was published in 2015.

Chapter 58 provides ideas on where to eat and drink in usual places, including the Attendant café on Foley Street. The porcelain urinals of a gentlemen’s toilet from Victorian times have been integrated into the cafe’s interior design. There are also suggestions regarding historic pubs.

It could make an ideal Christmas gift for people who enjoy history-rich insights into the cities they visit. Londoners looking for fresh suggestions for days out might also benefit from having a copy to reference.

The Houses of Parliament in London.
The Houses of Parliament in London.

The organisation of the book

The content of Only in London is organised geographically and divided into 103 short chapters, each running to two or three pages in length. Those bite-sized chunks are digestible while travelling between Tube stations or while catching a few minutes’ rest over coffee. Nearby attractions are cross-referenced in italics at the end of each chapter, making them easy to find when you’re out. They provide suggestions to flick to and integrate into a day of sightseeing and urban exploration.

The fold-out front and rear covers of the book can act as useful bookmarks for sites of potential interest. The front cover holds a street map of the city, along with flags bearing the numbers of the attractions featured in Only in London.

The back flap of the book features an unusual take on Harry Beck’s famous diagram-style map of the London Underground system. It is a more accurate geographical depiction of the location of Tube station in central London.

This book is a highly readable alternative to other well-known series of guidebooks. If you are planning a visit to England’s capital you can pick a copy in advance of your trip. Fortunately – despite the book’s title – it is available not only in London.

Further information

Only in London, by Duncan J.D. Smith, has a recommended retail price of £16.95 and is available in bookstores such as Stanfords, Blackwell’s and Waterstones. The 244 page book is peppered with 122 colour photographs, the majority of which are by the author. With dimensions of 21cm by 13.5 cm this book is compact enough to slip inside many coat pockets.

The book is also available via Amazon (£):

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