lesser-known London

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“Sir, when a man is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life.”

But maybe that’s not quite it. Maybe he’s just tired of watching the Changing of the Guard. Or listening, yet again, to the Beefeaters’ spiel at the Tower of London. Or taking his umpteenth photo of Big Ben.

Maybe what he needs is to rub the Duke of Wellington’s nose. Or to peer into the world’s tiniest police station. Or to see the only street in London on which you’re required to drive on the right.

If it’s your first time in London, by all means take in the iconic, A-list sights. They won’t disappoint. But if it’s your second, or third, or fourth visit, you’ll want to drill deeper, to peel back a few layers, to uncover fresh facets of this endlessly intriguing city.

That’s what I did on a recent trip, which came on the 25th anniversary of my first visit. London offers dozens of specialty tours highlighting lesser-known aspects and neighborhoods, and I signed up for six of them.

Many focus on the city’s oddball aspect, because, as I am far from the first to note, the British don’t just tolerate eccentricity, they thrive on it. Three of the tours are run by the unfailingly fascinating London Walks. You’ve probably heard of their popular Jack the Ripper walking tour. But they offer nearly 75 others, with new tours added frequently. If you can’t find one that captures your fancy, maybe you really are tired of life.

Careening through the streets of London in a vintage Mini Cooper – one of the classic British models, mind you, not one of those recent German impostors – I was tempted to roll down the window and shout “Shagadelic, baby!” (Not a good idea: The word, and all its variants, is considered vulgar here.)

My guide, Alastair Bruton, co-owner of smallcarBigCity, and his assistant Celestine Stihler were dressed in their best interpretations of Swinging London fashions, and early ’60s tunes played on the stereo.

I opted for a rollicking drive around London in which Bruton provided new insight into familiar landmarks, such as the fact that the paws on the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square look a little, well … off because the sculptor used his pet dog as a model.

Fans of the film “The Italian Job” can take a theme tour re-creating the famous Mini Cooper getaway scene while wearing boiler suits and tweed flat caps.

An unexpected bonus: After years of skittering around London on the Underground, and having only the foggiest notion where anything was in relation to anything else, I finally came away with a decent spatial understanding of above-ground London.

Favorite factoid: As we drove under Admiralty Arch, Bruton pointed out what appears to be the brass reproduction of a large human nose. It’s about 7 feet off the ground. Tradition holds – and I’ve never found an official source to contradict this – that it’s a faithful reproduction of the famously oversized proboscis of the Duke of Wellington, placed at just the right height for mounted members of the Horse Guards to rub for good luck.

Homeless tours

The East End’s edgy Shoreditch neighborhood is home to dozens of homeless people – or “rough sleepers,” as they’re called here – and one of them was our guide, Henri Sturmanis.

Sturmanis, who spends his nights in a roundabout above an Underground station, leads tours for a group called the Sock Mob, which began by distributing free socks to the homeless.

He was a bright and engaging guide, combining neighborhood history and insight into the hipster gallery scene with aspects of life here only the homeless can appreciate – such as the building legally taken over by squatters under a law that gives them possession if they pay the utility bills for a certain period.

Sturmanis pointed out what appears to be the original location of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, a school founded to teach trapeze and other circus skills, and a restaurant, founded by Jamie Oliver to teach culinary skills to underprivileged children.

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