Secret Spot: The Nunhead Reservoir in London

In Depth

I’m pretty sure that I needn’t visit London again. I’ve been twice now; it’s fine and there’s cool stuff to do, sure, but I’m not in love with the place. Yet one of the best spots I’ve discovered in the past few years is there, accessible through a hole in a fence next to a cemetery.

My most recent trip to London was with my friend Caroline this past fall; we were visiting our other friend Christopher, who’s been living there for a couple years. Since I’d been to London before and we were staying with someone who actually knew the city, our activities were a little more creative than the usual sightseeing. Our most successful day included a visit to the Kenwood House (the former home of Dido Belle, whose life is depicted in the movie Belle), taking a dip in a public pond in Hampstead Heath (unfortunately, the Ladies’ Pond was closed for repairs, so we went swimming in a very chilly mixed gender pond—but fear not, there were some topless middle-aged women sunbathing in the women’s locker room), then stopping at a pub for my first ever Pimm’s Cup (delicious!).

After these adventures in Central London, Caroline and I headed south in the late afternoon, hopping on national rail to the Nunhead Cemetery (about four miles away), which Christopher and his roommate had recommended. I’m a fan of cemeteries in general, and we were told that this one was beautiful, quiet, and creepy. We made it there towards the end of the day, when the sun was starting to drop and only a few people were ambling around. A woman sat on a bench with her toddler playing in front of her, a man walked his dog. We joined them, stumbling through the crumbling tombs covered in ivy. It was peaceful.

After wandering through the the cemetery, we tried to find the Nunhead Reservoir, which Caroline’s friend had suggested we put on our to-do list. Her directions were sketchy at best; something about a fence that ran along one side of the cemetery with a hole in it. After a bit of wandering in various directions, we found the fence and the hole. We scrambled through, then walked up a big grassy hill, apparently man-made and under which water was housed.

This chair appeared to helpfully mark the spot where the hole in the fence was.

The view was worth it. At the top, we came across some teens smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio; the ground was covered in broken bottles in certain spots. But it was a beautiful day and the best view of the city I’d seen yet. I cracked open a Pimm’s (in a can! My second of the day!) that Caroline had kindly bought for me when we’d gotten off the train, and sat back to watch the sky slowly darken.

Once I got back to the US, I looked up the reservoir. Originally built in the late 1800s, it seems like its, in the words of one internet commenter, “SE London’s worst kept secret.” That’s certainly true for locals, but I doubt your average visitor to the city would include it on an itinerary along with a ride on the London Eye and a trip to the British Museum.

Unfortunately, in the months since my visit, the authorities seem to have added another fence to prevent people from trespassing, which means all the local teens have probably found a new spot for getting up to no good. Or maybe they’ll just rip another hole in the fence. But even if you go and can’t find a way into the reservoir itself, the cemetery is definitely spooky/historical, and worth the trek as well. BYO Pimm’s.

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Images via the author.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tips for navigation, and exploring the world at large.

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