"You know, guv, that really gets on my goat," Billy Allardyce said from the front of the taxi, his amplified voice a warble of Abbey Road reverb.
We were barreling toward Portobello Road in a cold winter downpour, headed for an arcade I'd been tipped about by my friend, the antiquarian Alexander di Carcaci. Mr. Allardyce was griping about change. The peculiarities and quirks of his 1960s childhood, he said, had given way to the blight of center city sameness.
"When I was a boy you could still see all them little shops, streets of specialty shops," Mr. Allardyce told me. Back then, Columbia Market -- today a place of open-air flower stalls and hipster brunch spots -- was where East End families shopped for pet guinea pigs.
"Kittens, dogs, snakes, rabbits," Mr. Allardyce said. "They even had goats."
The image delights me -- a goat cropping grass in central London. It summons up both England's agrarian soul and also a capital city in which little-known spaces, odd corners and crooked byways have always had their place. It speaks to me of quiddity, that ineffable quality of what-ness. People have it -- places, too. Manhattan certainly used to, though I'm not convinced of that anymore.
This is partly why I had booked a recent trip to London, because while the goats may be gone, the quiddity remains. It is woven into the city's texture, in its arcades, its shoulder-wide alleys, odd terraces, house museums and specialty shops; secreted between and beside and atop and sometimes even within the big marquee attractions, hidden right there in plain sight.
Jet-lagged and awake too early to visit the Tate Modern on an earlier visit in October, I had decided to kill time by walking there from my hotel near Buckingham Palace and along the sinuous South Bank. Passing Westminster Abbey on my way, I'd spontaneously dropped in on a 7:30 a.m. service held in a side chapel austere enough to pass for a rock church in Jerusalem. Away from the gilt and bombast of the abbey's lofty 14th-century nave, there were perhaps 30 others on hand that day, from among the millions of visitors to England last year, each of us partaking of an experience intimate, profoundly universal and available to anyone.
Moments like this abound in London. And it does no disservice to the Tower or Buckingham Palace or the London Eye to forgo the long lines and the touristic must-sees and practice instead some urban idling, the flânerie Balzac termed the "gastronomy of the eye." Walter Benjamin more famously characterized the flâneur as an essential urban figure, an amateur detective and investigator of urbanity. Predicting that rampant consumer capitalism would eventually spell doom for a flâneur's pleasures, Benjamin also neatly anticipated Billy Allardyce's gripe, and my own.
Yet wandering around London lately -- alone or in the company of friends like Giles Waterfield, a novelist and lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, or the art historian Haydn Williams -- I have bumbled upon wonders like the Dennis Severs' House Museum, 18 Folgate Street, a fanatically detailed "re-creation" by an expatriated American of house of a family of Huguenot silk weavers as it might have evolved over centuries. A place of guttering candles, of objects in mad profusion, of pomanders and "drying" laundry hung from rafters, the place could easily lapse into twee were it not for the force of Severs's artistic vision, which leaves a visitor feeling as if a door had opened into some mad aesthete's sensorium.
Exploring with Mr. Waterfield one afternoon, I discovered the York water gate, a Baroque stone pile attributed to Inigo Jones, and a centuries-old pub that retains its anachronistic charm despite being on every list of tourist attractions. On my own I visited a hushed room in the British Museum where Chinese ceramics amassed by a wealthy collector over a lifetime confirm that England is indeed Europe's attic.
Serenely displayed in Room 95 at the museum are some 1,700 objects from the collection of Sir Percival David, a 20th-century businessman who amassed the ceramics with a cultivated eye and singular determination. Established in 1952 at the University of London, the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art was until 2007 kept in a Georgian house on Gordon Square; it then moved on long-term loan to the British Museum, where it was reorganized and displayed in considerable splendor with a grant from a Hong Kong businessman.
Glass case after glass case there is packed with blue-and-white and oxblood and yellow and jade green ceramics, a volume of objects so overwhelming that when I visited in October I walked in and backed right out.
This time before setting off, I sought help from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the Chinese ceramics collection, hoping for guidance on what to look out for, keeping in mind a cardinal rule of art appreciation: see the best first while the eye is fresh.
Without hesitation Ms. Harrison-Hall directed me to Case 2, where is arrayed a small grouping of objects glazed an indefinable color, something between lavender-blue and celadon green. Experts consider Ru ware the acme of Chinese ceramics. "For the whole of Chinese history, they have tried to re-create these ceramics and this glaze," Ms. Harrison-Hall told me. There exist perhaps 100 examples of these refined Song dynasty objects, made around the time Normans were pillaging England, in the world. Twelve are in the British Museum. Seven are in this case.
Wonderful imitations were made in the Qing and Ming dynasties, Ms. Harrison-Hall added, and yet nothing quite approaches the fineness of, say, the scholar's brush-washer in the British Museum, a small bowl incised with a pair of the fish that in China symbolize abundance, the words for fish and abundance having a similar sound.
On the day I visited the museum I pressed through the mobs crowding around the so-called Elgin marbles and the uninspiring lump of the Rosetta Stone, climbed the stairs to Room 95 and opened the heavy glass doors to find that I had the gallery to myself. More and more it seems my ambition as a traveler is to discover quiet and untrammeled places, anything to get away from the relentless thumb-tappers and the Acoustiguide herd.
London differs little from New York in that sense. You see plenty of sheep clumped behind a leader with a flag at the end of a wand. Yet, perhaps because the city is so old, large, decentralized and layered it is likelier there to visit some certified cultural attraction and find that you have it all to yourself.
I experienced this again when I headed to Holland Park and the Leighton House Museum, a startlingly radical house built by a leading light of Victorian painting. When Sir Frederic Leighton constructed his opulent house in the 1860s (with an important later extension), the view from his dining room window was of farmland, a piggery and parkland stretching away to the north. A colony of prosperous artists grew up around it -- the so-called Studio Houses of the Holland Park Circle. Many remain in what is now an expensive residential area, Leighton House standing among them as an unlikely relic of a period and style that somehow survived the vagaries of fashion.
The first part of the house was built in a blocky, restrained classical style to the designs of George Aitchison and is of mild historic interest to a traveler, notable mainly for its functional segregation -- servants below ground; a separate entrance and stair for Leighton's models; only one bedroom in a vast structure, for the master himself.
What makes the house modern -- Warholian, even -- is how it evolved to accommodate the artist's singular mania for collecting, in particular the antique Islamic tiles he and his purchasing agents ransacked the Middle East to acquire in the middle of the 19th century. By the time Leighton conceived the idea of building an opulent domed and columned Arab Hall, he'd amassed thousands of tiles stripped from mosques and tombs and houses in Syria, Turkey and Iran.
A visitor coming off the street and through a drab reception area (formerly the breakfast room) into Leighton House is thus plunged into an Orientalist delirium: Satsuma vases, scholar's rocks, a stuffed peacock perched on a railing, and the Arab Hall itself, a chamber whose blue tile panels, Genoa marble columns, gilded friezes and domed skylight were brought together, it would seem, to stun the viewer into aesthetic submission, a Victorian version of shock and awe.
Leighton House had the happy effect on me of stoking a desire to understand the Victorians and their crass, dynamic and rumbustious period better, an ambition achieved in London with ease. One reason for this is the existence of the great British Library. Another is the persistence of the independent booksellers that in London, unlike New York, have miraculously survived the Internet.
WHENEVER IN TOWN I head by habit to the famous G. Heywood Hill Ltd. bookstore on Curzon Street, at least in part for the pleasure of conjuring up an image of Nancy Mitford during the wartime years when she worked there as a clerk. On my trip last October, though, my pal Hadyn Williams urged me to visit John Sandoe (Books) Ltd., in Chelsea, a suggestion that eventually cost me plenty in overweight luggage fees.
When John Sandoe founded John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. in 1957, the premises housed a poodle-grooming parlor, a junk shop and a secretarial agency. Mr. Sandoe ran the store until his retirement in 1989, when the employees bought it from him, continuing to run it along the same unorthodox business principles. This is to say that crammed into three stories of the 18th-century structure at John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. are books stacked on tables, on the floor, on the risers of the corkscrew stairway and shelved in places two or more deep. There are 24,320 volumes, 22,790 of them single copies, at last count, said Dan Fenton, one of three current owners of the store.
"We leave things on shelves much longer than accountants at chain stores would have you do it, regardless of whether they are going to sell in two years," Mr. Fenton remarked, pushing aside a pile of books to make room for the one I was busy creating.
In it stood the heady Orientalist novel "Vathek" by the great art collector and patron William Beckford; copies of Jane Gardam's wonderful "Old Filth" bought as presents for friends; the collected letters of the Sicilian duke, unexpected Anglophile and genius Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa; every available reprint of the diaries of James Lees-Milne, a man the famed art historian Bernard Berenson once characterized with a typical lack of charity as "rather stern, melancholy, youngish-oldish James Lees-Milne, secretary of society for the preservation of country seats."
Lees-Milne was far more than that, of course, a diarist snob whose observations on the arrantly peculiar folkways of the English upper class remain, as Larry McMurtry once pointed out in The New York Review of Books, an irresistible form of para-literary catnip, his asperity useful in depicting the gods of the hour and their inevitable feet of clay.
You might wish he'd been around to describe Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher, biographer, satirist and coiner of deathless neologisms (sincerity, manhunt, self-help and giggly are his) and his wife, Jane. Happily this pair of logomaniacs did a pretty good job for themselves. As 19th-century literary celebrities, the Carlyles courted fame and fled from it to their tidy house in Chelsea. On Cheyne Row, just down from François Pinault's two-bedroom West House -- for which the billionaire paid $32 million in 2011 -- is the snug four-story dwelling where Carlyle wrote many of his masterworks and behind which lies a modest garden patch. There stands the family's earth closet and there Carlyle buried his wife's dog, Nero, tragically done in by a butcher's cart.
In this house Thomas and Jane Carlyle wrote voluminously, renovated incessantly and quarreled without stop. They fought with contractors, with noisily musical neighbors, with the benighted servants (34 of them in 32 years) and notoriously with each other.
Not for the Carlyles -- 19th-century forerunners of the Bickersons -- the love-struck poetic mooning of the Brownings. "Could you for instance sleep in a double-bedded room with Carlyle," Jane Carlyle, one of history's great correspondents, inquired in a letter to her cousin Jeannie Welsh. The question was rhetorical.
It was pouring again on the weekday morning of my visit, and again I had a historic property to myself. Now owned by the National Trust, Carlyles House is, like other such properties, occupied by a caretaker couple whose presence imparts life to what might otherwise feel like a fusty reliquary. The wife tends the garden. The husband makes placards with quotations from Carlyle, a writer Matthew Arnold described as "part man of genius, part fanatic and part tomfool," scattering them around on the furniture.
My favorite bit of Carlyle wisdom on display derived from a letter written to an aspiring novelist: "A good book should have the water carefully roasted out of it," Carlyle advised Elizabeth Gaskell. Brevity, veracity, concision are "the Law and the Prophets for the Writer" Carlyle added, ignoring his own advice to windbag on for several long paragraphs before signing off with kind respects and thanks.
It seemed somehow fitting on that cold, drizzly day to continue in a time-stopped vein, so I taxied across town to Fleet Street and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a venerable pub whose warren of small rooms has attracted as patrons everyone from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain. Presumably they were drawn there by an atmosphere that surely felt Ye Olde even when the pub was Ye Newe, and by the obvious truth that a steak-and-kidney pie, a pint of Samuel Smith and an hour beside a fire works better than anything to ward off London's chill and gloom.
To be clear about this I am no history re-enactor. I savor a hot new restaurant as well as the next guy and on that particular trip scored a coveted reservation at the Delaunay, a place that the publisher-philanthropist Lady Elena Foster recently pronounced, with imperturbable assurance, as the obvious successor to the more famous Wolseley -- although that is no stretch considering both were created by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the wizards of neo-retro restaurants.
Over plates of Carlingford Lough Rock oysters, schnitzel and roast potatoes and plentiful white Burgundy, a friend and I spent an entirely pleasurable evening at the Delaunay, after which we set off on foot along The Strand.
Five minutes into our walk, we were accosted by a merry group of students, well lubricated and arrayed in costume. Although I vaguely recall someone mentioning a fancy dress party, and possibly even university admissions, I never quite got to the bottom of why, in the middle of winter, this group of women and men were attired in Halloween finery. Well, what matter? I put it down to London quiddity and pulled out an iPhone for a souvenir self-pic. And there I am, wedged between a Titian-haired harlot with bee-stung lips and a bruiser with rugby thighs encased in white tights, broad chest straining the buttons of a shirtwaist, crew cut crowned by a starched white nurse's cap.
Editing London as I did is a challenge and probably works only if you've been there before. Though I skirted the beaten track, I did not altogether avoid it: the British Museum is nobody's idea of a secret. But by planning carefully and securing advance reservations at places like the Dennis Severs House (18 Folgate Street, dennissevershouse.co.uk), I managed to spend five days discovering the odd byways of the city at an unhurried pace.
WHERE I STAYED
I put up, as I typically do, at the Crowne Plaza, a four-star on a quiet side street in Central London near Buckingham Palace. (crowneplaza.com)
HOW I GOT AROUND
That the areas I covered -- Portobello Road, Chelsea, Holland Park, Fleet Street, the East End -- are at considerable distance from one another should not be a problem for avid walkers. To traverse distances too far to walk, I bought a preloaded Tube card and a map. I also indulged in London's exorbitant taxis -- they make New York's seem free -- at night.
WHERE I ATE
My unimaginative default for modestly priced eating tended to be noodle or sandwich chains like Wagamama or Pret a Manger, though Tom's Kitchen at Somerset House (tomskitchen.co.uk/somerset) has hearty and well-priced offerings for weekend brunch and daily lunches, focusing on fresh British meats and produce. For a culinary splash-out I booked at the Mittel Europa-themed Delaunay (thedelaunay.com), where with wine, tax and tip, dinner for two cost roughly $300. I also made good use of the takeout counters at Fortnum and Mason's basement, whose wine department has offerings at every level of price.
KEEP IN MIND
Timings can be fluky at places like the Carlyles House, open Wednesday to Sunday starting March 9. Check the Web site (nationaltrust.org.uk) first. Be sure, too, to sample the online archive of Jane Carlyle's voluminous correspondence. Once you've read one of her sharply observed and witty letters you'll be ashamed to write LOL or OMG ever again.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.