I’ve said before that I don’t like London. I avoid having to work in London wherever possible. But, if I’m honest, I don’t really know the city that well and always tend to go back to the same old places when I am there.

Yesterday changed that a bit. Amy and I went to London for a tour with HiddenCity, and I saw more of it in one day than I’d seen in years.

A HiddenCity trail is basically a treasure hunt delivered by SMS messages. You get a text message with a clue for something to find. Once you’ve worked it out, you reply by SMS. If you’re right, you get the clue for the next step of the hunt.

and we're off Answer number 1

If you get stuck you can ask for hints. If you get really stuck, you can skip the stage you’re on and move on to the next one.

It works well – the clues are tricky enough to be challenging, but not so impossible as to be frustrating.

I’m guessing HiddenCity won’t thank me for putting all the answers to every clue here. But it’s hard to really describe what it’s like without a few examples. So… erm… spoiler alert. Put it this way, if you decide to do one of their tours, avoid the “West End Explorer Trail”, and I wont have spoiled it for you.

"Exit Manchester Square by a fashionable French crocodile..."
“Exit Manchester Square by a fashionable French crocodile…”

The route took us through some well known bits of London, like Trafalgar Square, which I’d never been to before. It also took us to loads of little side streets, small independent shops and quirky underground cellar bars.

For example, for one of the clues we had to go into a vintage magazine shop, that sells original copies of magazines from 1960s onwards. They had an amazingly extensive collection – you can pick a date (like your date of birth, for instance) and find several different magazines that were published that week. Or find copies of the comics you used to read as a kid.

the crocodile "What should you not do?" "What should you not do?"

I’ve got the cultural depth of a Pot Noodle, but it also got me going into galleries like the Wallace Collection and the National Portrait Gallery – which I wouldn’t normally consider visiting. I might have been looking at the portraits to try and solve a clue (“How did Andy’s stone earn his knighthood?”) but the point is I was in a gallery looking at portraits and actually kinda enjoying it. It’s like tricking yourself into being a grown-up.

It meant I came across interesting stuff I hadn’t heard of before, like “Self” by Marc Quinn – a frozen sculpture of the artist’s own head made from eight pints of his own blood, displayed in a perspex refrigeration unit.

It also meant I looked more carefully, and asked more questions. One of the members of staff in the Wallace Collection, for example, helped point us towards what we were looking for in the armoury. I wouldn’t normally have done that (or find out that I could try on the replica suits of armour!).

Setting off for the next clue "Leave... on a four-lettered court between a star and an apostrophe..."
“Leave… on a four-lettered court between a star and an apostrophe…”

This did mean that I had to walk into a random cafe and say that I was looking for a potted tiger, leading to all the waiters and kitchen staff descending on me with a ton of questions (“Why are you doing this?”, “Is there a prize?”, “Is this for a TV programme?”). They’ve had people come in and ask for that before, but didn’t really know what on earth it was all about, so I stayed around for a bit to explain. I think they thought I was mad, but they were very nice about it.

It’s an unusual way to spend a Saturday, but that’s a good thing – it was different. We did do a lot of walking (fitbit thinks I walked 9.6 miles yesterday) but that’s not a bad thing either. And we did choose one of the longer trails.

Counting the tongues in Liberty

There is something very satisfying at solving puzzles. For example, one clue got us to look for “a lounge beyond a white set of keys” (we found a bar with a white piano by the entrance) and to “seek a case before you go down” (at the back of the bar was a bookcase – the answer was in one of the books). That’s just fun… even if you get a quizzical stare or two from people in the bar wondering what you’re doing. 🙂

We spent five and a half hours to solve the 26 clues, but we weren’t exactly racing round. In fact, at one point, we saw a restaurant and popped in to get some lunch, so that didn’t help our time.

HiddenCity – a set on flickr

I’d recommend giving it a go. You’ll have a laugh, you’ll learn a thing or two, and you’ll find some places you’ve never come across before. HiddenCity have a range of different tours to choose from, and I’m gonna be trying out another one.

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