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OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN LONDON

As you grow older, they say, policemen look younger. With London I find myself having a similar problem: The passing of time makes it seem ever more sprawling - that much harder to encompass in a single journey. So it seems prudent to concentrate on the places you really like and forget about the spaces in between.

Putney, the leafy southwest part of the metropolis where I live amid spacious villas set in ample grounds, may not be an entire world away from the narrow streets and terraced houses of Hampstead, another of the city's more salubrious suburbs. But in thick traffic it can take an hour or two to make the 10-mile uphill journey, and this can curb your enthusiasm for the attractions of the northwest postal area.So, except for inescapable forays into the West End to earn a crust or spend money in the stores, there is pressure on Londoners to stay put and regard the areas where they live as villages, sufficient unto themselves. Which is a pity, because after 25 years here (I grew up in New Zealand) I have found that London's charm lies largely in its less-frequented places where the comparatively intimate, small-scale nature of the things can make them so delightful.

If you do not make journeys to your favorite places, I believe, you are not really living in London - only in a part of it.

Hampstead, in fact, offers a case in point. To me there is hardly a spot in London more agreeable to visit than Keats's House, where the poet wrote "Ode to a Nightingale." He composed it in the garden under a mulberry tree which still flourishes in front of the modest house where he met Fanny Brawne a year before his death in Rome.

Fanny's engagement ring is among the relics in the homerooms within.

In the garden of Keats's House today your ears would have to work overtime to detect the music of nightingales, but the spot still exudes the atmosphere of an English romantic poet's musings. Only prudence stifles the urge to write poetry of your own there. To me, it is a far better place to be than even the beautiful and much larger Kenwood House, a mile away on the edge of Hampstead Heath, with its Rembrandts and Gainsboroughs and the lakeside theater where concerts are held in summer.

London's delicious spots are not confined to its remoter parts. Quite a few people who enter the very heart of the city and stop to gaze at the Palace of Westminster, seat of the mother of parliaments and now scrubbed clean, are tempted to stroll a little ways eastward along the banks of the Thames and gaze down into the waters that the Romans rightly saw as the throbbing artery of Londinium. But few venture further and penetrate the Victoria Embankment Gardens, almost hidden between the Thames and that fume-laden thoroughfare, the Strand.

Instead of getting off at Temple underground station, I often choose to alight one stop earlier and walk the extra distance through the gardens. They are an open-air museum of Victoriana. Along a path winding from a bandstand, a dozen memorials evoke an era: There is the Scots poet Robert Burns, looking as though he is about to burst out of his bronze statue. There is Robert Raikes, founder of Sunday Schools, and Sir Wilfrid Lawson, enthusiast for public drinking fountains - both solemn and unyielding.

Like much of London, the gardens feel as though they have been there for a very long time. According to the historian Tacitus it was the Romans who first thought of "embanking" the Thames, but today's gardens are almost modern by London standards. They were developed in 1870 at great expense on the river's "slimy shore," to the delight of Charles Dickens.

I write as though strolling in tucked-away places is the only bearable pastime for a Londoner keen to do something other than earn a living. With four full-size symphony orchestras, two opera houses, a couple of major theatrical complexes, and dozens of commercial theaters, that would be a slight exaggeration.

But there are plenty of reasons to make you think twice before venturing into what Dr. Samuel Johnson used to call the "Great Wen," or carbuncle, of London, and sampling its more predictable pleasures.

One Saturday night friends invited my wife and me to a play. We drove to the theater on the edge of Soho, and because it was beginning to rain, I deposited my wife at the theater, saying I would meet her before the curtain went up. As a downpour began, I headed off to look for parking.

Two hours later, I was still looking. I missed Oscar Wilde's "Salome" entirely (though some might also say luckily). Within a two-mile radius there had not been a single car space available - either in parking lots or at the curb. I swore I would never drive to the theater again.

There are things that give London its special flavor. For instance, I know another garden that to me takes first prize as a place of delight. I do not visit it often, but I would hate to think I could not go there.

The garden is less than a mile from the roaring traffic of Oxford Circus, and about the same distance from the thundering trains as they enter and leave Euston Station. When you arrive, there are flower beds behind a high hedge and benches to sit on. Always, it seems, a gardener is trimming the roses. It is a nearly silent place, and as far as I know, it does not even have a name.

When London's last tranquil retreat has been overrun by tourists, and the city decides to seize up entirely, I am counting on my garden still being there. Do I hear you asking: Where is this place?

Well, there is a problem about that. You see, it is a secret garden, and in the midst of 8 million Londoners perhaps you will agree that there are some things it would be rash to blab about.

The statesman William Ewart Gladstone said the best way to see London was from the top of a double-decker bus. But there are other ways, too.

-Underground:

Covering 630 square miles, the underground has 260 route-miles of track. Some parts of London south of the Thames are under-served by the "Tube," but it is by far the fastest means of transport. You can take it from Heathrow Airport direct to Piccadilly Circus. One-day passes are a cheap way to criss-cross the city. The Underground is gradually getting a face-lift, and buskers (street musicians) can add variety to journeys.

-Taxis:

Still chunky and square and driven mostly by cheeky chappies with "the knowledge" - an encyclopedic memory of London streets essential to hold a license. There is a leavening of red, white, blue, and other colors among the traditional black cabs. Otherwise little has changed.

-River, Canal:

Thames launches travel from Westminster pier to Greenwich, the Tower of London, and elsewhere, usually with multilingual commentaries. There is now a river bus service from Charing Cross to the new City airport in the East End, from where you can fly to Paris, Brussels, and other European centers.

-Shanks' Pony:

If you lack the nerve to stroll alone, there are daily guided walks through Dickensian London, architectural London, artistic London, lawyers' London, even murderous London.

Best source of information: London Tourist Board and Convention Centre, Victoria Station.

Best recent guide: Michael Leapman's "Book of London" (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989). Comprehensive, well-written and illustrated, and at (STR)18 (about $30), worth the money.

(c) 1990, The Christian Science Monitor Publishing Society. Dist. by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.