Greenwich is a fascinating area of London, with a host of museums and places of interest for tourists to visit; not least the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum.
The area is dominated by the Old Royal Naval College, an impressive complex of riverside buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor at the behest of Queen Mary in 1694 as a Royal Hospital for men invalided out of the Navy. The buildings might be familiar with those even yet to visit London, as this World Heritage Site has formed the backdrop to many a blockbuster film; Pirates of the Caribbean, Les Miserables, Cinderella, The King’s Speech, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall …to name but a few.
I recently visited the Painted Hall, known as the UK’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ and originally conceived as a dining room, but soon became a ceremonial space reserved for special functions. Once you go inside, it’s not hard to see why.
As the name suggests, the Painted Hall is covered in frescos, totalling about 40,000 square feet and took Baroque artist James Thornhill (and his team of assistants) nearly twenty years to complete. They began work in 1707.
The Painted Hall comprises three connected spaces; the domed vestibule, the Lower Hall and the Upper Hall. Thornhill’s compositions, which include a cast of over 200 characters presents a vivid and suitably biased picture of early Eighteenth Century Britain, beginning with King William and Queen Mary, then Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark, and finally the arrival of the Hanoverians with King George I sitting in the midst of a large family portrait.
Baroque painting is not really my cup of tea, but the sheer scale, skill and audacity of the project cannot be disputed. Also, Thornhill’s masterpiece has only recently re-opened to the public following a two year (and £8.5 million) restoration, so is particularly striking and bright.
For those interested in Naval history, you can stand on the exact spot where Admiral Lord Nelson’s body lay-in-state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 before being moved to St Paul’s Cathedral for his burial in January 1806. You can also view a copy of the maquette made by E.H. Baily for the statue which now stands on the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Lock & Co is the oldest hatters in the world. They’ve been based in the St James’s area of Westminster since 1676 and not surprisingly for a shop that is is over 340 years old, have had an eclectic array of customers.
In the early 1800s Lock & Co made Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s signature ‘bicorne’ hats and in September 1805, before sailing for Spain, Nelson settled his bill. This was fortunate for Lock & Co, because after the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson no longer required any hats and was in no position to settle any outstanding debts.
In 1849, the St James’s Street hatters made a small round hat for nobleman Edward Coke’s (pronounced ‘Cook’) gamekeepers, which although officially called ‘the Coke’ became better known as ‘the Bowler’.
In more recent history Lock & Co received Royal Warrants, currently providing hats for both HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH The Prince of Wales. Since the 1990s they have had a ladies floor and provided many of the hats and fascinators seen at the Royal Wedding in 2011. As another Royal Wedding (Harry & Megan) was announced today (to take place in Spring 2018), Lock & Co will no doubt find their services in demand once again.
Lock and Co are also quite understandably proud of the fact that they once received a postcard, simply addressed to ‘the best hat shop in London’.
If you enter Lock & Co, you’ll discover in their back room, framed on the walls, little templates of some very famous heads. In 1852, a machine called a ‘conformateur’ was invented in Paris, which although resembling a torture device, actually accurately measures a person’s head. The contraption is placed on a customer’s head, and a series of pins mark the contours of the head, creating a miniature template 1/6 of the actual size. It is mostly used for hard hats and people wishing to resize an existing hat, as the template can then be placed in to an adjustable block and by moving the pins, be used to reverse the process and recreate the circumference of the customer’s head. If the hard hat is heated, and the block placed inside the rim, it will them mould itself to the exact shape of the head. To get a better idea, watch this video showing how the ‘conformateur’ works’.
What you can see framed here, are these little 1/6 sized head templates, all signed by the customer. Below are just a few examples.
This photo includes Henry Winkler, Michael Palin, Kenneth Branagh and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.
Here we have Charles Chaplin, Donald Sinden, Freddie Fox and Hugh Bonneville.
And finally, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nicolas Cage, Jackie Onassis, Lord Lucan, Cecil Beaton and David Walliams.
In short, if you've ever wondered what shape head some celebrity, politician or Royal had or has, then pop along to Lock & Co and you might find out.
Since I began Bowl Of Chalk London walking tours five and a half years ago I have continued to offer three set walks each weekend which operate on a 'pay what you want' basis. Each walk generally lasts about 2.5 / 3 hours. They are as follows:
Saturday morning - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral.
This walk begins in the tourist hot spot of Trafalgar Square, taking in the square itself, Nelson's Column and the National Gallery building. Although we don't venture around the 'sights' of Westminster, Big Ben is visible at the bottom of Whitehall. After visiting the statue of Charles I next to the official centre of London, we have of late, passed Benjamin Franklin's House, threaded our way through Victoria Embankment Gardens and up in to the bustling Covent Garden and St Paul's, the Actors' church. From here we make our way around Aldwych, passing the church of St Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice, in to the City of London via Fleet Street. We usually veer off through the maze of alleyways that brings us to Dr Johnson's House, the famous statue of his beloved cat, Hodge and past the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. Back on Fleet Street, we pass the church of St Bride's, and up towards St Paul's cathedral.
Saturday Afternoon - St Paul's to Monument (via Bankside & Borough)
This walk begins by St Paul's cathedral, through the churchyard and on to the Millennium Bridge, taking us over the River Thames towards the Tate Modern on the south side. Here we pass by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the site of the original Elizabethan Theatre which opened on Bankside in 1599, and along to the usually heaving Borough Market. We usually pop in to the 17th century George Inn on Borough High Street before heading up on to London Bridge, which offers a great view of the iconic Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the H.M.S Belfast before finishing at the Monument, commemorating the Great Fire of London, 1666.
Sunday - East London
The Sunday walk is very street art heavy, but does include historical elements. We often begin near Old Street, including Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where the likes of Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan are buried. We pass the Wesleyan Chapel on City Road before heading in towards Shoreditch, which although is now a plethora of cafes, boutique shops and clubs, was in the 19th century, the centre of London's furniture trade. We usually stop off at Arnold Circus, the UK's first ever council estate, then bypassing the incredibly busy Brick Lane make our way towards Spitalfields with its fascinating Huguenot, Jewish and Bangladeshi heritage. Obviously the street art changes pretty regularly, but I tend (as with all my tours) to talk about things that interest me, and street art is no different. I'll undoubtedly point out and talk about Banksy, Ben Wilson (the chewing gum man), Christiaan Nagel, Bambi, Roa, Jimmy C and Thierry Noir ... amongst others.
If you're in London one weekend and think that one of these walks might appeal (or fit in with your schedule) then please send me a message via the contact form. You won't actually know where we're meeting until I send you all the details confirming the walk and how many places you'd like to book. I do this so I can keep an eye on numbers. Please don't try just turning up. You'll see from the photos that it could be just you, two people, four, eight or more. Unless someone books loads of people at once, it probably won't be that big a group.
Please check the dates on the website homepage to make sure the walk you'd like to join is running, as although it is pretty continuous, there are occasional changes.
This morning I was standing in Piccadilly Circus awaiting the arrival of a family from Boston for a walk around Westminster. There's a very famous statue in Piccadilly which everyone calls 'Eros'. Funnily enough, it was built as a fountain (not a statue) and was never officially called Eros, but I think, the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain. Whilst I was standing there, a Police car pulled up, a couple of Police Officers got out, wandered over to Eros (I'll call it Eros too) had a look up at him, then got back in their car and drove off. Obviously, my interest was firmly piqued, so I investigated and discovered that this morning, Eros was looking a bit different, he was wearing a gas mask.
Later in the morning we were standing outside Buckingham Palace and noticed that the statue of Queen Victoria also had some sort of gas mask. Around lunch time, Jason, who was on the walk, pointed at the statue of Horatio Nelson on top of his column in Trafalgar Square, exclaiming that Nelson also had a gas mask. Of course he did. We obviously discussed who could be responsible and what were their reasons ... deciding that it was some kind of protest about air pollution. It would seem that we were correct.
Early this morning, under the cover of darkness, Greenpeace activists scaled quite a number of statues around the capital, fitting each of them with their own unique and specially made gas mask; highlighting the need for improved air quality. Winston Churchill, Queen Boudicca, Oliver Cromwell and Thierry Henry are now all part of the same club. I hadn't even known that footballer Thierry Henry even had a statue ... so that was news to me.
It would seem that the Greenpeace teams responsible for adding these accessories to the statues, did so with utmost care so as not to cause damage, and on top of that, you'll notice that each of the gas masks were designed specifically for the recipient. Horatio Nelson's mask includes an anchor and ships wheel, reflecting his sea faring prowess, whilst the mask worn by Eros is replete with hearts. Each mask was apparently made by artist Chris Kelly.
London is often in the news due to its high levels of pollution, so it's perhaps no surprise with the Mayor of London and London Assembly Elections about to take place next month that Greenpeace have chosen this moment to highlight the capital's pollution problem in a daring, visual and striking way, encouraging people to sign their clean air petition, calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to develop a clean air action plan.
If you wander around London and in particular Mayfair, St James's Street and Piccadilly (or indeed many other parts of the UK), you might notice a particular shop displaying a small, or occasionally large coat of arms with a bit of blurb saying 'By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen'. It basically means that they supply goods or services to the Royal Family. This one belongs to H. R Higgins, specialist supplier of fine coffee and tea.
It's not just The Queen though, it could be for HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, or HRH The Prince of Wales ... AKA 'The Big Three'.
About 800 individuals or companies hold prestigious Royal Warrants and it could be an individual practicing traditional crafts or a massive computer company. Either way, it is supposed to signify a mark of quality and they can apply for Royal Warrant status after they've been supplying any one of 'The Big Three' with whatever it is they supply, for five years. However, if you're a fan of 'After Eight' mints (like me), or Jacob's Cream Crackers (can't say I'm a massive fan), then you might have noticed that the Royal Warrant has been subtly omitted from their product packaging in recent years. It seems that some companies just aren't feeling the prestige as much as they once did.
That aside, you can pretty much guarantee that many of the companies and shops that are proud owners of a Royal Warrants have been around for donkeys and in some cases continued to serve the Royal Family for centuries. H. R Higgins (above) on that note are pretty new to the game, only receiving there's in 1979 I think.
The earliest record of a Royal Charter dates back to 1155 and was granted by Henry II to the Weavers' Company. Also, perusing lists of Royal Tradesmen over the years, shines an intriguing light on how things have changed. Henry VIII for instance employed a guy called Thomas Hewytt to 'Serve the court with Swanes and Cranes', whilst Charles II, in 1684 couldn't possibly survive without his Sword Cutter, Operator for the Teeth and very importantly, his Goffe-Club Maker. The whole operation was formalised by Queen Victoria in 1840 and Royal Warrants are now granted and overseen by what is now called the Royal Warrant Holders Association. Here are some of my favourite holders of Royal Warrants (in no particular order):
Lock & Co - Hatters
Lock & Co have been making hats since 1676, which makes them the oldest hat shop in the world. They have provided hats for Sir Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson. In fact, you can see drawings they still have inside the shop of Nelson's hat measurements. They also are responsible for bringing about the once ubiquitous 'bowler hat' although, they'd call it the Coke (I might tell you why another time). To give you an idea of the kudos they have in the world of hat making, they once received a postcard from overseas, addressed simply to 'the best hatters in the world, London.' Enough said.
Berry Bros & Rudd - Wine & Spirit Merchants
Although they sell alcohol, confusingly, Berry Bros & Rudd have a picture of a coffee grinder on the sign outside their 315 year old shop. The reason being that when they started off at the end of the 17th century, they sold coffee to the reasonably newish coffee houses that had been popping up. They have some huge coffee scales, and the likes of Lord Byron and William Pitt have sat on them to be weighed. They still have all the leather bound volumes of various people's weights inside the rickety shop and until recently boasted the largest wine cellars in London; a whopping 8,000 square feet over two floors. They began their Royal connection back during the reign of King George III.
Floris - Perfumers
I really like Floris on Jermyn Street. I very much doubt that when people meet me, they think, 'this guy likes to buy luxury fragrances' but I've always found the staff in Floris to be incredibly friendly and helpful, despite my obvious lack of interest in smelly water. Founded in 1730 by Juan Famenias Floris, as a perfumers, comb maker and purveyor of shaving products, they received their first Royal Warrant from George IV in 1820 as his Smooth Pointed Comb Maker. Aside from an amazing array of fragrances, they have a tiny little pseudo museum in the back room, which among other things includes a letter from Florence Nightingale to Mr Floris thanking him for his 'beautiful sweet-smelling nosegays'.
Paxton & Whitfield - Cheesemonger
Despite the name, which could almost be bywords for 'quality' and 'cheese', the seed of the business was actually sown by a bloke called Stephen Cullum who had a cheese stall in Aldwych Market back in 1742. His son Sam, moved the business to west London where many of his wealthy customers were based and took on two new partners, Henry Paxton and Charles Whitfield who somehow in 1797 managed to join their two names to become what is still today Paxton & Whitfield. They received their first Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1850 and have had mixed blessings over the years, as the popularity of cheese has waxed and waned, not mention rationing in the 1940's when they were forced to become a regular grocery shop. I'm very pleased to say they seem to be doing pretty well at the moment, with shops also in Stratford Upon Avon, Bath and the Cotswolds.
Hatchards - Booksellers
Hatchards, started by John Hatchard in 1797 has the distinction of being London's oldest bookshop. Based on Piccadilly, just next to Fortnum and Mason and opposite the Royal Academy of Arts, it's famous for the myriad of authors and politicians that have done book signings there and is crammed with books over five floors. They also hold Royal Warrants for all of 'The Big Three' and if you're a bit worried that Waterstones just a hop and a skip down the road might be stealing their business, then in fact, Waterstones bought Hatchards, but kept the much older and more prestigious name. It does mean though that if someone buys you Waterstones vouchers, you can use them in Hatchards too. Bonus.
And last but not least ...
John Anderson Hire Ltd - Portable Toilet Hire
Pretty much every Sunday I visit Columbia Road Flower Market on my east end walk. Every Sunday, there is a guy asleep in a land rover, behind which he has towed (for the use of visitors to the market) a portable toilet. Emblazoned on the doors of his vehicle is the Royal Warrant (which you can see above). Every time I use the toilet, which I do every Sunday, the emptying of my bladder feels that little bit more special, knowing that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II might have used the very same one ... albeit probably not the gents. So thank you very much John Anderson Hire Ltd for the wonderful service.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.