If you are visiting London, then it's entirely possible (perhaps even inevitable) that you will visit Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and the rather iconic Big Ben, all of which reside in an area called Westminster. Once you have done this, and if you have a bit of spare time, I can highly recommend exploring the streets just west of Parliament.
Moving away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist hot spot of Parliament Square and the centre of government, in just a couple of minutes you'll find yourself in a startlingly quiet enclave of beautiful early 18th century streets. For me, the icing on the cake is Smith Square, developed in the 1720's and dominated by the former church of St John the Evangelist which seems to be bursting out of the meagre space it has been allocated.
Built by architect Thomas Archer between 1713-1728, St John's is today regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture going. The building served as a parish church for about 230 years and since the 1960's, St John's has been a concert hall, which still plays host to a plethora of internationally renowned musicians, singers and orchestras all year round.
The building has the rather unusual nickname of 'Queen Anne's footstool', and legend has it that when Archer asked the ailing Queen Anne (she died in 1714) how she would like the new church to look, he caught her in a petulant mood. In response to his question, she kicked over her footstool, pointed at it and said "Like that!". St John's does indeed have four towers (or sticky-uppy bits, as I like to call them) pointing upwards from each corner, giving the building the appearance of an upturned footstool.
Charles Dickens described the church in his novel 'Our Mutual Friend' as "appearing to be some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic on its back with its legs in the air." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is certainly striking and domineering.
The church itself has not had an easy ride of it over the years. In 1742 the interior was damaged by fire and thirty one years later it was struck by lighting. In 1815 the towers and roof had to be stabilised, and then in 1941 it was hit and gutted by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz and remained open to the elements for the next twenty years until it got the love and care it deserved to bring it to its current incarnation. Talking of the Blitz (as I was) if you wander down Lord North Street (picture above) see if you can spot the old WWII public shelter signs still visible on the walls, which during the 1940's directed local residents to underground shelters.
Each Friday, or at least, most Fridays, I do a Friday quiz over on the Bowl Of Chalk Facebook Page. Last Friday's question related to the statue below, of John Wilkes, which would appear to be the only statue in London that has a squint, because not surprisingly, John Wilkes did have a prominent squint.
It got me thinking, that I've discovered that many of London's statues which people wander past every day have interesting, strange or mildly absurd stories attached to them, so thought I'd share a few of my favourites with you here ... in no particular order.
This statue of Elizabeth I nestles up in the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street, and made in 1586 during the Queen's own life time, originally stood on the old Ludgate, but was saved during the Fire of London, and later placed in its current position. (It's currently hiding beneath scaffolding, and won't be seen again until the autumn). The statue however, in 1929 received its own income, when Dame Millicent Fawcett, an English Suffragist and early feminist left £700 to the statue in her will.
It is said that when this statue of George Washington (which stands to the north of Trafalgar Square, outside the National Gallery) was given to us as a gift in the 1920's by the people of Virginia, they sent with it, a load of American soil to be placed underneath, as Washington had stated that he never wanted to set foot in England.
This statue of Queen Anne stands very prominently outside the main entrance to St Paul's cathedral. It's not the original, made in the 1700's by Francis Bird, but a Victorian copy made by sculptor Richard Claude Belt. According to author Tom Quinn, Belt was forced to make the statue from prison after he was imprisoned for fraud having already been commissioned to make the statue. It could be entirely possible as Belt did spend 12 months behind bars at about the same time.
This statue of Charles I just south of Trafalgar Square is the oldest bronze equestrian statue in Britain, made during Charles' life time. After the unfortunate Monarch had his head chopped off in 1649, a metalsmith called John Rivet was ordered to melt down the statue and turn it in to trinkets, which people could buy as macabre souvenirs of the execution. However, Mr Rivet evidently melted down something else, realising perhaps that fortunes might change, and kept the statue hidden until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and bought it back. Incidentally, you can see Nelson's Column in the background, which comes furnished with its own fascinating stories.
Prince Frederick, Duke of York
This 137 ft statue overlooks St James's Park and the Mall. Frederick was the second eldest son of King George III and when he died, every member of entire British army forewent a days pay to help raise the funds for the statue. Depending on which sources you read, they either did this gladly, or were forced to, as no one was willing to fork out the £21,000 needed to build it. Either way, when it was eventually finished in 1834 it was joked that the statue was so high up, so the Duke could escape his creditors. He died, £2 million in debt.
I began this ostensibly, to mention a clock at the well known department store on Piccadilly, called Fortnum and Mason, which I dare say you've heard of, or if not, the name might certainly ring a bell. It's not the grand clock which adorns the outside facade, added in 1964, with little statues of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason that come out every hour to see what's going on, but a rather grand musical clock that sits close to the lifts inside, in the midst of the quite amazing confectionery section on the ground floor. It looks rather like this.
I then decided it might be a good opportunity to mention Fortnum and Mason in a bit more detail, so basically, until recently, there was a sign next to the above clock saying that if you wanted to hear it play its tune, you had to ask a member of staff to start it for you, but now, there is a slot in which you can place a 50 pence piece, and you can hear the clock for yourself. I was only reminded about it because last week I took some people to Fortnum and Mason on a walk, and evidently, someone had done just that, so I heard it for the first time. The clock incidentally was made in Leipzig, Germany in 1898.
So, Fortnum and Mason, as you might have guessed, was started by two people; Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. Mason ran a small shop in nearby St James's and had a spare room at his house which became occupied by William Fortnum, who happened to be Queen Anne's footman. A perk of the job was that as the Queen insisted on only having brand new candles each evening, Fortnum was allowed to keep the old ones, which he of course sold on for profit. Fortnum and Mason then started their own joint business on the back of the candle selling enterprise and opened their own shop in 1707. This also explains why you see numerous candle related motifs around the shop.
The history of the shop is so rich and so varied with close ties to various Monarchs and periods of history, that I won't mention everything, but by the mid 1700's their close links with the British East India Company ensured they could get their hands on all those exotic spices and of course teas infiltrating from India, making them (in their own words) a 'unique emporium for goods sold precisely nowhere else'.
During the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800's Fortnum and Mason goods helped feed the troops and by the middle of that century were pioneers of the trend for ready to eat luxury foods and apparently invented the scotch egg. In 1855 Queen Victoria had a huge consignment of beef tea sent to Miss Florence Nightingale, embroiled in the Crimea War and ships for the Crimea were so laden with Fortnum and Mason goods that officers begged them to remove their labels to stop the inevitable pilfering.
In 1886 a young American entrepreneur called Henry Heinz turned up with five cases of his tinned food and Fortnum and Mason became the first shop in the UK to sell Heinz Baked Beans ... a luxury at the time.
Many pioneering expeditions have been achieved on the back of Fortnum and Mason, although could have quite easily been their undoing. The 1922 Everest expedition kicked off with 60 tins of quail in foie gras and 4 dozen bottles of champagne, and probably for the best, Tensing Norgay was horrified for the 1933 attempt to discover that most of their Fortnum and Mason provision had been kept by customs officials.
The shop continued through the obvious difficulties presented during the 20th century and in the 1920's added new departments to include ladies' fashions, children's clothes, kitchenware and perfumes. They're still there today, and not surprisingly have held numerous Royal Warrants dating back 150 years, so if you head down to Piccadilly, why not pop in, and if you have a spare 50 pence, you can listen to the musical clock just by the confectionery section ... amongst other things.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.