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.
Yesterday I went to Tower Bridge to check out the new glass floor they've installed in the west walkway that runs across the top of bridge. It means that visitors to the Tower Bridge Exhibition get a unique view from one of London's most iconic landmarks and if you time it right, can watch the bascule bridge lift up to allow a ship through. I contented myself with watching pedestrians and assorted bits of traffic passing beneath my feet as if I was floating 140ft above the river Thames. It looked very much like this.
Afterwards I went to the exhibition currently showing at the Guildhall Art Gallery celebrating the 120th anniversary of Tower Bridge. It was a Tower Bridge kind of a morning, so thought I'd write some stuff about it. To start with I'll go back in time a little bit.
London only had one bridge for 600 years and that was London Bridge completed in 1209. The next bridge in central London was Westminster Bridge in 1750. Having only had one bridge for so long, we then over the course of the next 100 years had a bridge epidemic with 9 bridges being built. However, despite this, London Bridge remained the most eastern bridge. The stretch of the river between London Bridge and the Tower is known as the 'Pool of London'; historically London's hub of trade and wealth. Because of this, by the late 19th century, east London had a population of over 1 million ... but no bridge.
Another important thing to note is that during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901) we went from being a largely agricultural country in to an industrial power house, due to the development of steam power and civil engineering. All this sets us up nicely to drop in to Victorian London and discover that London Bridge is struggling with the amount of traffic passing over it. They've tried alternatives like tunnels or expanding ferry services, but eventually and somewhat controversially, it is decided that a new river crossing is needed close to the Tower of London. The criteria are that the design must not only be suitable for pedestrians and vehicles, but allow large boats to pass in and out of the 'Pool of London'. Architects were therefore asked to submit plans.
The winning design was by Sir Horace Jones with important tweaking from engineer John Wolfe Barry (son of Charles Barry, the guy that built the Houses of Parliament). Work began in 1886, but Jones died the following year, meaning that responsibility fell on to the shoulders of his assistant George Daniel Stevenson. It took 432 construction workers (10 of which died) 8 years to build Tower Bridge at a total cost of £1,184,000 and is actually a steel framework surrounded by stone-cladding.
If you visit the Tower Bridge Experience you can walk through the engine room and find out how the hydraulic power worked (not really my forte) and discover why at the time, Tower Bridge was the most sophisticated bascule bridge ever built.
Tower Bridge opened on 30th June 1894 to great fanfare, attended by the Prince & Princess of Wales and it would seem ... most of London. In the first month of use, the bridge opened 655 times. Today it opens about 15 times a week ... and you need to give them a fair bit of notice too. The steam-driven power system was replaced in 1976 and there's also a speed restriction for traffic on the bridge itself as well as weight restrictions. You have to remember that Tower Bridge was built to accommodate horse drawn carriages.
Tower Bridge is an instantly recognisable London landmark across the world ... even if a lot of people seem to think it's London Bridge. Still, you can't have everything.
Last weekend I did all three walks, encompassing the full spectrum of group sizes, beginning with what is officially known as a 'biggish' group on Saturday morning for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's. It was also London Open House weekend, so we took the liberty of sticking our noses in to the entrance hall of the Royal Courts of Justice, a quite formidable building on the Strand, officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1882.
Nicole and Drew were back for their second walk and the rest were newbies hailing from India via the UK, Australia via Switzerland and the States.
In the afternoon it was just Barbie, all on her own, so could officially be termed 'an incredibly small group'. She had joined the Sunday walk the previous week, when there had been a somewhat larger contingent. Here she is on London Bridge.
The building just behind Barbie, to the left of her head has been in the news recently. It's 20 Fenchurch Street, previously dubbed the 'Walkie Talkie' and now renamed the 'Walkie Scorchie' because during a rather more clement day the other week, the sun's glare had apparently reflected off the windows and melted parts of a car, amongst other things. Londoners of course love nothing better than to bestow nick names upon the city's buildings, as the Gherkin, Cheese Grater, Razor and Wobbly Bridge can testify.
Sunday's east London walk was a 'medium sized group' and saw the return of Eric and Gail from Saturday morning. They were joined by John, Christopher and Elika. Here they are standing by one of street artist, Stik's pieces on Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane.
Youngest - Sophie
Best new sensible haircut - Drew
Best moustache - No winners
Biggest family group - The Lynch's
Most Kevins in one group - Saturday morning (x2)
Men show their appreciation and affection for their wives in different ways ... sometimes. It might involve a bouquet of flowers, a surprise dinner out or maybe just abstaining from going to the pub for one evening. For Prince Albert however, he came up with something all together a bit more extravagant, when in the 1860's he created an ornamental water garden in Kensington Gardens as a landscaped love letter to his wife, Queen Victoria.
The garden is still there just by Lancaster Gate, having recently undergone a £486,000 restoration programme and overlooks the tranquil Long water, the river which flows through the Royal Park in to the Serpentine. It is quite a lavish affair complete with four basins, fountains, sculptures and urns, many of which have had their ornate carvings re-worked and restored in recent years. As you wander around you might notice five motifs which recur throughout; the swan's breast, woman's head, ram's head, dolphin and oval.
Prince Albert didn't dive in at the deep end, but as a man with 'green fingers' had already created an Italian style garden at Osborne House, the Royal retreat on the Isle of Wight, where he had taken charge of the garden. The pump house to the north originally had a steam engine for operating the fountains and a stoker was apparently employed to work each Saturday night, through the night, pumping water in to the pond, so that on Sunday, the fountains could work with no engine running, as if by magic.
Unfortunately, when I took these photos, it was a rather grey day, but Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are a wonderful place to go for a stroll, and apart from the distant hum of traffic, you can almost forget you're in London. For film buffs, the Italian Gardens featured in both 'Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason' and another film called 'Wimbledon' (starring Kirstin Dunst and Paul Bettany). Also, you'll notice that all the parks in London have oodles of benches, should you wish to rest your weary legs, but just next to the Italian Gardens is what must surely be one of the most extravagant park benches I've ever seen. It looks like this.
The Italian Gardens are a Grade II Listed English Heritage site, and the care and dedication taken to restore them to their former glory has ensured that many people will be able to enjoy them for many years to come.
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.