London Curiosities (part 1)
London is full of curiosities, oddities, street antiques, little windows back in time that people pass every day without perhaps even noticing, or certainly registering their significance. Some of these are well known, and almost certainly all written about in one form or another. Below are a just a few I quite like.
Policeman's Hook - Great Newport Street
Secreted away on the side of a building on Great Newport Street (just by Leicester Square Underground Station) close to the busy intersection of St Martin’s Lane, Garrick Street, Long Acre, Cranbourne Street and of course Great Newport Street is a large hook, above which is written ‘Metropolitan Police’. Long before lights controlled the flow of traffic through this busy thoroughfare, a Policeman would stand directing cars, vans and bicycles using nothing but his hands and a sturdy presence. Hot work during those pre-war summers, and so a place to hang a Policeman’s coat was necessary. The story goes that one Policeman had taken to using a handy nail, protruding from the wall during building work. When the work ended and the nail was gone, the impromptu coat hook was sorely missed, so an official one instated.
WWII stretchers up-cycled as fences
During the Blitzkrieg attacks of WWII, mass civilian casualties were anticipated and therefore numerous A.R.Ps (Air Raid Precautions) were put in to place. One such action was to make loads of sturdy metal stretchers which could also easily be quickly washed down (gas attacks were a real danger too) if contaminated or bloodied. It would seem that a great many of these were taking up valuable space after the war, combined (I’m guessing) with the fact that many fences and railings had been melted down for the war effort. The stretchers became fences themselves. A few examples survive around ex local authority buildings, particularly in east or south-east London. The photo shows such a fence around the Dog Kennel Hill estate, east Dulwich.
WWII Blackout signs
Keeping on the WWII theme, there are still a few old ‘ghost signs’ directing people during the air raids of the 1940s to underground shelters, particularly around residential streets in Westminster. It is well known that thousands of Londoners huddled together deep below ground on Underground platforms, or even railway lines. American talk show host, Jerry Springer was born in Highgate Underground station in 1944, whilst it was being used as a shelter. During the ‘Blitz’, another A.R.P was to enforce ‘Blackouts’, ensuring that no light escaped from buildings or streets at night, and therefore making them harder to identify from enemy planes flying over head. Strict blackout regulations were enforced by wardens and those flaunting the rules would face penalties. Although the darkness made it difficult for German bombers to spot their targets, it also made it difficult for civilians to get around. White stripes were painted on kerbstones to try and make them more visible. The above sign which survives from this period reads ‘PUBLIC SHELTERS IN VAULTS UNDER PAVEMENTS IN THIS STREET’.
As you wander around London, you might pass what looks like a green shed on the side of the road, and either wonder what it is for, or not give it a second thought. The chances are, it’s a Cabmen’s Shelter. People started hiring horses and carriages to take the around the place in the 17th century, which was eventually regulated in a taxi service. The famous black cabs in London today are still officially called ‘Hackney Carriages’. If you were a cab driver, stopping to go to the toilet or grab some food was problematic as you’d need to get (and probably pay) someone to keep an eye on your horse and carriage. So, in 1875, these little huts started being erected, allowing cabmen to duck inside and get out of the rain. Horses could be tied to the bar running around the edge of the shelter, under the watchful gaze of the cabman and someone inside made and sold food. The chimney was for the wood burning stove. By 1914, 61 of these shelters had been built. Only 13 remain, but as they have Grade II Listed status, hopefully won’t be disappearing anytime soon. The shelter pictured can be found on Northumberland Avenue close to Embankment Underground Station and serves refreshments to the public, although most of the ones still in use are solely for licensed cab drivers who have ‘the knowledge’.
The Temple Church
The experience of walking along a busy, bustling and noisy Fleet Street and stepping through an innocuous gate in to the quiet, calming courtyards and lanes of Temple, is (I think at least) ... rather magical. If you spend some time exploring this area, you'll find many fascinating historical trinkets but before long you'll find yourself standing in front of the 12th century Temple Church.
The church was originally built by and belonged to the Knights Templar, a monastic order of Knights that became one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders in Christendom; a fact that ultimately proved to be their undoing. The Round Church, modelled on the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (considered the site of Christ's death, burial and rising) came first, consecrated in 1185, whilst the rectangular Chancel or 'Hall Church' came in to use in about 1240. The Chapel once formed part of a much larger compound that comprised of halls, cloisters, domestic buildings, butteries and a kitchen. The whole ensemble sat conveniently next to the medieval waterfront, as at that time, the Thames invaded inland rather more than it does today.
On a date in 1307, which is now forever associated as a day of ill fortune (Friday 13th October) the mighty Templars were finally toppled on the orders of King Philip the Fair of France. The accusations of blasphemy and heresy brought against the Templars are generally considered to be a convenient excuse for King Philip to seize the order's vast wealth and treasures, so as to pay off his own substantial debts. Either way, it marked the end for the Knights Templar, and the church was passed to the Knights Hospitallers, an order which still survives today in the form of St John Ambulance. They in turn had the land confiscated by Henry VIII during the Reformation and the church and surrounding area reverted to the Crown. For centuries now, the area nestling between Fleet Street and the Thames has accommodated the legal profession, housing two of the four Inns of Court in London; Inner Temple and Middle Temple. In the early 17th century, James I formally granted the area to 'those studying and following the profession of the laws' and even today, as part of the same arrangement, the two Inns are responsible for maintaining the church and ensuring that its priest, the Master of the Temple has a splendid mansion to live in.
The church survived largely unscathed during the Great Fire of London, but almost inevitably, succumbed to German incendiary bombs during the Blitz. On the 10th May 1941, Temple Church was struck during an attack and badly damaged. It was to be seventeen years before it was fully repaired, and despite this it is amazing to think, that aside from the pews, a few Victorian alterations and the post WWII stained glass windows, the church is much as it would have looked to the Knights Templar all those centuries ago. If you're familiar with your William Shakespeare, then there is a scene in the play 'Henry VI, part 1' which takes place in the church garden; the plucking of two roses, one red and one white, representing the War of the Roses.
More recently, the Temple Church has seen a bit of a renaissance in the interests of tourists visiting London (and perhaps why they began charging a modest fee to enter) which can probably be attributed to a visit from Tom Hanks whilst filming the film version of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code'. Either way, it's a beautiful area, an incredible church and is one of those places that often, people who have lived in London for many years don't even know exists.
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.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
I've spent a fair bit of time recently showing people around Westminster, which is obviously a hot spot for tourists, as Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament (or the Palace of Westminster) are right next to each other. The latter also includes the iconic 'Big Ben' which everyone is familiar with. As I have mentioned before, 'Big Ben' is actually the name given to the bell inside the clock tower. I shall write a separate post about 'Big Ben', but thought that for now, I'd mention the company that made it, back in 1858. They're called the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
In case you're unfamiliar with London's geographical layout, Whitechapel is an area in east London, generally most associated with being the location of the infamous Jack The Ripper murders which took place in 1888. As you can see from the above photo, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry have been making bells for quite a long time, since 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I (and maybe actually even longer). In fact, they've been making making all sorts of bells for so long, that they've made it in to the Guinness Book of Records, listed as the oldest manufacturing company in Britain.
The company are still making bells of all sizes and inhabit a Grade II listed, 17th century building on a busy east London road, surrounded by much more modern neighbours. 'Big Ben' is probably the most famous bell they ever made and was also the largest one they've ever cast, weighing in at a whopping 13.5 tonnes. Back in 1752 they also made the Liberty Bell, which is in Philadelphia, itself pretty iconic and a symbol of American independence. Both, you might note are famously cracked. Obviously, not the fault of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
It hasn't always been plain sailing over their 444 year history and by the 1930's there seems to have been a bit of a bell slump. However, the Second World War had the strange effect of galvanising the company's fortunes. During the war, they temporarily stopped their fascination with bells and were charged with the task of casting parts for submarines, then due to the immense devastation heaped upon the country's churches during the Blitz, they were called upon to replace the bells that had been lost. The demand was so huge, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry had a three year waiting list.
More recently, the company made the bells rung during the Queen's Jubilee river pageant and of course the giant bell that featured in last years Olympic Opening Ceremony. They no longer have the capacity for casting such a large bell, and that particular one, inscribed with a quote from William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and reads "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises" was cast in Holland, to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry's specifications.
The good news, is that if you so desire, you can visit them. Monday to Friday you can mooch around their small museum and on a couple of weekends each month, they provide tours of the workshops and the foundry. The details for these are on their website. If you visit, you can't fail to notice that the entrance door is flanked by a cross section template of 'Big Ben', so it'll give you a good idea, just how big it really is.
If you're walking along Eastcheap, which connects Tower Hill to the Monument and the north end of London Bridge, and turn off towards the Thames down a narrow cobbled street called Idol Lane, you'll come across a church called St Dunstan-in-the-East.
There are no shortage of churches in the City of London, which you can visit, although considerably less than there once were, thanks to the Great Fire and the devastation caused by WWII bombing. Upon entering St Dunstan-in-the-East (There's also a St Dunstan on Fleet Street) the one thing that you can't fail to notice is that despite the church-like appearance as you approach down Idol Lane (see above photo), the church has ceased to exist. You will find yourself standing in a lovely, quiet walled garden.
The original church, which had stood since about 1100 was badly damaged during the Great Fire of 1666, and although generally classed as one of the many churches built by Christopher Wren in the aftermath of the fire, St Dunstan-in-the-East was actually mainly repaired and patched back together between 1668-71. It was then given a major refurbishment in the 19th century and then flattened during the Blitz in 1941. All that survived were a few of the walls and the distinctive steeple with its four smaller spires perched on each corner and the flying buttresses arcing up to support the main spire.
Suffice to say, the church was not rebuilt and it wasn't until 1971 that it was opened as a public garden.
In 1668, as Samuel Pepys (who I seem to manage to mention in just about every post) was wending his way through the post fire ruins of the church, he encountered what he describes as two ruffians armed with clubs, and had to make a hasty escape back to his home on Seething Lane. I sincerely hope you don't encounter something similar, and I'm sure you won't. I've visited many times, and during the week at lunchtimes, the walled enclosure, open to the elements provides a nice secluded haven for 'in the know' City workers to have their lunch. Quite often, I've seen young newly weds having their wedding photos taken amongst the flowers and trees, some of which are quite unusual, including 'Winter's Bark', once eaten to prevent scurvy.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.