If you pick up a copy of this weeks Time Out London magazine, you'll discover that I contributed a small column entitled Hidden Landmarks.
London is a multi-layered city and there are loads of little details hiding in plain sight which both Londoners and tourists alike pass every day and don't notice. They're the kind of things I talk about regularly on my walks and are often a great way of helping to explain a much larger topic. Time Out asked me to include some of my favourites, all of which I've mentioned on this website previously.
Metropolitan Police hook
On a building on Great Newport Street (just by Leicester Square Underground Station) close to a busy intersection is a large hook, above which is written ‘Metropolitan Police’. Before traffic lights, a Policeman would stand directing traffic. The story goes that one Policeman had taken to hanging his coat on a 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 installed.
When Christopher Wren rebuilt the City of London following the Great Fire of London (1666) he used 6 million tonnes of Portland Stone which is quarried in Dorset. This area is known as the Jurassic Coast due to the sheer number of fossils found there from the Jurassic period. Although Wren chose not to feature the fossils, the stone is still being used today and the 150 million-year old fossils are used as decorative features, meaning you can fossil hunt all over London.
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.
London Bridge Alcoves
London Bridge was originally completed in 1209, a huge structure spanning the Thames with 19 arches and festooned with buildings and houses. In the early 1800s, the houses were removed and replaced with 14 niches or alcoves until the whole thing was eventually replaced in 1831 by a new bridge designed by John Rennie. Four of those niches have survived; one on the Courtlands Estate (Richmond), another secreted in Guy’s Hospital, just south of London Bridge and the remaining two can be found occupying sites to the east of Victoria Park in East London (pictured).
These niches were familiar to Charles Dickens when he was a boy, as he would have undoubtedly crossed the bridge to visit his father, incarcerated in the Marshalsea Prison, just to the south. His novel, David Copperfield is regarded as perhaps his most autobiographical, based on his experiences of this time. In fact, the title character, David Copperfield, can be found “lounging … in one of the stone recesses, watching people going by”.
Duke of Wellington’s Horse Block
One of our favourite things, here in England, is to go on about beating the French at battles. Second only to that is then remembering and celebrating those men responsible for winning those battles. Topping that exclusive list is Arthur Wellesley, perhaps better known as the Duke of Wellington, or ‘the Iron Duke’, responsible for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Anyway, aside from the expected statues in his honour or streets, buildings, railway stations, bridges all eulogising his wartime efforts, on the aptly named Waterloo Place in Westminster is a smaller, altogether less significant reminder of the man who made Wellington Boots so popular. On either side of the wide street, outside the rather grand looking Athenaeum Club are two sets of stone steps, each bearing a plaque telling us it was ‘erected by the desire of the Duke of Wellington, 1830’. They are horse blocks and quite simply were put there to make it easier for the Iron Duke to get on and off his horse when visiting his favourite club.
In many places, the River Thames used to be far wider than it is now. The gate (pictured) once stood on the banks of the river, but now occupies the north end of Victoria Embankment Gardens, some 450ft from the river. It’s called the York Watergate, a window back in to the early 17th Century when in 1623 George Villiers (1st Duke of Buckingham) bought a large mansion (York House) which had been built in the mid 16th century after the King, Henry VIII had granted land here to the Bishop of York. Villiers set about having a snazzy Watergate built (finished in 1626) giving both him and his visitors access to the river, which of course at that time was a super highway. The land was sold off and developed in the late 17th century, and again in the mid 19th century, meaning that this structure (along with some paintings of it in situ) is the only reminder of a time when the Thames used to creep right up to the steps inside the gate and the land surrounding it, dominated by rather fine mansions.
Philpot Lane mice
On the corner of Eastcheap and Philpot Lane in the City of London is a building, the ground floor of which, is occupied by one of the many generic epidemic coffee shops in London. On the side of the building is a curious little relief sculpture of two mice nibbling on a piece of cheese. It’s minutia like this that are the stuff of urban legend, spawning all sorts of stories as to what they represent and how they came about. The most ubiquitous of these relating to two builders employed in the construction of the building (it was finished in 1862) and that an argument had begun, when one man accused the other of stealing his lunch (which of course included cheese). A fight ensued, resulting in the death of one of the workers, plunging to his death from the building, whereupon it was later discovered that the cheese eating culprits were in fact mice. Whether the mice were added as a memorial or are actually simply a builders mark, might never be known. Either way, they remain one of London’s many curiosities which people pass every day without noticing.
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’.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.