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.
Fossil Hunting in London
As you wander around London, you’ll notice that a white coloured stone is prevalent. It’s called Portland Stone. After the Great Fire of 1666, and realising that building things out of wood wasn’t such a hot idea (pun intended), Christopher Wren used 6 million tonnes of the stuff whilst rebuilding the City. He rebuilt 51 of the 87 churches that burned, with the mighty St Paul’s cathedral being the most famous; a good example of Wren’s use of Portland Stone, which is a particular favourite amongst architects apparently due to its versatility. More recent examples include BBC Broadcasting House, Green Park Underground station, the CitizenM Hotel and the British Museum.
Portland Stone comes, not surprisingly from Portland on the south coast of England, in Dorset, known as the Jurassic Coast due to the amount of fossils found there from the ‘Jurassic Age’ which occurred 199.6million – 145.5 million years ago. A unique feature therefore of Portland Stone is the sheer number of fossils found within it. I’ve heard it said that occasionally as the buildings weather, fossils appear. Whether this is true or not I have no idea. What is certain though, is that I’ve noticed in recent years that a particular type of Portland limestone called ‘Bowers Roach’ is being used on facades and cladding, with the very visible fossils utilised as a decorative feature; a very effective one at that. I love that fact that people walk around London every day passing 150 million year-old fossils, and they have no idea.
As an example, the below photo is of a bench I often sit on to have my lunch on Saturdays. As you can see, it’s positively festooned with fossils.
The photo at the top shows fossils on the New London Stock Exchange building, Paternoster Square. I’m not an aficionado on fossils (as with anything), but the very prominent cone shaped fossils, known as the ‘Portland Screw’ are officially Gastropods ( Aptyxiella Portlandila). Looks like it might have numerous Bivalves (Liostrea Expansa) too, otherwise known as Oysters.
If you fancy yourself as an urban geologist, whilst you’re out and about fossil hunting in London, keep your eyes open for Pecten (Camptonectes Lamellosus) or Scallop Shells, Mussels (Mytilus Suprajurensis) or Ammonites (Titanites Anguiformes) to name but a few. If you happen to be passing through Euston Station, check out their funky benches, which as the Londonist pointed out, must surely be the oldest benches in London.
If you’d like to find out a bit more about Portland Stone, then have a look at Albion Stone’s website, one of the main providers of Portland Stone, including the examples given above.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.