Fun London Facts - Week #1
I'll undoubtedly regret this, but I've set myself the challenge of posting a fun London fact every day for the whole of 2023. That's 365 facts! (I know you knew that).
I'm posting them over on Twitter and Instagram each day, then every week I'll do a round up here. So here are my fun London facts for the first week.
On the 23rd October 1843, the 14 stonemasons who built Nelson’s Column had a dinner party at the top before the statue of Horatio Nelson was hoisted up.
When Sam Wanamaker was raising funds for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the 1990s, he was reliant on private donations, with each individual or organisation rewarded with their name engraved on a paving stone around the theatre. John Cleese phoned up and said “If you spell Michael Palin’s name wrong, I’ll give you double.” And so it is, that next to John Cleese is the larger paving stone of 'Michael Pallin'.
William Fortnum was a footman for Queen Anne in the early 18th century. One of his jobs was to replenish the palace candles each evening, but the Queen apparently insisted on new candles each day. William sold on the used candles, making a tidy profit which he used to set up his grocery shop with Hugh Fortnum in 1707. This is why candles are a motif in Fortnum & Mason today.
Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) is the only person in Westminster Abbey buried standing up. The reason? By the end of his life he’d spunked most of his money, so before he died, negotiated a deal to be buried standing up. It took up less space and was therefore much cheaper. Clever chap.
The famous bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column are anatomically incorrect. Lions can’t actually sit with their back legs like this. Edwin Landseer who made them was a Victorian water-colour painter and had never made a sculpture in his life. He based the back of them on his own dogs.
Rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and German born composer George Frideric Handel were nextdoor neighbours …albeit 200 years apart. Handel moved to Brook Street, Mayfair in 1723 and spent 40-years living there. In 1970, Hendrix moved in with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham to the top floor room at 23 Brook Street. When Hendrix learned of his famous old neighbour he went out and bought ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ and ‘Messiah’ which incidentally Handel wrote next door.
The two buildings have been transformed in to the rather brilliant Handel & Hendrix in London museum. It’s currently closed for refurbishment, re-opening in May 2023. Well worth a visit.
Built by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, The Monument is a monument to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Completed in 1677 it stands 202ft tall because if it were to fall eastwards (which it hasn’t yet) the top of it would touch the spot where the fire started in Thomas Farrinor’s bakery on Pudding Lane, 202 feet away.
Where are they?
Regent Street and Oxford Street are two major thoroughfares that form a large ‘T’ shape in the heart of London’s west end. Contrary to popular belief, Bond street doesn’t exist as a street, but is the name of an underground station situated between Marble Arch and Oxford Circus. About 500ft away is New Bond Street, which slices through Mayfair until it runs in to Old Bond Street by Piccadilly. It is often thought that this what Victor Watson of Waddington’s was referring to when he selected the streets for the UK version of Monopoly in 1935.
Like a number of the other properties, I have included them together due to their proximity. New Bond street and Old Bond street are found in Mayfair which also happens to be the final property on the board.
What’s the story?
Regent Street was named after the Prince Regent (Later George IV) and was principally designed by architect John Nash in the first quarter of the 19th century, cutting a huge boulevard through the existing streets and as such is regarded as an early form of town planning. The curved section towards Piccadilly was originally colonnaded, but was partly demolished in the 1840s due to the fact that the covered pavements were attracting prostitutes and “doubtful characters”.
Oxford Street is a Roman route, and later went by various names including Tyburn Way, only becoming Oxford Street in 1739, named after landowner Edward Harley (the 2nd Earl of Oxford).
Old Bond Street dates back to 1686, named after its developer Thomas Bond. New Bond street followed in the 1720s.
How do I get there?
Regent Street is served by Piccadilly and Oxford Circus underground stations. Oxford Street is over a mile long with four underground stations which from east to west are Marble Arch, Bond street, Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road. Bond Street underground is close to New Bond Street.
What’s it like now?
Both Regent Street and Oxford Street are super busy shopping streets, which most Londoners will generally avoid if they can. I don’t know who handed out this award, but Oxford Street would seem to hold the dubious title of ‘Europe’s busiest shopping street’. I’ll be mentioning a few of the shops, but think big high street department stores and big name brands rather than small boutiques. If you’re visiting around the Christmas period, then both Oxford Street and Regent Street are popular due to their displays of Christmas lights. Old Bond street is largely lined with high end luxury shops like Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. New Bond Street is equally chock-full of znazzy haute-couture shops, it’s pavements teeming with the super glamorous.
Where would I stay?
A few of the hotels I’ve been to around these particular streets are the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill (where I’ve also had afternoon tea), The Langham Hotel at the north end of Regent Street, which is often the winner of London’s most haunted hotel award. Just north of Oxford Street on Berners Street you’ll find the Sanderson London and close by is the Charlotte Street Hotel. All these options are basically luxury hotels, so if you’re a budget traveller or backpacker, then there’s a hostel on Dean street (just south of Oxford Street) called Sohostel or the hotels I mentioned in the post which included Soho.
What’s of interest?
Reputedly the oldest and largest toy shop in the world, Hamley’s was originally founded in 1760 by William Hamley, and called Noah’s Ark. Since 2019, Hamley’s has been owned by an Indian multinational conglomerate company called Reliance Industries and covers about 54,000 square feet over 7 floors. That’s a lot of toys. It goes without saying that in the run up to Christmas, the shop gets incredibly busy, but it’s worth a visit just for the experience and encountering the shop assistants demonstrating toys on the shop floor with a slightly mad glimmer in their eye.
Liberty of London
On the corner of Regent Street Street and Great Marlborough Street is the department store ‘Liberty’s’ which I mentioned when discussing the orange properties. It’s a lovely looking building, made from the timber of two 19th century naval ships.
The English fashion brand and retailer Jaeger has been trading on Regent Street since 1935, but was originally founded in 1881. The Apple Store opened in 2004 in a grade II listed, late 19th century building once occupied by a glass making and mosaic firm from Venice called Salviati. In 1898 they installed a beautiful mosaic on the outside of the building incorporating coats of arms from Westminster and the Venetian islands of Murano and Burano.
At the north end of Regent Street where it meets Langham Place is Broadcasting House, an Art Deco building and headquarters of the BBC since 1932. Above the front entrance is a sculpture by controversial artist Eric Gill, who also bestowed upon us the font, ‘Gill Sans’.
Selfridges was opened in 1909 by Gordon H. Selfridge, an American who was in no doubt that the British could make quality goods, but less certain at our ability to sell them. Selfridges was London’s first American style department store with 130 departments and encouraged Londoners to view shopping as a leisure activity with the slogan “Why not spend the day at Selfridges”.
Other nearby department stores include Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis.
The Wallace Collection
Just north of Selfridges, occupying a former town house on the north side of Manchester Square is The Wallace Collection, an absolutely brilliant gallery and museum which first opened to the public in 1900. The collection includes over 5,000 works of art (inc. Titian, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Gainsborough), furniture, porcelain, sculpture and an incredible selection of arms and armoury. Everything you see was mostly collected in the 18th and 19th century by successive members of the same family; the Marquesses of Hertford. The 4th Marquess left his home and collection to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow in turn bequeathed it to the nation.
I think the Wallace Collection probably falls beneath the radar of many visitors to London, whose itineraries are understandably filled with visits to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. If you can find the time to visit the Wallace Collection, you won’t be disappointed.
The Cartoon Museum
Despite Britain’s long running tradition of cartoons and caricatures, appearing in news-sheets in the 19th century and comics such as ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ launching in the late 1930s, The Cartoon Museum which comprises over 6,000 original cartoon and comic artworks and a library of over 8,000 books and comics has only been in existence since 2006, moving to its current site on Wells Street in 2019.
The 100 Club
The 100 Club on Oxford street is a world famous gig venue, which began hosting live music in 1942 (as the Feldman Swing Club) with none other than Glenn Miller being one of its earliest performers. It’s been called the 100 Club since 1964 and moved from the Jazz scene to Blues, then the Mods of the 1960s hosting The Who and The Kinks, the punk scene of the 1970s with bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and more recently the Britpop phenomenon of the 1990s including Oasis and Suede. About a decade ago, the club faced closure, but a campaign backed by many of the musicians who have played there managed to keep it going and is a favourite haunt for big name acts to play secret shows when they’re in London.
Pollock's Toy Museum
Pollock's began life as a printers in Hoxton (east London) in the 1850s, later moving to occupy a shop in Covent Garden. The owner Benjamin Pollock made materials for toy theatres by hand. The museum moved to its location on Scala Street (Fitzrovia) in the late 1960s (as a separate entity from the shop) with its collection of mostly Victorian toys including teddy bears, dolls houses, puppets and toy theatres displayed across six small rooms and the staircases.
New Bond Street and Old Bond Street
Sotheby's Auction House
Sotheby’s was established in 1744 and is one of the world’s oldest auction houses, specialising in fine art, photographs, books and antiquities, jewellery, watches and musical instruments. On the day of writing, a Rembrandt self portrait is being auctioned for an estimated £16 million, alongside works by Gerhard Richter, Joan Miro, Francis Bacon and Picasso (to name but a few).
Most auctions are held during the day and are open to the public, with no obligation to bid, so if you fancy being part of an auction, why not pop in.
Unveiled in 2005 to commemorate 50 years of peace since the end of WW2, Allies, a sculpture by Laurence Holofcener is popular with tourists, not least because it depicts a convivial chat between Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on a bench, but because you can sit between them and have your photograph taken.
Handel and Hendrix in London
The 18th century composer George Frideric Handel and 20th century rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived next door to each other at 23 and 25 Brook Street, albeit some two hundred years apart. Handel occupied an entire Georgian town house, whilst Hendrix rented a top floor flat briefly between 1968 / 69 with his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The two buildings are now connected to create Handel & Hendrix in London. I visited the museum a few years back and it’s absolutely fascinating visit, particularly (as it goes without saying) if you have an interest in music.
Royal Institution / Faraday Museum
On Albemarle Street, which runs parallel to New Bond street, you will find the Royal Institution which was founded in 1799 with the aim of introducing new technologies and teaching science to the general public. A large number of scientists have been associated with or worked inside the building (14 of whom have won Nobel prizes). In the basement you can visit Michael Faraday’s magnetic laboratory where he conducted experiments in electricity and magnetism and see the tools and instruments he used in his pioneering research. You are cordially invited to explore the building and discover the instruments that have made science work for the last 200 years and the key role that the RI played in the development of the modern world.
Eating and Drinking
It goes without saying that in this part of town you are spoilt for choice for places to eat and as I’m not really a foodie, probably not best placed to offer advice. However, if you fancy treating yourself then I can highly recommend Nopi, just off Regent Street which serves Middle Eastern and Asian inspired plates. If you’re after a nice cosy authentic boozer that won’t be over run with tourists then just north of Oxford street you won’t be disappointed with either the Newman Arms or The Champion.
Also in the series:
#00 – Introduction
#01 – Old Kent Road
#02 – Whitechapel Road
#03 – The Angel, Euston Rd & Pentonville Rd
#04 - Pall Mall
#05 – Whitehall & Northumberland Avenue
#06 – Bow Street
#07 – Marlborough Street & Vine Street
#08 - Strand
#09 - Fleet street
#10 - Trafalgar Square
#11 - Leicester Sq, Coventry St & Piccadilly
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.