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.
If you’re preparing to visit London for the first time, then it can be a little daunting. It’s a big place and there’s a lot to think about and plan. You might have a lot of questions such as where will I stay? How do I get to central London from the airport? What should I see? How do I use public transport?
As a tour guide in London I get asked these questions a lot, so have decided to do a series entitled ‘Questions from London Tourists’, whereby I shall endeavour to answer some of these questions. Today I’ll answer the question …where is everything?
London has a ridiculous amount of large museums, galleries, places of interest, iconic buildings, parks and small museums. To answer the question ‘Where is everything?’ I’m literally going to pick out what I consider to be ‘The Biggies’ (not everything), the places a first time visitor might want to ensure they tick off during their stay; things like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
The second thing I’ve done is to draw a map (yes, I drew it myself) to show you as simply as I can, where these places are clustered. The reason I’ve done this is because it will help you make the best use of your time, so in one day or morning, you can see a number of places all within walking distance, rather than travelling back and forth across London using public transport. It’ll hopefully help you plan your days better and enable you to understand and visualise where everything is.
1 – Buckingham Palace
2 – Trafalgar Square
3 – Big Ben & Houses of Parliament
4 – Westminster Abbey
5 – St Paul’s cathedral
6 – Tower of London
7 – Tower Bridge
8 – The British Museum
This area is called Westminster. It’s the government and Royal area of London and has the highest density of ‘sights’ in one area, all of which are completely walkable. It also has London’s West End, where a huge amount of theatres are situated and people go to ‘catch a show’. Covent Garden and Soho also have a lot of restaurants, pubs and bars.
Places of Interest
Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, Downing Street, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, China Town.
Museums and Galleries
National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, The Courtauld Gallery, The Royal Academy, Churchill War Rooms, London Transport Museum.
The London Eye.
St James’s Park and Green Park.
Covent Garden, Soho, Whitehall, St James’s, Mayfair, Piccadilly.
This area is called The City of London. It’s London's first financial district and although looks quite modern, was actually where the Roman’s settled in about 48AD. Londoners refer to it as ‘the square mile’ and it forms a small semi circle north of the Thames that stretches from Blackfriars Bridge in the west to Tower Bridge in the east.
The three ‘Biggies’ in the City of London for first time visitors are St Paul’s cathedral in the centre/west of the City and the the Tower of London and Tower Bridge which are slap bang next to each other on the far east side.
Places of Interest
St Paul’s cathedral, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, The Monument.
Museums and Galleries
Guildhall Art Gallery, Bank of England Museum, Dr Johnson’s House.
This area is South Kensington and Knightsbridge. It’s one of London’s most desirable and expensive areas. Exhibition Road houses the vast collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens along with Kensington Palace are close by. Harrods, the famous department store is also found here.
Places of Interest
Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall, Harrods.
Museums and Galleries
Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum, Kensington Palace, Serpentine Gallery
Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens
I am a Tour Guide in London and give both private and group walks around the capital for first time visitors and seasoned Londoners alike. If you are visiting London and would like to do a tour with me, please get in touch.
Also in the Questions from London Tourists Series:
01 - How do I get to central London from the airport?
The Rugby World Cup 2019 is about to kick-off in Japan on Friday and as I come from the town of Rugby (where the game was invented) and happen to be a fan of the sport, thought I’d take a visit to Twickenham Stadium in west London to mark the occasion. It is the home of England rugby and with a seating capacity of 82,000; the largest dedicated rugby union venue in the world.
Twickenham rugby ground had pretty humble beginnings, when in 1907, members of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) purchased for the grand sum of £5,500 12s 6d a 10-acre market garden used to grow cabbages. It’s still affectionately known today as the ‘cabbage patch’. The first club game took place at the newly built stadium in 1909 and the first international match to be played there was between England and Wales on the 15th January 1910. The capacity back then was 20,000, and the stadium has been constantly re-developed over the years and is now unrecognisable from its first incarnation over a century ago.
Although you can take stadium tours, I went to peruse the World Rugby Museum which is housed there and through a collection of 38,000 objects, tells the story of the games' origins through to the present day. Although slightly shrouded in myth, the story begins in 1823 when a schoolboy at Rugby School called William Webb Ellis was playing football and with a healthy disregard for the rules, caught the ball and ran forward towards the opposition goal, sowing the seeds for an entirely new game which became known as rugby.
The first ever international rugby match took place in Edinburgh in 1871 between England and Scotland and the museum has on display the only surviving jersey (and therefore the oldest international jersey) from that game, which belonged to England’s John Clayton (himself a pupil at Rugby School).
The museum charts the spread of the game across the globe and has a vast array of memorabilia reflecting the different countries in which the game is played, establishment of the rules, the development of the women’s game, rugby’s role in the First World War and the players who lost their lives, World Cups, iconic players, memorable moments and so on. Perhaps my favourite artefact was commentator Bill McLaren’s meticulous commentary notes from a match in 1979; a work of art in itself.
If you’re in London and a rugby enthusiast, then the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham could well be worth adding to your ‘To Do’ list.
This year’s Rugby World Cup final will take place on the 2nd November and whichever nation is victorious will lift the Webb Ellis Cup, named after the young schoolboy who may (or may not) have inadvertently invented the game all those years ago.
After graduating from Oxford university, Webb Ellis joined the church and for a time was rector of St Clement-Danes, a church which I wrote about a few years back and pass on my regular Saturday morning walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul’s cathedral.
Set inside the original canal side warehouses that housed it, The Ragged School Museum in East London is a tranche of Victorian life, offering an insight in to what the school day offered for the poor children of the east end.
The Ragged school, and others like it were the work of a man whose name will be familiar to most of us; Thomas Barnardo.
Barnardo arrived in London from his native Dublin in 1866 to train as a doctor, with the aim of travelling to China as a missionary. Rather like Thomas Coram and his Foundling Hospital just over a hundred years earlier, Barnardo was appalled with the poverty, disease and overcrowding endured by many in east end slums, not to mention the non existent educational opportunities for children.
Before he’d finished his training, Barnardo realised that instead of travelling overseas, the plight of those much closer to home deserved his attention and set about setting up his first ‘Ragged School’ in 1867. The term ‘ragged’ referred to the appearance of the children that attended.
In 1877, Barnardo opened the Copperfield Road Free School (where the museum resides today), providing just under 400 children a day with free schooling and food, and 2,500 children for Sunday school each week.
The building was saved from demolition in the 1980s and turned in to a museum complete with Victorian classroom, a domestic kitchen and exhibition space giving a wider context to east London life throughout the ages.
Some 16,000 school children still pass through the Ragged School’s doors each year to learn what life was like for their Victorian counterparts 140 years ago.
The Ragged School Museum is open every Wednesday and Thursday between 10am - 5pm and between 2pm – 5pm on the first Sunday of each month. It is free to visit, but donations are obviously welcome.
German born composer, George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) and American guitarist and all round rock legend, Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970) were next door neighbours in London …albeit 200 years apart.
The two musical greats lived at 23 and 25 Brook Street respectively; two Georgian Mayfair houses, which when Handel moved in to No. 25 in 1723 at the age of 38, was brand spanking new. Hendrix and girlfriend Kathy Etchingham occupied a bedroom and had the use of a kitchen at No. 23 Brook Street, between July 1968 and March 1969.
Hendrix’s bedroom has recently been restored from photo shoots that took place in the room and input from Etchingham herself. It can now be visited as a companion piece to Handel’s house next door, where the composer lived and worked.
I decided to visit Handel’s house first, a typical 5 floor Georgian town house. There weren’t many visitors so was able to bend the ear of the incredibly helpful attendant who enthusiastically showed me how Handel’s staircase was widened to allow for his harpsichord to be carried up and down. Hendrix’s staircase however remained unaltered.
I began in Handel’s composition room. He was a pretty speedy composer, and could knock off an entire opera in 40 days, then start another straight afterwards, His Oratorio, ‘Messiah’ was written in just 24 days.
I then headed to the exhibition space (next door) which puts Handel’s life in to a bit of context and explains a bit about the London that Handel would have known and the places he regularly visited. Incidentally, he was very much involved with Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, another small London museum, well worth a visit. The house on Brook Street was of course close to the theatres around Covent Garden, the developing area of Soho and the Royal family at St James’s Palace. Just like today, Handel had a plethora of coffee houses on his doorstep …and gin palaces.
Handel basically turned his dining room in to a music room and rehearsal space, which the museum use for the same purpose today giving recitals, open rehearsals and even have a current composer in residence.
It is thought that Handel died in his bedroom. The attendant there explained that the bed was short, not because Handel was particularly diminutive, but because people apparently slept sitting up, as it was believed to aid digestion.
I was a massive Hendrix fan when I was a kid and it was obvious from visiting the museum that there are far more fervent Hendrix fans than myself.
The bedroom itself is just that, a room. It is festooned with paraphernalia from the swinging sixties, and the only original item from when Hendrix and Etchingham lived there, is an oval mirror. Still, it’s a faithful recreation and really captures the feel of how it would have been, even if not …the smell.
The room next door is a small museum which as you’d expect charts Hendrix’s journey from a U.S Army paratrooper to session musician for Little Richard (amongst others), a move to London, the formation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to become what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame describe as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music” …all within a decade.
Hendrix died in September 1970 (not at this flat) at the age of 27.
Handel and Hendrix in London is a must for music lovers and especially for Jimi Hendrix aficionados visiting London. I couldn’t help but wonder what Jimi would have thought about a flat he rented for a short period in London becoming a shrine to himself, but I think it’s great that both these two very different musicians have not only been able to bridge the gap between their two very different genres, but also the centuries. London, for me, is a city where 2000 years of history constantly rub shoulders, which Handel & Hendrix in London opitimises.
It is fitting also that upon learning that Handel had lived next door, Hendrix went with Kathy Etchingham to the One Stop Record Shop on South Moulton Street and bought Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and ‘Water Music’ on vinyl.
You can find Handel & Hendrix in London at 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, W1K 4HB. It is open Monday to Saturday (11am – 6pm). Last admission 5pm.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.