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.
Here's a handy guide to what you'll see en route.
You'll begin queuing in Southwark Park, south east London. When I was there earlier, the sign was warning of a 14 hour queue. You'll have lots of time to take in what's around you. Here are a few highlights and fun facts.
After about 10 minutes you'll find yourself down by the river at Bermondsey. You'll be walking alongside the river Thames for the entire route.
The River Thames
The Thames is the entire reason why London exists and the Roman's settled here over 2000 years ago. It's 215 miles long and flows through 9 counties, its source being in Kemble, Gloucestershire. A few years ago I walked the whole thing from the 'Sea to the Source'. It was once a tributary river of the Rhine in Germany (when we were still landlocked to the rest of Europe). In central London the Thames has a tidal change of about 23ft, so see if you can see any 'mudlarks' looking for things that have washed up. It's basically a massive archaeological site and in the 19th century a politician called John Burns referred to it as 'liquid history'.
The City of London
From this point on the river you'll see the City of London opposite. It looks very modern but was the Roman city of Londinium founded in about 48AD. It's the original financial district. You'll see a number of tall buildings including 'the Gherkin' (No. 30 St Mary's Axe) and the 'Walkie Talkie' (20 Fenchurch Street).
Fun Fact - During the hot summer of 2013 (a year before completion) the 'Walkie Talkie' acted as a massive magnifying glass and was melting and scorching things including a car parked on the street below. The architect Rafael Vinoly said "it's not my fault, the sun was in the wrong place".
You'll also get your first glimpse of:
Undoubtedly one of the most iconic structures in London, Tower Bridge was completed in 1894. It's a 'bascule' bridge allowing the road to lift to allow ships through and is actually a steel structure with stone cladding.
Fun Fact - The winning design was chosen as part of a competition, judged by architect Horace Jones. He chose his own design as the winner.
St Saviour's Dock
You'll pass around where one of London's subterranean rivers, the Neckinger meets the Thames. In the 17th and 18th century it became known as Jacob's Island, a notorious place of execution. In 1838, Charles Dickens described the area as "the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities hidden in London".
Fun Fact - The name is thought to derive from 'devil's neckcloth' in reference to the nooses used to hang people here.
Next you'll pass through old riverside warehouses, once used to unload the myriad of goods that arrived in London from across the globe and now turned in to super duper apartments. You'll pass beneath the south side of Tower Bridge which is where all the engine rooms are housed, as originally the bridge was powered by coal furnaces.
Fun Fact - Tower Bridge has its own mortuary on the north side of the river, where bodies from the river were pulled out.
Tower of London
As you pass City Hall, on the other side of the river you'll see the Tower of London. It's actually 21 separate towers, but the White Tower in the centre dates back to 1090, a couple of decades after the Norman conquest.
Fun Fact - The Tower was London's first zoo. From the 1200s until 1835, animals given to monarchs as gifts were housed there, with the public paying to see them.
A WW2 ship that was used during D-Day in 1944. It has been a museum open to the public for over 50 years.
Fun Fact - If the guns on the front were to fire they'd hit a service station on the M1 motorway (over 12 miles away).
The original London Bridge opened in 1209 and was the longest inhabited bridge in the world. It remained there until the early 1800s. The bridge you're passing is the third on the site and opened by the Queen in the early 1970s.
Fun Fact - The 2nd London Bridge was sold to an American called Robert P. McCulloch who shipped it over to Arizona and created a man-made lake around it called Lake Havasu and made it into a tourist attraction.
Next you'll pass Southwark cathedral which was founded in the early 12th century. It's a beautiful church, originally called the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and Mary Overie. The 'Overie' was short for 'church over the river'.
Fun Fact - William Shakespeare's younger brother Edmund was buried there in 1607.
You'll pass by a replica of Francis Drake's galleon, the 'Golden Hind' which left to circumnavigate the world in 1577, returning to Deptford (near where you started queuing) in 1580. They were really pirates, but we called them privateers to make us feel better.
Fun Fact - The ship was originally called 'the Pelican' but its name changed during the journey in honour of one of the main financiers, Christopher Hatton whose family emblem was the golden hind (a female red deer).
You'll pass the remains of the 14th century palace of the Bishop of Winchester who once had jurisdiction over the area. The imposing wall and its rose window were discovered after a warehouse fire in the 19th century.
Fun Fact - The area of Bankside in the Elizabethan period was known as the 'City of Sin' as it housed the brothels and theatres. The church made money from the prostitutes and the women were known collectively as 'the Bishop of Winchester's Geese'. To be 'bitten by a Winchester Goose' meant you had contracted a sexually transmitted disease on Bankside and features in one of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Finished in the late 1990s by American Sam Wanamaker, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is a recreation of an Elizabethan Theatre and memorial to the bard. The original site is actually on the street behind.
Fun Fact - It has the only thatched roof in central London (after thatch was banned following the Great Fire of London in 1666).
Tate Modern and Millennium Bridge
The Tate Modern was a 1960s power station built by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the now iconic red telephone boxes. It's now a modern art gallery.
The Millennium Bridge opened in the year 2000 and is a pedestrian foot bridge that joins the Tate Modern to St Paul's cathedral in the City.
Fun Fact - The Millennium bridge was open for 2 days and closed for 2 years because it had a massive wobble. It will be forever known as 'the wobbly bridge'.
Blackfriars Bridge & Blackfriars Railway Bridge
The Victorian pedestrian and traffic bridge gets its name from the monastery that stood on the north side until the 16th century. It was run by Dominican monks who wore black, hence the 'blackfriars'.
The railway bridge leads in to Blackfriars station and Underground station which is the only underground station in London to have exits on either side of the Thames.
Fun Fact - The railway bridge has solar panels on the roof which generates half the electricity for the station. It's the largest solar powered bridge in the world.
The National Theatre
Founded in 1963 by Sir Lawrence Olivier (you'll pass a statue of him outside), the current brutalist building opened on this site in the late 1970s. The new King Charles III once said "it's a clever way of hiding a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting."
Waterloo Bridge was bombed at the beginning of WW2, rebuilt largely by women and therefore nicknamed 'the ladies bridge'.
The area now known has the Southbank was destroyed in WW2. It was rebuilt to house arts venues such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Festival Hall, the first building to open here in 1951.
The London Eye
Opened as 'the Millennium Wheel' in the year 2000 and renamed the 'London Eye'. It takes 30 minutes to go all the way around.
Fun Fact - It has 32 pods. Each one represents one of London's 32 boroughs.
Westminster Bridge and the Royal Palace of Westminster
Westminster Bridge is painted green, the same colour as the benches in the House of Commons.
The medieval Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834. A few bits survived including the Great Hall, where the Queen is Lying-in-State. It was rebuilt by architect Charles Barry and completed in 1870. 'Big Ben' is actually called the Elizabeth Tower and the tower on the opposite end is called the Victoria Tower which houses documents and bills of parliament dating back to the 14th century.
Fun Fact - Big Ben is the name of the 14 tonne hour bell, not the tower.
Lambeth Palace has been home to the Archbishop of Canterbury since the 1200s. The oldest part of the current building dates back to the 15th century.
Fun Fact - Behind those walls is a garden of just over 10 acres, making it one of the oldest and largest private gardens in London.
Lambeth Bridge was completed in 1932 to replace a Victorian Bridge. It had originally been the site of a ferry that took horses across the Thames, which is why the road on the opposite bank is called Horseferry Road. You'll notice the paintwork is largely red, the same as the benches in the House of Lords.
Once you've crossed Lambeth Bridge, you'll be on the final stretch before you enter the Great Hall to see the Queen Lying-in-State.
Where is it?
Old Kent Road, the first stop on the Monopoly board and the cheapest property is in south east London, and cuts diagonally from Southwark (just south of Tower Bridge) in a straight line of just over two miles to New Cross.
It is also the only square on the London Monopoly board south of the river Thames.
What’s the story?
As the name suggests, the Old Kent Road was an ancient road used by the Romans and formed part of the famous Watling Street which ran from Dover to Holyhead. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled down the road on their way to Canterbury in ‘The Canterbury Tales’, written in the late 14th century.
This once rural thoroughfare, was by the late 19th and early 20th century a mix of housing and industry, including gas works. Much of the surrounding area was heavily bombed during WWII and the old terraces were replaced with high rise council estates and new industrial developments.
How do I get there?
I live not far from Old Kent Road, so can safely say, that as a tourist it’s reasonably unlikely you’d be wanting to go there. However, the nearest stations are Elephant and Castle to the west and New Cross Gate to the east. Having said that, there’s loads of developments afoot and a couple of new stations will be popping up along the road as part of the Bakerloo Line extension which will run to Lewisham. So you never know, in twenty or thirty years, maybe it will be a tourist destination.
What’s it like now?
A not particularly pleasant road, choked with traffic and lined with high rise flats, big stores and depots.
Where would I stay?
You’re probably better off staying around London Bridge, although if you’re into Air BnB’s and fancy staying somewhere less central, then Peckham is a vibrant area, just south of Old Kent Road.
What’s of interest?
On the Old Kent Road itself …not much. South London does actually boast the greenest space of anywhere in London and there are lovely places to visit, but in keeping with the Monopoly board theme, you could wander around Burgess Park. Seeing as this is the only spot included on the board south of the river, I’ll mention a few places around London Bridge for starters.
Bankside and Borough
A big draw is the famous food market, Borough Market, which has also doubled up as film locations for the Bridget Jones films and Harry Potter. Southwark cathedral is a wonderful cathedral that often gets usurped by St Paul’s cathedral and Westminster Abbey. You’ve got the Golden Hinde; a replica of Francis Drake’s ship that circumnavigated the world in 1577, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern. You should also definitely stop off for a drink at the George Inn, the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London, which dates back to 1676. If you’re interested in medical history, then the Old Operating Theatre is a must. I do lots of tours around this area, so can show you around, should you so wish.
If you’re interested in military history then you should definitely visit the Imperial War Museum.
In recent years, Bermondsey Street (in between London Bridge and Tower Bridge) has become trendified beyond recognition with a host of restaurants, gastro pubs and coffee shops. For a cultural hit you’ve got the White Cube Gallery and the Fashion and Textile museum and whilst you’re there I highly recommend popping in to Peter Leyton: London Glassblowing and watching some expert glassblowers in action. For foodies, you should definitely seek out Maltby Street Market.
Down by the river you can visit the HMS Belfast, a WWII war ship used during D-Day in 1944 or if you have kids and fancy some theatre, then I can highly recommend, the Unicorn Theatre which just does shows for kids.
The River Thames
I realise that people visiting London for a short period are unlikely to do this, but I always recommend a wander along the river Thames. You can uncover so much. I should know, I’ve walked the entire length of it. Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in London, but many people don’t realise that the entire structure is a museum. From there you can walk through Shad Thames; 19th century warehouses turned in to apartments. You’ll pass the Brunel Museum which housed the Engine Room for Marc Isambard Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, finished in 1843, the first tunnel to be built beneath a navigable river and the historic area of Rotherhithe which is lovely and of particular interest to Americans with a connection to the Mayflower as it collected 65 people from here. The pub of the same name is lovely and well worth a visit.
Further to the east is Greenwich, which you can get to by boat from central London if you’d rather not take the train. It’s a lovely area which includes the Cutty Sark, the Old Royal Naval College and its Painted Hall, the Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Fan Museum, Greenwich Park and loads of other things.
And finally, if for whatever reason you are actually looking for Old Kent Road, do say 'THE Old Kent Road' making sure you use the prefix 'the'. No one in London calls it 'Old Kent Road'.
PLEASE NOTE - There are obviously far more places of interest in south London including museums and galleries, but as Old Kent Road is literally the only road in the whole of south London included on the Monopoly board, it's a bit limiting, so have stuck to more instantly tourist friendly suggestions.
Also in the series:
#00 - An introduction
My weekend of guided walks around London got off to start by checking out German artist, Katharina Fritsch's big blue cock in Trafalgar Square. Unveiled just two days earlier on the permanently redundant but most in the news, fourth plinth, Fritsch's sculpture has not surprisingly been effortlessly filling column inches with double entendres ever since. Without meaning to add to this, I have to say, that it was much bigger than I expected. I think it's good, that despite all our previous attempts to look back at how amazing we are, the battles we have won and the war heroes who made it possible, we still have a bit of a sense of humour, a bit of perspective and that now, we don't perhaps take ourselves quite so seriously. The previous sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse seemed to be another example of this and the current offering is certainly continuing the tradition.
The group of 14 hailed from Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand and the Peak District amongst other places. Mandy was back for her third walk with me and the rest were all first timers. Here they all are in Covent Garden on our way to St Paul's cathedral.
In the afternoon I was delighted that Zayn and Alan were able to come on another walk, a year and a bit after their first one. We had a leisurely meander from St Paul's cathedral over to Bankside, then back across London Bridge to finish at Monument. Here they are standing in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the faithful recreation of an Elizabethan theatre. Its very existence is owed to Sam Wanamaker who unfortunately died shortly before he saw over two decades work come to fruition. I think I've mentioned this before, but even so, I'll mention it again ... in January 2014, the Globe will be opening the only indoor, candle-lit theatre in London, a recreation of a Jacobean theatre. Aside from being an exciting prospect and one which will allow them to perform plays all the year round, it will also mean that the only thatched roof in London, and the only candle-lit theatre will be right next to each other.
On Sunday, seven people joined me for a wander around east London. Martin from Philadelphia, who to all intents and purposes sounded completely American, had, it turned out, actually spent the first eight years of his life in Dalston, just up the road. Katherine was the only fully fledged Londoner in that respect whilst Jennie & Rees were down from Manchester for the weekend. Tobias and Kirsten from Germany have been living in the UK for about 14 years so were quite well versed in all things Londony. Here they all are just by Hoxton Square, with one of street artist Stik's instantly recognisable murals behind them.
Special Award for completing the 'BOC Trilogy' - Mandy
First person to come on two walks & have a completely different name each time - Zayn
Most likely to want to stand in the shade - Sonia, Vijyant & Ananya
Quietest - Josh
Best multi-tasker - Quentin
Saturday afternoon saw the biggest group of the year turn out for the walk from St Paul's to the Monument, which despite the constant threat of rain, was quite impressive. By some standards it would be a piddly showing for a guided walk in London, but by my standards it was positively humungous. So, the 14 of us (including me) set off to explore the area around St Paul's, Bankside, had a brief stop off at Borough Market, Southwark and then back over London Bridge to the finish ... or the end.
Here are the group standing on a mildly nondescript street on Bankside.
The building to the left of them is Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, who are currently in the process of building a replica indoor, candlelit Jacobean theatre, much like the one that Shakespeare and his merry band of players built on the opposite side of the river in the old Blackfriars monastery so they could perform all year round. It was also where Shakespeare actually bought a property in the final few years of life. The deed, which bears one of only a handful (a six fingered hand) of Shakespeare's signatures is currently on display at an exhibition entitled 'Shakespeare and London' at the London Metropolitan Archives. I've literally just got back from seeing it, so can tell you that the exhibition also includes a great deal about the area of London where the group (pictured above) are standing and Sam Wanamaker's quite incredible efforts to get the recreated Globe Theatre built. It took over 20 years, but unfortunately, Sam died before he saw it finished.
On Sunday morning I was joined by a group of 6 people to have a look around east London. Alexa was on her third walk with me and brought her parents Caroline and Henry along for the ride. Jeff was visiting from the States and Tommaso and Manuele were both from Italy. Here they are in Hoxton Square, before making our way to Columbia Road flower market.
So, thanks very much for everyone who came on walks this weekend, and to Siti and Maria for bringing a whole bunch of their colleagues out on a Saturday afternoon.
Most international group of friends - Eleni, Vladamir & Stefan
Most likely to cause trouble ... but didn't - Carol
Most Liverpudlian - Ivan
Most 'look-a-likes' in one group - Jeff (Robin Gibb) and Tommaso (an Italian Chris O'Dowd)
Most sensible footwear considering her niece won the 'most unsuitable footwear award' over a year ago - Maria
And a special award to Caroline (and Henry of course) as I'm delighted they were both able to join us for a wander around London.
Six people braved the cold December air to join me on my regular Saturday morning wander from Trafalgar Square to St. Paul's. Seeing as there were two Italians in the group (Annalisa & Miro) it seemed only right that I take a picture of them in Covent Garden, where the 17th Century diarist and ladies man Samuel Pepys watched the Italian puppeteer Pietro Gimonde perform what is now regarded as the first recorded performance of 'Punch and Judy'. It was the 9th May 1662 and every year, on or around this date, Punch and Judy puppeteers descend on Covent Carden in what has become the unofficial, official birthday of Mr Punch. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a pub (hiding behind the Christmas tree in the photo) called the Punch and Judy.
So, here are the group, also including Helen, Gemma, Kirsty and another Helen. There was a double Italian-ness about it really, as the piazza, originally designed by Inigo Jones in the 1630's, was based apparently on a similar one he had seen in Livorno in northern Italy.
There was nothing particularly Italian about the afternoon walk, but I was joined by Lorrie from New York, who had come on the very kind recommendation of a friend of hers Mary (also from America) who had been on a walk with me back in the summer. Thanks Mary. Here is Lorrie outside The George Inn, just off Borough High Street. It was pretty dark by this point, but fortunately my photographer (who comes on most of the walks) had remembered to bring his studio style lights with him.
We managed to fit in quite a few bits n bobs including stopping off at the Rose Theatre (the first Elizabethan theatre on Bankside), the remains of which were uncovered in the 1980's and largely responsible for shaping the current Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Whilst there, we watched a fascinating video narrated by none other than Gandalf (Sir Ian Mckellen) who I discovered today, co-owns The Grapes pub in Limehouse, which is well worth a visit anyway if you happen to be in the area.
Most Physiotherapists in one group ... ever - Saturday morning
Most Italian - Annalisa & Miro (obviously)
Most last minute booking straight off the plane from the States - Lorrie
Weekend roundup - 11th/12th Feb '12
Well, well, well ... what an interesting weekend, with all three London walks taking place and spanning the whole spectrum of Chalker numbers, all of whom courageously braved the near Arctic conditions. Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but Saturday certainly was pretty nippy.
Trafalgar Square to St Paul's
One of the group on Saturday morning was evidently thwarted by TFL and unable to make it, so myself (obviously), Pete, Stacey, Harriet and Emily set off through London's sun-kissed but really, really, really cold streets. Here they are outside Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, rebuilt in 1667.
After managing to drag them away from the warmth of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese's Ye Olde fire I took them to see a bit of 14th Century priory (a Bowl Of Chalk first) that once stretched from Fleet Street all the way down to the Thames and belonged to the Carmelite order known as White Friars. It now sits behind glass looking mildly out of place amongst a plethora of towering modern office buildings.
Pete very kindly wrote a rather lovely review of his experience of the walk (along with loads of photos) on his London-centric blog, the Londoneer.
St Paul's to the Monument
At 2.30pm I met Denise outside St Paul's tube station and off we went because on Saturday afternoon she was the only Chalker. Denise was great company and we basically wandered about Bankside, Borough and Southwark and chatted about stuff, had a coffee in the George Inn next to the fire, no doubt exactly where Charles Dickens sat too and generally mooched around whilst I imparted fascinating snippets of information ... obviously. I would highly recommend other tour guide people to try and entice Denise on to their walks because she is so much fun and an incredibly interesting person too. Here she is outside the re-created Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
My neck of the woods
Sunday moved effortlessly from one extreme to the other with the arrival of the largest ever Bowl Of Chalk group, keen to explore a bit of the east end with me. What a lovely group they were too and featured (amongst others) three generations of one family and a handful of Yeah! Hackney (ers), an online community, discussion forum and news type place started by Emily Webber for people who live and work in Hackney.
Anyway, seeing as it was such a monster group I thought it only fitting that I should take a photo of them standing in front of the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies shop, which I will endeavour to write a small piece about in the not too distant future.
So, there you have it, all that remains are a few awards.
Some Awards (in no particular order)
Smallest ever group - Saturday afternoon (Denise)
Largest ever group - Sunday (see photo above)
Most generations from one family - Ann(e), Karen & Laura
Most Argentinian - Malu and Sol
Best moustache - No winner
Best English accent for a non English speaker - Stacey (Bulgaria) just wins, but Violaine (France) & Maarten (Belgium) are hot on her heels. Theoretically Malu & Sol could also be up for this award, but they've already got one.
Biggest Stik enthusiast - Natalie
Most likely to say 'Yeah, Hackney' - Emily
Thanks once again to everyone who came on walks this weekend.
Chalker Photos from last weekend
Sue, who came on both the weekend walks very kindly sent me a few snaps, which I thought I'd post here. These first two are in St Dunstan-in-the-East, a Wren church that was largely obliterated during the Blitz of 1941, except for the steeple and a few walls. Rather than rebuilding or demolishing completely, it was decided to transform it in to a rather nice walled garden.
Marveling at the George Inn, as mentioned in a previous post.
Thanks to the efforts of Sam Wanamaker, we now have Shakespeare's Globe theatre in all its thatched glory.
A brilliant tourist photo outside St Paul's. Not our Chalkers unfortunately.
Columbia Road flower market on Sunday.
And finally, Sue spots that there's an apostrophe missing in the east end.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.