Curiosities from London’s Streets: Solemn sphinxes and more

Curiosities from London’s Streets: Solemn sphinxes and more

Andrew Warde shares a talk full about the various hidden treasures that you can find on the streets of London. Don't miss these!

This talk is all about the odd or unusual things you can find on the streets of London. Look out for underground streets and tunnels, curious clocks and even mythical guardians with the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle.

Going back in time

London streets are made of several layers of history, with the new laying on top of the old. Most of the buildings on Charing Cross Road were built after 1887 but some of them lasted even longer than that back to when the road was called Little Compton Street. If you look down through the grating, you’ll see the sign for the old road even though it no longer technically exists.

"London streets are made of several layers of history, with the new laying on top of the old"

Even further back in the history, the east side of the road marks the former boundary of a leper hospital dedicated to St Giles which was founded in 1120 by Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I. Leprosy was a greatly feared disease at the time and those affected were forced into seclusion, so the boundary wall was a substantial one. It was only removed in the 17th century when streets were laid out differently and houses started to be built over what was once fields and orchards.

Beneath our feet

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge is connected to King's Way by an old tram tunnel

If you know London well, you may also have noticed the old entrance of the tram tunnel in Southampton Row which is buried under the road. The tunnel was necessary to moderate the gradient down to the riverside so that trams could negotiate the slope there and back, but the tunnel’s use came to an end in the 1950s when trams were scrapped.

The south end of the tunnel was adapted in 1964 to create an underpass linking King’s Way and Waterloo Bridge, but there have been a few other unusual uses for it too. London transport parked 120 buses there in 1953 for use during the coronation, London council had flood headquarters under the tunnel until the Thames Barrier opened in 1984 and in 2009, artist Conrad Shawcross set up a site-specific art installation there entitled "Chord in the Tunnel".

Old clocks

Public clocks are also a staple dotted around the city. You’ll see the oldest one in London at St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street which was installed in 1671. It was the first public clock in London with a minute hand, and it also features two giants striking the hours of the clock with clubs and turning their heads as they do so. These are the ancient London guardians of Gog and Magog.

St Dunstan-in-the-West

London's first public clock in St Dunstan-in-the-West

The medieval St Dunstan’s Church narrowly escaped the great fire of 1666 which was halted only a few doors away. The old church projected into the street and was obstructing the traffic on Fleet Street, so it was demolished in 1828 and rebuilt further back. The clock wasn’t considered suitable for the realigned new church but it was saved from destruction by being installed by the Marquis of Hertford at his new home in Regent's Park. It was finally returned to the church in 1935 by Lord Rothermere to mark the silver jubilee of King George V.

Mythical figures

Still within the city, down on the Thames Embankment, are these camel benches just east of the Blackfriars Bridge. There are 12 of them, donated by the Grocers Company and designed by George Vulliamy, chief architect for the Metropolitan Board of Works. The Grocers wanted to make sure that their involvement was plain by incorporating a camel into the design, as this was their crest. The benches were installed in 1877.

Camel bench on Victoria Embankment

A camel bench. Image © Loco Steve via Flickr

Further along the Embankment in the City of Westminster, the benches change to Egyptian sphinxes which epitomised benevolent guardians. There is no apparent connection between the choice of sphinxes and the nearby installation of Cleopatra’s Needle in September 1878.

"They demonstrate a continued fascination in ancient Egypt, which can be discovered in decorative detail throughout London"

Sphinxes may be found elsewhere in London too, such as those outside the houses at 46–72 Richmond Avenue, Islington, where there are flanking obelisks inscribed "Nile". The obvious connection here would be Nelson’s famous naval victory against the French fleet at the Nile Delta in 1798, but these houses were built decades later, in 1841. They simply demonstrate a continued fascination in ancient Egypt and its culture, which can be discovered in decorative detail throughout London.

Links to the USA

There are also reminders dotted throughout London of the United States' involvement in the Second World War, from graffiti carved into walls of buildings to commemorative plaques. Some of the carvings would be considered shocking vandalism at the time but now we can reflect on them as a memento of the past, made by people who may have later been wounded or killed while defending the right to freedom.

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