9 Best of British: Little Britain
In need of an extension
Quay House, Conwy, Wales
When house building in a street starts with two teams of builders haphazardly making their way towards the middle, it’s no surprise that a gap might occur where they fail to meet. The real surprise is when the gap is turned into a house measuring just ten feet by six, giving a literal meaning to the phrase “not enough room to swing a cat”.
The last resident at number 10 Lower Gate was a six-foot-three mussel fisherman called Robert Jones, who lived there until 1900. After 15 years here, the council deemed the house unfit for human habitation and he was forced to move somewhere a bit roomier.
The Quay House is still owned by the Jones family and now operates as a museum, where the public can view the ground-floor room (which contains a tap and a stove—pictured above) and the upstairs one (which just squeezes in a bed and cabinet).
It’s the most accurate interpretation of a “one up, one down” there is.
The Little Haven
Culbone Church, Somerset
At just 35-feet long, Culbone Church is both exceptionally small and exceptionally old—there’s been a church on this site for 1,377 years, ever since seven Welsh monks arrived at the Somerset hamlet to convert the West Country heathens. As the village of Culbone has had a tumultuous history, so the church has fallen in and out of disrepair.
In the 16th century it was a leper colony, and at various other points it’s been a place of refuge for banished people—magicians, slaves, thieves, adulterers, and the mentally insane.
A renovation in 1768 set Culbone Church back on track as a permanent place of worship, and in 1897 improvements such as enlarged windows, a bell tower and a harmonium were added. Its remote location means that Culbone Church can only be reached on foot—two miles down a rural footpath from historic Porlock Weir—but it’s worth it to experience a service in this little gem.
The Window Coffee, Norwich
Coffee shops are by nature intimate places. But things can get really snug in The Window Coffee, which seats just five people on a bench, making it hard not to strike up a chat with your neighbouring coffee-drinker over a morning latte.
Barista Hayley Draper set about converting the old tobacconists with the help of her dad’s carpentry skills, then crammed it with art, flowers and pastries (she once even managed to fit 14 people inside).
The coffee isn’t bad either—Draper came fifth in the UK Barista Championships recently with her signature drink, consisting of honey from her own bees, espresso, lemongrass, coffee cherries and sparkling water.
Lighting The Way
Bishop Rock, Isles of Scilly
Imagine an area half the length of a football pitch by half the length of a tennis court. Now imagine a 160-foot-high lighthouse built on that small space, and you’re close to picturing the Bishop Rock lighthouse, which sits on a rocky outcrop on the westernmost tip of the Isles of Scilly.
Ships were very often wrecked around these isles—most famously an entire squadron of the British fleet in 1707, which resulted in the deaths of 2,000 men.
By 1847 it was decided that a lighthouse should be built on one of the outcrops, and Bishop Rock was chosen as the most south-westerly point in Britain. The first attempt was washed away in a storm three years into the build, but the second attempt (started in 1851) was a triumph, and the first flash of light shone through the night sky in 1858.
Although the fog signal was discontinued in June 2007, it’s still listed in the Guinness World Records as the world’s smallest island with a building on it.
Wells Library, Somerset
There’s meant to be no talking in public libraries, and there isn’t at the Westbury-sub-Mendip one either—but only because the phone has been disconnected. When the Somerset village lost its mobile library and public phone in quick succession, they came up with the idea of combining the two and having a book exchange in the old phone box instead.
The BT-owned box was sold to Westbury Parish Council for £1, four shelves were added, and they were soon crammed with best-sellers, cookbooks, children’s books and DVDs for the villagers to pick from at any hour of the day.
The Signal Box Inn, Cleethorpes
With 98,000 passengers using Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway each year, it’s going to be a bit of a squeeze if everyone wants to finish their journey with a pint—The Signal Box Inn only has room for four seated customers and two standing at any one time.
This pint-sized pub measures just 64 square feet, but its diminutive nature doesn’t affect the quality of what’s on offer, with five pumps serving real ale to the punters visiting the seaside town.
The inn dates back to the early 1900s, when it was a signalman’s hut on the Steel Works railway in Scunthorpe. It has been run as a pub at the Lakeside Station for six years, snatching the title of “smallest pub in Britain” away from The Nutshell in Bury St Edmunds, which at 112.5 square feet seems roomy in comparison.
Parliament Street, Exeter
If you’ve put on weight this winter then be careful navigating this narrow passage in Exeter’s town centre, which links Waterbeer Street to the High Street and is just 25 inches wide at its narrowest point. The 700-year-old lane was aptly named Small Street before the council rechristened it Parliament Street in 1832, as a nod to the Reform Bill that had just been passed.
Having lost its original name, a group of locals thought it would be right to raise £130 for the street to be widened in 1836. But the work never happened, and the passage-way is still a tight squeeze.
The street was once the proud title-holder of “the narrowest street in the world”—but in 2007 the Guinness World Records transferred the honour to Germany’s Spreuerhofstraße (which measures a ludicrous 19 inches at its narrowest).
Quite a show
The Theatre of Small Convenience, Malvern, Worcestershire
As its name implies, this Malvern-based Victorian theatre used to be a gentlemen’s lavatory. Now decorated in a commedia dell’arte-style with whimsical frescos, gold gilt and red velvet curtains, it couldn’t be further from its roots as a urinal. Founded by a local puppeteer in 1999, the theatre specialises in short, Saturday-afternoon puppet shows, though real-life actors have also graced the boards for intimate performances to the six-strong audience.
The Theatre of Small Convenience closes for repair work and renovation at the start of each year, but is now open again for performances.
Trafalgar Square Police Station, London
Trafalgar Square has always been a place for political demonstrations and public gatherings—the fountains were actually added in 1839 to reduce the space for mobs to accumulate—so it’s no wonder that the square should benefit from its own police station to help keep the peace.
The Trafalgar Square Police Station started its life as an ornamental light feature that was installed in 1826 in the south-east corner of the square. Exactly one century later it was hollowed out by Scotland Yard and fitted with a light and telephone to connect the on-duty bobby to Westminster’s Cannon Row police station.
Sadly, the glory days have passed for the Trafalgar Square Police Station—it’s been relegated to a storage cupboard for Westminster Council cleaners, and a converted phone booth in Florida has now stolen its title as the world’s smallest police station.
But the idea of the lonesome bobby of Trafalgar Square is a wonderful nod to past British eccentricity.