Tag Archives: London curios

You either love, or hate it

Today we expect the West End’s shopping streets to put up a show at Christmas, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case, with only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit.

The Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be It’s that time of year when we expect Oxford and Regent Street to display for their customers a version of Christmas, and this year, for Oxford Street’s 60th anniversary, we’re promised an ‘environmentally-focussed’ event, reassuring their customers that no polar bears have been harmed in its production.

In the past we have been treated to some seasonal favourites: Marmite that much loved Christmas dinner treat and Regent Street was once given over to the soft drink Tango, which showered the area with bright orange bulbs and banners bearing the message “Tis the season to be Tango’d”.

Today advertisers hold sway, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case. Only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit, the Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be outdone. They hired a well-known Italian designer charged with producing a ‘tasteful’ display to rival their competitor.

His solution was to produce giant white flying angels made out of papier-mâché posed with their faces looking down serenely at the crowds below.

London in those days was renowned for rain, in fact, you could spot an American a mile-off for they came here prepared for their visit wearing the ubiquitous white raincoat, Columbo style.

This particular November had seen an exceptional amount of rain, even by London standards.
The Italian designer just hadn’t taken in the fact that Northern Europe is considerably damper than the Mediterranean. Soon the press was running the story about Pregnant Angels, no doubt to the amusement of Oxford Street retailers.

Journalist and author Alf Townsend takes up the story:

I noticed a guy done up in heavy waterproof gear and wearing a yellow sou’wester. He was sitting on a cart that Westminster Council road sweepers used in those days and I thought to myself, “this bloke is out late”. He came over to ask for a light and we got talking. He said his job started after the traffic had died down and, picking up this long pole with a wicked-looking blade at the end, he told me that the pole could reach some 40 feet when it was extended. His job was to pierce the angel’s tummies and let the water out – hence his heavy waterproofs! We had a good laugh over it – especially when he said the guys back at the depot called him, “the Holy Terminator”.

The Regent Street ‘Angels’ can be found on the Guardian’s vintage photographs of Christmas in London.

Featured image: Regent Street – Angel Christmas Lights (2016-2018). The theme is angels, inspired by the first Regent Street Christmas lights in 1954, by Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Armadillo swallows London Stone

When learning The Knowledge some days remain etched in your memory forever. One such day for me was when I went to find a ‘point’ – London Stone – note it is not a definite article, even though it patently is.

I searched Cannon Street looking to find a clue to the elusive stone, up the sides of buildings, perched high up on a roof, inside the station, until I tracked down my quarry.

[T]HERE BEHIND A HIDEOUS GRILL attached to a scruffy 1960’s office was one of London’s oldest landmarks, known to have been in the City since 1198.

It is an unprepossessing piece of Clipston limestone or oolite. With its round-shouldered top and twin grooves, measuring about 18 inches across if found in a field, one would ignore it. Legend says that this small stone is linked to the destiny of our capital city, hence its Grade II listing.

Minerva the company who was developing the site wished to move this rare artefact. The name of the company is taken from the Roman goddess of wisdom, but in this instance, concerning a rare Roman piece of history not a lot of wisdom is being demonstrated, it’s just convenient for Minerva as they wanted to move the artefact a few doors down the street to the Walbrook Building.

The Walbrook Building, one of the City’s newer office blocks designed by Foster and Partners’, looks like a metal armadillo, a very modern building but with few heritage nods at ground level. Two of the metal struts planted firmly into Cannon Street incorporate small black plaques that once marked former ward boundaries. They look a bit incongruous, to be frank, but at least they’re still on site rather than scrapped and dumped elsewhere.

The plan was to relocate London Stone to the front elevation of the Walbrook Building and a special display case built to contain the legendary lump of rock. One of the existing grey panels was to be replaced by a laminated glass wall, and the stone placed inside on an etched mild steel plinth. And the grille coming too, given a less prominent position beneath, plus the metal plaque that currently sits on top of them all.

The Stone has had a chequered history. It was referenced in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2, but by the 18th Century, it was known more like a traffic hazard. The Stone was moved back and forth across Cannon Street and eventually ended up in St. Swithin’s Church, until the building was bombed in World War II. Since the early 1960s, the Stone has been housed at street level in an office building, opposite Cannon Street Station, so it certainly has led a life of travel.

Old enough to remember the original Olympics in Rome, should this piece of stone be now relocated behind glass, as if it was a museum exhibit, in one of the most modern buildings of London, divorced from the everyday fabric of the city?

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 21st August 2012

http://www.geolocation.ws/v/P/59617699/the-walbrook-building/en

Going Japanese

The idea that in 1885 there was a Japanese village located in Knightsbridge, the heart of bustling Victorian colonialism, may strike many as something more akin to today’s multi-cultural London, yet, in the nascent years of Anglo-Japanese relations, a corner of Victorian London was, for two years, from January 1885 until June 1887, transformed into ‘The Japanese Native Village, erected and peopled exclusively by natives of Japan’.

[T]HE EXHIBITION was completely contained within Humphreys’ Hall, which was south of Knightsbridge and east of what is now Trevor Street, employing around 100 Japanese men and women in a setting built to resemble a traditional Japanese village.

According to advertisements placed in the Illustrated London News:

Skilled Japanese artisans and workers (male and female) will illustrate the manners, customs, and art-industries of their country, attired in their national and picturesque costumes. Magnificently decorated and illuminated Buddhist temple. Five o’clock tea in the Japanese tea-house. Japanese Musical and other Entertainments. Every-day Life as in Japan.

The result of the opening up of Japan to trade with Britain in the 1850s, an English craze for all things Japanese had built through the 1860s and 1870s, led by the British perception of Japan as a mediaeval culture.

The Japanese Village was visited by over 250,000 in its first months. Attracted principally by a massive amount of press attention, showing its replica Japanese houses populated by genuine Japanese men, women and children as well as its: “magnificently decorated and illuminated Buddhist temple”.

The Japanese Village opened only two months before Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado opened at the Savoy Theatre in March of that year.

Gilbert had begun work on the libretto of The Mikado long before that, in May 1884, and had in fact finished Act 1 two months before the Japanese Village opened. It was fortuitous, however, that at the height of Japanese mania the most popular songwriters of their day brought their work to a London stage.

The Japanese Village, however, had assisted in various aspects of the stage production. Indeed, the programme of The Mikado in 1885 actually carried an acknowledgement of the support received from the Japanese Village:

The Management desires to acknowledge the valuable assistance afforded by the Directors and Native Inhabitants of the Japanese Village, Knightsbridge.

It was this energy and intense curiosity that contributed to the founding of the Japan Society in 1891, an organization which today still enthusiastically promotes and celebrates Anglo-Japanese relations.

If you have a desire to immerse your senses in Japan, you could go along to the School of Oriental and African Studies – SOAS University – at the western corner of Russell Square. Above the Brunei Gallery, there is a small perfectly formed Japanese garden [featured], complete with raked gravel, wisteria and lemon thyme.

Soggy Angels

Today we expect the West End’s shopping streets to put up a show at Christmas, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case, with only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit. The Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be outdone. They hired a well-known Italian designer charged with producing a ‘tasteful’ display to rival their competitor.

[H]IS solution was to produce giant white flying angels made out of papier-mâché posed with their faces looking down serenely at the crowds below.

London in those days was renowned for rain, in fact, you could spot an American a mile-off for they came here prepared for their visit wearing the ubiquitous white raincoat, Columbo style. This particular November had seen an exceptional amount of rain, even by London standards.

The Italian designer just hadn’t taken in the fact that Northern Europe is considerably damper than the Mediterranean. Soon the press was running the story about Pregnant Angels, no doubt to the amusement of Oxford Street retailers.

Journalist and author Alf Townsend takes up the story:

I noticed a guy done up in heavy waterproof gear and wearing a yellow sou’wester. He was sitting on a cart that Westminster Council road sweepers used in those days and I thought to myself, “this bloke is out late”. He came over to ask for a light and we got talking. He said his job started after the traffic had died down and, picking up this long pole with a wicked-looking blade at the end, he told me that the pole could reach some 40 feet when it was extended. His job was to pierce the angel’s tummies and let the water out – hence his heavy waterproofs! We had a good laugh over it – especially when he said the guys back at the depot called him, “the Holy Terminator”.

The Regent Street ‘Angels’ can be found on the Guardian’s vintage photographs of Christmas in London.

Featured image: Regent Street – Angel Christmas Lights (2016-2018). The theme is angels, inspired by the first Regent Street Christmas lights in 1954, by Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rolling Stone

London’s most travelled artefact has moved yet again. London Stone, a Grade II* chunk of limestone some 20″ wide, 16″ high and 17″ deep of a substance (oolitic) that is not local to the London area and is thought to be imported by the Romans.

For years it has remained behind an iron grill in an unprepossessing 1960’s office building at 111 Cannon Street, which originally housed the Bank of China in Cannon Street.

[L]ike the Tower’s ravens, legend has it that London’s very existence relies on a lump of rock remaining with the M25. Its providence is unknown, but as with these things, legends have attached themselves to this ironic artefact.

Here are some of my favourites:

It was a ‘millennium’, a Roman milestone that all distances from London could be measured and stood close to Cannon Street Station fortuitously outside the provincial governor’s palace.

Or, King Alfred in 886 decided to stand it at the centre of the grid of streets being built after Vikings had sacked the settlement.

Another is that Druids sacrificed virgins upon it using the rock as an altar. If this was true as John Stow’s Survey of London asserts, a supply of dwarf vestal virgins would have been needed annually as the ‘altar’s’ size is about that of a modern washing machine.

Another myth perpetrated by England’s greatest playwright is that the Stone is a ceremonial object which conquerors of London would lay claim to the city by striking the stone. Rebellion leader Jack Cade was purported to have struck the Stone with his sword. Unfortunately, Will Shakespeare included this event in Henry VI, Part 2.

In the 1862 publication ‘Notes and Queries’, a riveting read if ever there was one, claimed that: ‘So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish’. This myth is that England’s first King Brutus lugged the base of the original statue of Athena from Troy to a wet outpost in north-west Europe. And there was me thinking Athena was a poster shop selling pictures of knickerless tennis players which went broke.

Another curious myth that surrounds London Stone is that guardians have been assigned over time to protect this ancient piece of rock. The current Mayor of London being appointed the latest in a very long line.

Or it is a mark stone for several leylines.

This last fallacy was alluded to in the title of the post, in that the Stone has never been moved from its original position for fear of retributions. But is has been very mobile over the years, from facing the door of St. Swithin’s Church on the north side of Cannon Street, the Great Fire of London destroyed the surrounding buildings, the damaged Stone then had a cupola built over it. This proved a traffic hazard and it was moved adjacent to the new Wren designed St. Swithin’s Church.

Grill

London Stone behind bars opposite Cannon Street Station

Then after two more moves, it ended up in the south wall of St. Swithin’s Church, which German bombs then put pay to that sanctuary. It migrated to the Royal Exchange and then back to be opposite Cannon Street Station. Now it has been moved to the London Museum.

But for how long?