Tag Archives: London curios

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 patiently 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 are developing the site now wish 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 want 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 is to relocate London Stone to the front elevation of the Walbrook Building and a special display case will be built to contain the legendary. One of the existing grey panels will be replaced by a laminated glass wall, and the stone placed inside on an etched mild steel plinth. And the grille will come 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 as 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 a 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?


The thin blue phone line

There stands in Grosvenor Square an anachronism from the days when you would see Bobbies on the beat, an age without mobile phones, police walkie-talkies or when very few homes even had a landline telephone.

Despite the 24-hour armed police presence this blue police call box just north-east from the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square is available for public use. The door has not been sealed and behind it is a relatively modern telephone. Apparently, because of its sensitive location outside the US embassy, the post is still operational; just try using it if you dare. It still has its original notice stating that advice and assistance is obtainable immediately should you so need it. English Heritage have regarded its importance in the fabric of our lives highly enough to give it Grade II listing.

[F]irst introduced into Britain in the 1920s these police boxes were used by constables to keep in touch with the police station, they served to decentralise the police force allowing the officer to stay out without the necessity of returning to base for orders.

In 1929 the larger well-known police box made famous thanks to the BBC’s Doctor Who was introduced made of concrete at a cost of £43 each and by 1937 London had around 700 boxes installed. In true Tardis tradition there really was more to its inside than was apparent from the outside: phone, desk, chair, log book, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, electric heater and no doubt a kettle to make that well deserved cuppa. In an emergency they could be used as a prison for apprehending suspects and during World War II using a siren installed doubled up as an air raid warning system.

Very few police boxes have survived in London, apart from at Grosvenor Square they are located on the Victoria Embankment (opposite Middle Temple Lane), at the corner of Queen Victoria and Friday Street, on Walbrook (opposite Bucklersbury), in Guildhall Yard, outside St. Botolph Church in Aldgate, outside Liverpool Street Station, on Aldersgate Street near Little Britain, and on Piccadilly Circus at the junction with Piccadilly.

Most will only associate the police call box from the BBC’s Doctor Who programmes. The original Tardis (an acronym for Time, And Relative Dimensions In Space) used in the pilot episode had been constructed in the late 1950s for the long running series Dixon of Dock Green, which ran from 1955 to 1976 and became the longest running police drama to appear on television.

The pilot for Doctor Who was filmed at in London at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios, but the box proved difficult to transport in the studio’s lift. When the first series was commissioned new Tardis was constructed 8 inches shorter from wood painted with the addition of Artex to simulate concrete. The other modification was that the doors crucially opened inwards.

The word Tardis became an official word in the English language with an entry in the 2002 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1996, a brand new police box appeared on Earl’s Court Road, outside the tube station. In keeping with the Metropolitan Police’s obsession with surveillance, it was fitted with a CCTV camera, allegedly to scare off prank callers. Unveiled as part of the Metropolitan Police’s plans to reintroduce police boxes to the streets of London, plans to erect similar boxes throughout London have now been abandoned.

On the 1st July 1996 with the return of Doctor Who to the small screen the BBC filed an application to register the “Police Public Call Box” in relation to games, toys and playthings . . . the Metropolitan Police filed an opposition and the more cynical might construe that this new police box outside Earls Court as the Metropolitan Police asserting their right to the police box design.

All you need to know – and a lot more besides – about the Police Telephone Box can be found on Immanuel Burton and Jason Shron’s excellent website Police Boxes.

Chubby cherub blamed

As any fireman will tell you there are a myriad of causes attributable to the origin of a fire and in the aftermath of The Great Fire of London dozens of theories were put forward. We blamed the French – as always – in the guise of a deranged silversmith, Robert Hubert, who confessed and was promptly executed, it was discovered afterwards that he had arrived in the country two days after the conflagration.

[W]illiam Lilly, a famous astrologer, was next in the frame having predicted a major fire in the previous year; he only just managed to save his neck by persuading a special committee of the House of Commons of his innocence. Next the Catholics were accused, they were always a popular whipping boy since the Reformation, and no doubt the Jews were also held to blame.

Now we have strayed into the blaming culture for one simple reason, this week, based on around 20 years of historic data, a study published in The Lancet claims that by 2030 as many as 48 per cent of British men could be obese. Why you might ask has this anything to do with a fire nearly 350 years ago? Well bear with me on that one.

As you might imagine the City Fathers thought long and hard about the fire’s cause and the destruction of their city and decided to erect in Cock Lane, which it was claimed was at the western limit of the fire’s destruction, this little statute. The Boy on Pye Corner was deliberately made fat (although by modern standards he appears just a little chubby) to add emphasis to its inscription:

The Boy on Pye Corner was erected to commemorate the staying of the Great Fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony when not attributed to the Papists as on the Monument.

So there you have it, junk food was to blame.

Curiously the original building on this site, which was demolished in 1910, upon which the Boy was placed, was a pub called The Fortunes of War and was favoured by the resurrection men who sold corpses to the anatomists at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital opposite. The corpses fresh from road, river, grave and hangman’s noose or just murdered were exhibited in an upstairs room by the landlord, labelled with the finder’s name and presumably with a suitable price attached.

The name of the alley – Cock Lane – was first recorded in 1200, and probably signified a lane where fighting cocks were reared and sold. In the late Middle Ages Cock Lane was the only place north of the Thames were brothels were legally sanctioned, handy is your cabbie refuses to go south of the River.

Another Cabinet of Curiosities

[U]nfortunately CabbieBlog’s first cabinet has now been filled with all manner of interesting London trivia. So as to show off my collection to visitors another one has been obtained and here CabbieBlog gives you a further London Cabinet of Curiosities:

Tube Trains Village Underground
Situated on a roof in Shoreditch High Street, Village Underground is the brainchild of the splendidly named furniture designer Auro Foxcraft, who claiming he couldn’t afford a studio decided to build his own. To do this he spent £25,000 obtaining four redundant Jubilee Underground Line carriages, craned them onto the roof of a Victorian warehouse – quite a task: they weigh around 26 tonnes each – and fashioning out of them a series of offices for writers, photographers and other arty types.

Elephants The Elephant House
On the western side of Duke Street in Brown Hart Gardens, this peculiar structure is referred to as the Elephant House; its title suggests a place where huge mammals once resided. The story is that Queen Victoria kept her elephants here; apparently Victoria acquired the elephants when she was appointed Empress of India, having received a herd of elephants as a gift from loyal Maharaja’s. These unfortunate animals were then shipped back to London and the Elephant House was built to provide the animals with some kind of comfortable habitat. The design has huge gates where an elephant could access entry and exit, and has entrance doors that have an eastern looking appearance. Unfortunately there is no evidence as to the authenticity of this story and it would appear that the Victorian architects who designed this unusual structure, were overindulging their creative minds.

Unfortunately this building has a more prosaic history; it was developed as an electricity substation in the late 1800s and so remains to this present day, generating electricity to the local Mayfair area.

Before being redesigned in 1903, the site had a communal garden with trees, benches and a fountain but had become a hangout for ‘undesirables’. The new structure therefore continued to provide residents with a communal garden while accommodating transformers below. But one other curious fact remains why is the ‘garden’ the only place in London where quarrelling is specifically forbidden by law?

Statute The mole that killed a king
This statute of William III is only there because the well-heeled residents of St James’s Square got fed up with the centre of their square used as a rubbish tip for kitchen rubbish, dead cats and scraps of timber. They wanted something in the middle to give the square purpose, rather than as a refuse dump and William of Orange seemed to good idea at the time. William’s statue was not initially popular so despite the resident’s enormous wealth, they refused to pay for it, than a merchant, Samuel Travers, bequeathed in his will funds for its completion. But the family contested the will and for the next 70 years the statute remained just on paper.

Molehill Eventually in 1806 the statute was finally completed, but there is something strange about it. A small molehill lies at the feet of Sorrel, the King’s horse. What is the molehill for? The answer is that William is said to have died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow.

William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic. King James. James’s supporters and all Jacobites then and now still toast ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’. The mole that killed a king.

The saying ‘Dutch Courage’ also comes from William III’s reign. After the Thirty Years’ War British troops returned home with ‘Dutch Courage’. Soon gin distillation took place in England. King William III actively encouraged gin production and gin was sometimes given to workers as a part of their wages.

Coat Hook Secret policeman’s hook
This hook on the wall near the junction of Great Newport Street and Upper St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden is reputed to have been here since the 1870s. Probably used for holding a policeman’s cape while he directs traffic or possibly to let the garment dry after rain. As this junction nowadays is only congested with pedestrians was it a Victorian traffic hotspot? It’s a popular yarn, whether it’s true, who knows? All Cabbies on The Knowledge are expected to find it.