A Brief Selection of 11 London Oddities
Any city the size of London has its fair share of oddities. Rome has ‘talking statues’ – one of them, Pasquino, is still used by scurrilous political poets who sellotape or superglue their verses to it; New York has a medieval cloister brought stone by stone from France; while Paris has an alchemist’s house with strange symbols carved on the façade.
But somehow London seems to have more oddities than anywhere else I’ve been. Here are some of my favourites:
The Tower Subway
This fine brick rotunda serves as the entrance to the second tunnel dug under the Thames, a foot tunnel that connected the Tower of London to the south bank of the river. After Tower Bridge was built, the tunnel wasn’t needed and was closed in 1898. It now carries water mains and telecoms cabling.
The Turkish Baths, St Botolph’s Churchyard
Near Liverpool Street, this is a resplendent creation with its arcades, tiles and neat little dome. The owners wouldn’t sell to developers back in the 1970s, so the office blocks were built around it, dwarfing the little building.
Soviet Spaceman Yuri Gagarin
Why does London have a statue to Soviet spaceman Yuri Gagarin? Because after going to outer space, the next thing he did was visit London, and he seems to have fallen in love with the English. The statue on the Mall is where Gagarin met the British public – and stands opposite a terrestrial explorer, Captain Cook (Gagarin, in making it back to earth, was more successful than Cook who got himself killed in Hawaii).
St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn
This church has a little watch-house attached to it, so that a guard could keep watch over the graveyard against body-snatchers. Stealing bodies for dissection and medical research could be a lucrative criminal activity in those days.
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall is in London! At least three big sections of it are anyway, standing outside the National Army Museum, along with another piece outside the Imperial War Museum.
The Westbourne Aqueduct
I didn’t know about this until recently despite having used Sloane Square underground station for years. If you look up, you’ll see a kind of metal girder or box crossing above the platforms and track. It’s actually an aqueduct carrying the Westbourne, the river that originally fed the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. Go down to Chelsea Embankment at low tide and you can see where it comes out to the Thames, through a dark, flattened arch.
Napoleon’s toothbrush is in the Wellcome Collection. Silver gilt, of course, with ornate decoration and with his monogram ‘N‘. What’s even more interesting is that he used an opium-based toothpaste. Perhaps he was just too high to win Waterloo.
The Duke of Wellington’s Mounting Block
The block can still be seen outside the Athenaeum. It looks like nothing as much as a couple of spare kerb stones piled up to keep them out of the way but it must have been quite useful.
The ‘Roman Baths’ on Strand Lane
Behind the Savoy, these may not be Roman at all, but they are still interesting – peer in through the window for a view.
The Grave of Mahomet Weyonomon
The resting place of a chief of the Mohegan people who was brought to London and died here can be found in the churchyard of Southwark Cathedral. It’s topped by a stone brought from his ancestral lands and carved as a sort of spiral mountain.
Why on earth a Victorian building near King’s Cross should have a lighthouse on its corner, I do not know. There are all kinds of stories, including the idea that it was built to advertise the oysters sold in the bar beneath (Paris has a similarly mysterious lighthouse guarding the railway tracks just before Montparnasse station, built to advertise a fishmonger’s shop).
So there you have my favourite London oddities. And since they are mostly central, I’d suggest staying near a train station in one of the many budget hotels in Liverpool Street or Kings Cross.