London's Street Nipples Exposed

By Londonist Last edited 21 months ago
London's Street Nipples Exposed

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Just as we know less about the world’s oceans than we do of outer space, we have more to learn from our pavements than from our twinkling shop windows. We are talking, of course, about street nipples.

Anyone who has examined a London paving slab will be familiar with this phenomenon; tiny, metal teats, pertly set into our kerbs and pavements. These miniature buoys are sprinkled across pavements from Houslow to Hackney – from Croydon to Crouch End. Our streets, scrutinised closely, resemble the nippled torso of a gigantic beast, its steel dugs perhaps providing sustenance for stray cats.

No two street nipples are alike, but there are genres and sub-genres: the ‘mole’s nose’ peeking from between two slabs, shy as a wallflower; the iron nub, protruding from the pavement like the scalp of a Victorian diving suit; the Elizabethan Ruff; the inverted fried egg; the prim French bun; the bowler hat; the snoozing policemen’s helmet.

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They may be painted like flowers or framed by an illuminati triangle, or else circled like a pirate’s treasure by the hopscotch doodlings of a chalk-fingered child. They can be attended by hieroglyphics or lines of computer code, or else undecorated, standing bald sentry, proud as the tip of a Durex. Occasionally, and always when you least expect it, you’ll see a street nipple with four teats – an arrangement that conjures a miniature brass bovine, upturned and buried in the stone.

Like their mysterious country cousin, the crop circle, the meanings and origins of the street nipple are not known. Who planted these flowers, these bluebells in bronze bud? What is this Belfast Confetti all about us?

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There is no real answer to the riddle of the street nipple – no solution. And perhaps that is part of their beauty. They are there, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, to help us remember what’s important – a ball of thread to let us outwit the Minotaur of dull consumerism. They remind us that we must be bold and resilient; that we must strive for the nether as well as the uber. That, as a young Jarvis Cocker put it:

“To seek and to find
Instead of walking around
With eyes glued to the skies
Turn down to the ground.”

By Chris Clarke

Last Updated 22 September 2016


They are survey control points


The official story is that they are surveyor marks, but they are actually used to mark the position of Ley Lines.


I always thought they indicate the boundary of the land belonging to the building they are next to?

Will Rees

A terribly inaccurate article, mercifully propped up on the shiny stilts of the insightful comments beneath.


I don't know where the rumour started that they were survey markers. It does seem to be popular and I always laugh when I hear it. They are actually earthing points tied to metalwork or pipes in the ground below. You might occasionally see workers using them to discharge static.


gorblimeytrahsers what a pointless, fatuous article.


There is a whole new crop of these for CrassRail - somehow linked to a plague of lollipops on nearby buildings

Jamie Stephens

Further to recent winter storms this is the beginning of a new government strategy to "nail down" the pavements and thereby prevent them being blown away by future strong winds.

Steve James

I believe they are markers to show the boundary of the property and mostly used outside cafes to show the boundary of where they are allowed to put chairs and tables.