13 Oddities Of Borough High Street

By M@ Last edited 15 months ago

Last Updated 17 March 2023

13 Oddities Of Borough High Street
A map of Borough High Street, and 13 oddities along its route

Take a short stroll along Borough High Street and see if you can spot these 13 curiosities.

We can thank the Romans for Borough High Street. They built a causeway across formerly marshy ground as a lead up to the earliest London Bridge. It's still here almost 2,000 years later.

The ancient road is home to Borough Market and London Bridge station. It's the gateway to The Shard and Guy's Hospital. And, what is more, it's full of oddities.

1. Nancy's Steps

A tight set of stone steps leading up

We begin a few metres north of the official start of Borough High Street, where the roadway is still part of London Bridge. Here you'll find a narrow flight of steps leading down to Tooley Street. You know how the previous London Bridge got sold to an Arizona millionaire? Not this bit. The steps, and the arch to which they're attached, are surviving parts of that 19th century span. You're descending through history.

The stairs have long carried the epithet of Nancy's Steps. The name is a nod to Dickens's Oliver Twist, in which the kind-hearted Nancy talks candidly to Oliver's benefactors on the steps, not knowing that a spy is listening in. A plaque at the base of the steps incorrectly states that Nancy is murdered here in the novel. This is the case in the musical, but not the Dickens original.  

2. Bits of Old London Bridge

A pair of large granite slabs standing on a pavement like rough and ready benches
You see two odd lumps of stone. A skater sees hours of entertainment.

Back on deck, further fragments of the vanished 19th century bridge hide in plain sight, on the corner with Duke Street Hill. These granite slabs might look like weathered benches, but they're really relics of an age of horse-drawn traffic and swirling fogs. Just the right height to present a challenge to passing skateboarders, too. Further coping stones from the bridge can be found to the west on Tooley Street, within that strange observation plaza north of Southwark Cathedral.

3. The Spike

A large stone spike climbs into the air in front of a brown office block
Not a good place to land your parachute.

While you're still on the corner, look out for the giant spike. Not The Shard, but the architectural stone feature jutting out from the pavement.

According to urban myth, it's a reminder of the spikes that once stood upon London Bridge to display the heads of executed traitors. The truth is somewhat more prosaic. Designed by Eric Parry Architects, it's called the Southwark Gateway Needle. Supposedly, it points along a line from the direction of St Magnus the Martyr, a church across the river (which you sadly can't see from this spot thanks to the PWC building). St Magnus was the northern gateway to the medieval London Bridge, which was ever so slightly further downstream than the current bridge. So the needle is not a memorial to head spikes, but to the old bridge itself.

4. Findlater's

The findlaters white faience building with a clock. Next to it is a rail bridge
Featuring London's most annoyingly placed lamp post

If the spike reckons to be a "Southwark Gateway" then a more traditional contender lurks across the road. The long-derelict Findlater's building is a former wine sellers, whose elaborately arched clock was for decades a landmark to those crossing to the Surrey side. The building was restored in 2022 and now its faience tiles gleam pearly white once more.

5. Newly revealed dairy tiles

An arched portal surrounded by blue tiles carrying dairy advertising
Thanks to whoever parked the Lime bike for providing a scale reference.

Head beneath the rail viaduct and you'll find these beautiful Express Dairy mosaics. These, too, have long been in a state of disrepair, and hidden from view. Thanks to restoration, the pointillist ghost signs can once again be enjoyed by passers-by.

6. London's oldest teleport

A white tile with a teleport button inked on
We wouldn't throw away your Oyster card just yet.

On the southern side of the railway viaduct, look out for this teleportation panel. It's been in situ for at least half a decade, though I've yet to see anybody use it successfully. (Perhaps because it's unclear how to select your desired location.)

7. Borough Market rules

A notice in old-fashioned language about how beadles will tell you off in borough market if you break their rules
Watch out, Beadles about.

We could run a whole article on the oddities of Borough Market. The ancient, Aladdin's cave has a novelty to discover around every corner. We'll content ourselves simply to follow the rules, which are clearly displayed just inside one of the Borough High Street entrances. Dating from 1908, the quaintly worded sign threatens to unleash the Beadles upon anyone who loiters or acts suspiciously outside of market hours. (Which raises the obvious question of whether it's OK to be a suspicious character inside market hours.)

8. The last coaching inn

A beer-liking man reads from his book, inside a dimly lit pub room
A book about The George, inside The George, read by someone called... Pete.

The story of The George has been told many times before. Indeed, this historic inn is the subject of a whole (and excellent) book by Pete Brown. Suffice it to say, it's the last remaining galleried coaching inn in central London, with a series of wood-panelled rooms that still smack of past centuries. It also fields an outside toilet — one of only two London pubs we can think of to do so (the other is the Southampton Arms in Gospel Oak).

9. An ancient building from the 1980s

A yellow-brown half timbered building down an alleyway
Gotta love that genuine 16th century uPVC double glazing.

Besides The George, much of 'ye olde' Borough High Street has been lost, and some of it in recent years. An old hop warehouse with a retained wall from the ancient Spur Inn was deleted a few years ago, while the hoary Blue Eyed Maid pub closed in 2020. But you can still find hints of the deep past by dipping into some of the courtyards to the east of the High Street. Here in Chapel Court we find the most curious example. This half-timbered building appears to date from medieval times. But it wouldn't have been known by Shakespeare or even Dickens, and it carries no listed status. The timbers were reportedly taken from an old building in Essex in the 1980s and re-erected here in Southwark. Curiously, though, we can find little information about this origin story.

10. The musical blue men

Sculptures of three blue men, clutching musical instruments, climb up a sheer white wall of an office building
Don't try this at home. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Most of us have probably noticed this bizarre installation on Maya House. Three azure figures, each clutching a musical instrument, scale the wall like spidermen. The curious sculpture has been here since 2008 and is the work of artist Ofra Zimbalista. I'm not sure what the inspiration is, but the work is directly opposite the former Blue Eyed Maid pub.

11. A little piece of New England

A blue plaque to John Harvard 1607 to 1638

You don't have to be wealthy and super-intelligent to study at Harvard. Just pop along to the Harvard Library on Borough High Street. It's named after the same guy who helped found the academic powerhouse in Massachusetts. As a plaque on the building attests, John Harvard was born and raised a Southwark boy, before crossing the Atlantic in 1637. A year later, aged just 31, he made the ultimate crossing thanks to a fatal bout of tuberculosis. He bequeathed substantial funds, his library and therefore his name to the nascent university in Cambridge, Mass.

12. A lost prison (or two)

A large brown brick wall with the Shard sticking out of the top

Throughout the 19th century, Borough's Marshalsea debtors' prison was a notorious lock-up for those who found themselves in hard times. Or, indeed, in Little Dorrit. Dickens sets a large chunk of the novel within the Marshalsea, where the eponymous Dorrit is born. The author knew the place well, thanks to his own father's financial woes.

A long alley with a plaque to little doritt set in the floor

Although the Marshalsea closed in 1842 large sections survived long afterwards. Still to this day, you can walk alongside, and through, one of the curtain walls, and sit in a small garden that would once have been at the heart of the prison.

A plaque marks the site of the borough compter

The Marshalsea isn't the only lost gaol on the street. The old Borough Compter stood where you'll now find the Bridge Tap pub, as this plaque attests.

13. The shunning clock

The white steeple of a church, with one white clockface and one black clockface

We finish at the church of St George the Martyr. Borough High Street continues south, but takes on a more homogenous, oddity-free aspect from this point.

The present church dates from the 1730s, but a place of worship has stood here since at least the 12th century. The oddity here is another urban myth. If you walk around the building, you'll notice that it features four clocks, one on each face of the tower. Three of them protrude and have white faces. The one facing east is black and not illuminated at night like its steeplemates. This was done as a deliberate snub to the parishioners to the east, who failed to stump up the expected donations to rebuild the church. As so often with these stories, no documented evidence backs the story up, but it's a fun one for tour guides.

A genuine curiosity can be found inside: beneath the stained glass figure of St George in the east window is a depiction of a praying Little Dorrit. We end as we began, in the company of a Dickens heroine.

All images by Matt Brown