Strand. It's been one of London's most important streets since medieval times — a connecting artery between Westminster and the City. This famous old road begins near the Law Courts, where the guardian dragon marks the site of the old Temple Bar. It ends at the roundabout in front of Trafalgar Square.
Over the centuries, this gently curving route has built up many layers of history, and with it an accretion of oddities. Next time you're "down the Strand", look out for these 11 peculiarities.
1. The Name
Strand is always Strand... never The Strand. Or so the street signs, Monopoly Board and pedants insist. It's like you wouldn't say The Pall Mall or The Whitehall. Technically, they're right. But it just doesn't scan.
There's a natural urge to say "The". It doesn't help that the "wrong" version of the name is enshrined in popular verse. "Let's all go down the Strand... ('ave a banana)" would sound all Yorkshire without the definite article. Then again, who really cares about such niceties. We gave up long ago correcting people who call us The Londonist.
With or without the "The", Strand's name is an ancient one, and comes directly from the noun 'strand', meaning the shore of a large river or sea. Before the Embankment was built, Strand was the closest main road to the Thames, at the top of the steep gradient that still drops down to the water today.
2. A fibbing plaque
Look out for the Tesco at 231 Strand. Above its name is a ghost sign for the Aerated Bread Company (A.B.C.). This was the Pret of its day, a chain boasting hundreds of cafes in London and beyond. But it's next door where the true treasure lies. This is the oldest building on Strand, dating back to 1625. The plaque above the door tells a bit of a porky pie, though. This was not the only Strand building to survive the Great Fire... they all did. Check any map online, and you'll see the fire stopped roughly where Fetter Lane meets Fleet Street. It never came this far west. The plaque should really say "the only Strand building still surviving from the time of the Great Fire".
3. One of London's oldest shops
Twinings is the oldest tea shop in London, and one of the oldest shops of any kind. The brew-enabler is (we're contractually required to pun) steeped in history, with a continuous presence on Strand dating back to 1696. Founder Thomas Twining originally set up as a coffee shop called the Golden Lion (whose embodiment still sits proud above the door), but moved into tea as the East India Company increasingly opened up the Chinese market (also referenced with door figures). Inside, you can sample (or buy) dozens of leaf varieties, and learn more about the shop's history.
4. Bomb damage on St Clement Danes
Like the DNA double helix, whose form was first glimpsed at King's College nearby, Strand unwinds into two strands just east of Aldwych. The bifurcation is to accommodate the ancient church of St Clement Danes, which quite possibly (no one knows for sure) dates back to pre-Conquest times, when Danish people laid claim to large parts of Britain. The structure we see today is a Christopher Wren rebuild, heavily patched up after the Blitz caused heavy damage. And some of that damage can still be touched. Look behind the hammy sculpture of Samuel Johnson, and you'll spot numerous shrapnel marks along the north-east face.
5. London's best-known ghost station
As anyone who pays attention knows, the London Underground is peppered with 'ghost stations' — former stops that, for one reason or another, are now closed to service. Surely the best known is Aldwych, a former spur of the Piccadilly line that remained open until 1994. Confusingly, the facade you can see from the main road is badged as 'Strand' and not 'Aldwych'. This isn't just a ghost station, but a name-shifting station. It opened in 1907 as Strand, but changed to the more familiar appellation just eight years later. As you walk past the station, peer round at the west-facing wall and you'll spot a plaque to the prophet and astrologer William Lilly. Did he ever foresee that his house would one day become an access point to an underground railway?
Aldwych station is occasionally open for prebooked tours through London Transport Museum's Hidden London programme. It's also regularly used for filming.
6. London's largest street map
Check out the facade of 111 Strand. The otherwise humdrum office block is enlivened with a five-storey sculpture of the local street plan. The map runs from Savoy Hill to the south, up to Catherine Street at the top. The excellent London Inheritance blog has looked at this facade in more detail.
7. The "only" place in the UK where you must drive on the right
The Savoy is famous for many things, but perhaps the most quirky is its driving priorities. Famously, any vehicle turning into the cul-de-sac (Savoy Court) must enter on the right, following the "In" arrow. It's all because of the Savoy Theatre, which is on the right-hand side of the court. Vehicles queueing to drop off at the theatre do not block the hotel's doors, as they might were they to come in from the left. Boring but true. Trivia books often say this is the only place in the country where driving is mandated on the right, but it's not quite true. Many bus stations, including Victoria and Hammersmith, are set up for right-side driving, along with numerous other private driveways around town.
8. Farting Lane
A bit of a cheat, this one, as it's just off Strand and not on the street itself (but you can see it from Strand). Carting Lane is occasionally known as Farting Lane as a reference to its most famous feature. Towards the bottom can be found a now-unique gas-powered lamp. It's life-force is mains gas today, but the lamp was once hooked up to the sewers to burn off waste methane. Much of this sewer gas would have originated in the adjacent Savoy, so in effect we had a light powered by the defecations of the world's richest men and women. With fuel prices spiking, perhaps it's time to bring back the fart gas.
9. House of the falling penis
Zimbabwe House on the corner with Agar Street is something of a landmark building, though you might never have noticed it. The corner plot was designed for the British Medical Association by a young Charles Holden, who would go on to mastermind Senate House, 55 Broadway and any number of your favourite tube stations. It's famed for its series of 18 nude statues, designed by the great Jacob Epstein, which caused a minor scandal when first unveiled. Look closely and you'll see that the statues are much mutilated, with missing limbs and smoothed out features. According to legend, the parts were lopped off after a stone penis came loose and fell on a passer-by. Is it true? Well, partly. The falling masonry was not a penis, but a head... so you can make your own lewd puns before reading the story in more detail.
10. Three tributes to The Great Storm
Just as you approach Charing Cross station, you'll spot a pair of plaques on one of the gateposts. The first remembers the Great Storm of 16 October 1987, in which London lost a quarter of a million trees. The second recalls Evening Standard columnist Angus McGill, who launched the appeal to replace the lost trees. And then beside the two is a medium-sized oak tree, planted after the storm at McGill's behest. It's a remarkable haul of arboreal commemoration, given that the stretch of Strand east of here up to Aldwych contains no other trees.
11. A faux-medieval landmark
And finally, the Charing Cross itself outside its namesake station. The tapering monument is one of several Eleanor Crosses, erected in the 13th century to mark the final journey to Westminster of the late Queen Eleanor. Only it's not. The Cross is a Victorian pastiche, more flamboyant than its inspiration and located in the wrong place. The original stood at the head of Whitehall, where today you'll find the equestrian statue of Charles I. A little-appreciated fact is that this roundabout is itself called Charing Cross, in honour of the lost monument. The Charles statue is also the official centre of London from which distances are measured (though not the geographical centre).
According to an alternative theory (published on 1 April), the strange monument in front of Charing Cross is really the spire of a long-buried church.
All images by the author.