10 Curious Things To Look Out For While Wandering Around London

By Jack Chesher Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 17 March 2023

10 Curious Things To Look Out For While Wandering Around London

In his book, London: A Guide for Curious Wanderers, Londonphile and social media sensation Jack Chesher goes in search of London's greatest curiosities — from ornate pieces of Victorian street furniture, to exotic animals hidden in plain sight. Here are 10 curiosities from the book to keep 'em peeled for whenever you're next in town.

1. A Miniature Vineyard in the City

A small vineyard growing on a brick pergola

What: Cleary Garden Where: Queen Victoria Street

One of the City of London's many pocket parks is the lovely, terraced haven that is Cleary Garden. The site, previously occupied by houses, was left as a bombsite after the Blitz. In 1949 Joseph Brandis, a City worker and keen gardener, turned the space into a garden.The gardens were then significantly re-landscaped in the 1980s to create what we have today. They were named after Fred Cleary, chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, otherwise known as 'Flowering Fred' for his work in creating public gardens in the City. In 2007 a series of grape vines were planted along the upper terraces: a gift from the winemakers of the Loire valley.This fittingly harks back to the time when this area was a hub for London's wine merchants. The best time to see the vines is in September or October when the grapes are ripening.

2. A Watchful Eye

A small white building

What: Watchhouses Where: St Mary Rotherhithe; St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey

A rather ominous feature that occasionally accompanied cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries were watchhouses. In the late 18th century, a growth in the medical profession led to an increase in the demand for human bodies for anatomical study. Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, only the bodies of those executed for crimes could be used for such purposes. The number of executions was, however, falling, creating a gap between supply and demand. As ever with London, an enterprising character was willing to fill that gap. Body snatchers, or 'resurrectionists',engaged in the grisly business of covertly digging up fresh corpses from graveyards to sell to anatomists. A number of measures were implemented to deter them; for example, iron coffins that were harder to be broken into (you can see one in the crypt of St Bride’s Church) and 'mortsafes', essentially cages for coffins. Another feature were watchhouses: usually small, simple one- or two-storey buildings by the entrance to the cemetery, for wardens to keep an eye from. You can find surviving examples at St Mary Rotherhithe and another in Bermondsey next to the St Mary Magdalen churchyard, both dating from around the 1820s.

3. It's Not That Easy Being Green

A green ornate postbox

What: A green postbox Where: St Martin's Le Grand

On St Martin's Le Grand in the City of London, you will find an unusual green, hexagonal postbox. It is a replica green Penfold postbox erected in 2016 to mark the 500th anniversary of the founding of the first post office under King Henry VIII. Penfold postboxes, named after their designer John Penfold, were installed from 1866–1879. The first postboxes were erected on Jersey in 1852 and were painted red. Green then came into vogue, but from 1874 onwards, postboxes were painted red again as people had apparently been struggling to spot the green ones.

4. Step to It

The thin black step in question

What: The Duke of Wellington's mounting block Where: The Athenaeum Club, Pall Mall

Built 1827–30, the Athenaeum Club in St James's is a gloriously cream-hued, neo-classical building. It was designed by the eminent Regency architect Decimus Burton and is a real feast for the eyes with its decorative frieze and sculptures. Turn away from that, however, and look at the pavement outside. You will see a long granite block with a shorter one on top. They form a mounting block for getting on and off a horse. It was placed there at the request of one of the club's members, none other than the Iron Duke himself, the Duke of Wellington. He was prime minister from 1828–1830 and again in 1834 and, being in his 60s and travelling to the club on horseback, he wanted to be able to mount and dismount with grace and ease.

5. Tracking Down Trunks

Terracotta coloured building with an elephant design over the door

What: Elephant symbols Where: Elephant's Head, Camden and Elephant House, Kentish Town Road

Did you know Camden has a surprising link to elephants? Allow me to explain. Camden Town was established in the late 1700s by Sir Charles Pratt, the 1st Earl of Camden. When a new coat of arms for the family was created, it incorporated the symbol of an elephant and castle, a popular heraldic emblem symbolising strength. So, when the borough of Camden was created in 1965, it incorporated the elephant symbol into its coat of arms. On Camden High Street you will find the Elephant's Head pub, established in 1869. The name is thought to come from the Pratt family coat of arms. The link however does not stop there. On Kentish Town Road, you will find the Elephant House. The red brick Grade II listed building opened in 1901 and was once the bottle store for the Camden Brewery. The company operated in Camden from 1859–1926 and the elephant head became their trademark after one of their most popular products called Elephant Pale Ale. As you approach the building, you will notice a terracotta elephant head decoration over the main doorway and that each of the black railingsis topped by a little elephant head.

6. Cannon Cradling

Statue of a woman cradling a cannon

What: Imperial Edwardian architecture Where: Admiralty Arch

At the beginning of the 20th century, London was the world's largest city and the heart of the world's largest empire. European powers were scrabbling for more territory around the world and building up their militaries. Out of this environment came the neo-Baroque architecture of the Edwardian period, aiming to show off Britain’s imperial might. The style evokes the classical empires with features such as columns, pediments and pyramidal sculpture groups, while also harking back to the monumental Baroque works of Sir Christopher Wren. Examples include Australia House and the War Office building on Whitehall, but one of the most striking examples is Admiralty Arch by Trafalgar Square. It was designed as an office space for the admiralty but also as a powerful piece of statement architecture. Opened in 1912, it was designed by Aston Webb, also responsible for the eastern facade of Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial. The aim was for this to be a part of an imperial, processional route from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral. Spot the two sculptural figures on the western side by Thomas Brock, depicting Navigation and Gunnery. You'll notice that the lady depicted in the Gunnery statue is lovingly cradling a cannon.

7. Camels by the Thames

Decorative bench with a camel on the side

What: Camel benches Where: Victoria Embankment; Albert Embankment

In the 1860s and 1870s, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette masterminded a new sewage system for London that would take the sewage away from the city. To run major new sewers, still in use today, he reclaimed roughly 90,000 square metres (22 acres) worth of land from the river and built the Victoria, Albert and, later, Chelsea embankments. Naturally the new riverside promenades needed a bit of decoration and design submissions were taken for the street furniture. In true Victorian style, they were brilliantly elaborate. Sit on a bench on one of the embankments and you may well be resting your arm on the head of a sphinx or swan. You will even find camel-style benches towards Blackfriars Bridge on the Victoria Embankment.They were designed by George Vulliamy, superintending architect of the Metropolitan Board of Works ,to complement the ancient Egyptian Cleopatra’s Needle. He also designed the two huge sphinxes flanking the Needle.

8. A Lost London Island

What: Thorney Island Where: Lambeth Bridge

The now buried River Tyburn is thought to have split into multiple legs and formed what was essentially a river delta before it met the Thames in Pimlico and Westminster. Two of these streams formed a raised area of land, surrounded by low-lying marshland, known as Thorney Island. This was where Edward the Confessor established the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey after his coronation in 1042. If you look to the Westminster edge of the river from the northern side of Lambeth Bridge at low tide, you will see a storm relief outlet down at the foreshore. After heavy rains, one leg of the Tyburn still flows into the Thames here.

9. Pumps of Death

An ornate water pump

What: Water pumps Where: 30 Cornhill; 65–68 Leadenhall Street; 44 Broadwick Street

Before a widespread plumbing system to provide clean water was introduced, wells and then, later, water pumps were often a key way for Londoners to access water, particularly the poorest. Look out for old, now defunct water pumps, mostly dating from the early-mid 19th century. You can find one on Cornhill in the City, on Queen's Square in Holborn and at the corner of Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street. The one on Leadenhall Street is known as the Aldgate Pump, or the 'Pump of Death', as it is notorious for having caused the deaths of hundreds of unsuspecting Londoners from the 1860s onwards. The water supply had been running through a series of nearby graveyards and 'organic matter' was seeping into the pipes. Hundreds started dying in the 'Aldgate Pump epidemic'. The supply was eventually changed and the pump's position altered slightly in 1876, thankfully solving the problem.

10. Regent's Park's Prehistoric Secret

A fossilised tree trunk

What: Fossilised tree trunks Where: Queen Mary's Rose Gardens

Hiding in plain sight at the meeting of two paths in Regent’s Park is a prehistoric surprise: a group of fossilised tree trunk stumps thought to be 20–100 million years old. Queen Mary’s Gardens, where the tree trunks can be found, were established in 1932 but, prior to that, since the 1840s, the space was leased by the Royal Botanic Society. The Society grew a huge variety of specimens here, held horticultural shows and ran a museum on the site. It was in this period that the prehistoric trunks were acquired and seem to have been left after the Society vacated the space in 1932. The stumps are thought to be from coniferous trees laid down in Lower Purbeck in Dorset.

London: A Guide for Curious Wanderers by Jack Chesher, published by Frances Lincoln, RRP £14.99

Images © Katharine Fraser