Nine London weather vanes with a story to tell.
Most churches and civic buildings sport weather vanes. Few people pay them any attention. After all, how many of us ever need to know the direction of the wind? But weather vanes are worthy of our gaze. Many give clues to the purpose or history of a building, or are simply beautiful objects in their own right. Here, then, are nine of London's more peculiar weather vanes, from grasshoppers to beavers.
Billingsgate fish market might have slung its hook to Docklands decades ago, but the fish live on at the market's traditional City home. The riverside building near London Bridge is decorated with dozens of scaly fish simulacra, including a pair of distinctive (and huge) weather vanes. Big though they may be, you should see the one that got away. This winged fish vane was salvaged from the market over a century ago and now lives in Swanage.
Backwards Erasmus, Whitechapel Gallery
This unique weather vane is an oft-overlooked feature of Whitechapel Art Gallery. It features the 16th century scholar Erasmus perched backwards on a horse, engrossed in a book — said to be his own masterpiece The Praise Of Folly, which was composed on horseback. The surreal ornament is the work of artist Rodney Graham, and was installed during the gallery's refurbishment in 2009. It sits on part of the gallery that was once the local library, which partially explains the "absorbed in a book" theme.
Double dragon: St Mary-le-Bow and St James's
Wren's church of St Mary-le-Bow is famously topped by a dragon weather vane. But it's not alone. A near-identical beast tops the spire of St James's Bermondsey, and was clearly inspired by its Cheapside predecessor. Dragons are a symbol of the City of London, which explains the draconic apex of St Mary-le-Bow (this dragon also has the cross of St George beneath each wing — another City emblem). Less certain is why St James's, some distance from the City, also carries the symbol.
Gresham grasshopper, Royal Exchange
The side streets of Cornhill in the Square Mile belong to the grasshopper. You'll find the symbol all over the place, from a hanging sign on Lombard Street to this fine stone carving. Look high on the Royal Exchange and you'll even spy a grasshopper weather vane. This is a very long-lived insect. The spindly-legged creature has lorded over successive Exchanges since the 16th century, surviving the Great Fire and other destructive events. Tudor banker Thomas Gresham chose it as his personal sigil, and it's endured into our own times.
Inner Temple pegasus
Just as Cornhill revels in a surfeit of grasshoppers, the Inner Temple is replete with pegasi. The winged horse is the age-old symbol of this legal enclave, and it rears up on just about every bollard and gatepost. You'll find the airborne equine up on the rooftops, too, in the form of a weather vane. Not sure why it has such a big head, mind.
Lousy St Luke's
St Luke's is that strange obelisk-topped former church on Old Street — now home to the London Symphony Orchestra. The peculiar spire, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, is crowned by a weather vane of inscrutable form. Some say it's a dragon's head breathing fire; others a flaming comet. 19th century parishioners had less lofty opinions and likened it to a flea or a louse. Hence, while still a church, the building was nicknamed "Lousy St Luke's".
The Bishopsgate beaver
This unique weather vane was once the highest point on Bishopsgate, according to a random factoid we once found on the internet. Then came the age of the skyscraper, and it's now one of the area's lowest rooftops. For many years, this was the home of the Hudson Bay Company, who made their filthy lucre by trading in animals skins and furs. That included beaver fur, and the animal became the company's unlucky mascot.
Shipshape weather vanes
This delicately rigged ship — a carrack, we're told — crowns the topmast of Lloyd's Register on Fenchurch Street. It's an appropriate finial given that Lloyd's deals with the registration and classification of shipping. Other fine ships sail over St Nicholas Coal Abbey in the Square Mile, and the old Haggerston Baths in Hackney.
The tortured saint of St Lawrence Jewry
And finally, we have London's most horrific weather vane. It doesn't look particularly terrifying, does it? But then we learn that it's meant to be a gridiron — a metal grill used for cooking meat. The meat in question was St Lawrence himself, who was slowly and excruciatingly martyred on a barbecue. Sometimes, the most innocuous objects have the most intense back-stories.
All images by Matt Brown, who once stood on a weather vane — the somewhat dull pinnacle of St Bride's on Fleet Street.