London's Railings Really Are Quite Interesting, You Know

By M@

Last Updated 12 April 2024

London's Railings Really Are Quite Interesting, You Know

"Mr Editor, please can I write an article about London's most interesting railings?"
"A whole article? About railings?"
"Well, actually, I'm thinking of a long series of posts..."

To be honest, I don't need dreadful puns like that to sell a feature on London's railings. They're fascinating. No, really. Just look at the 11 examples below, all packed with historical or artistic interest, and I defy you to remain on the fence. Here we go...

1. Phantom railings

Railings with phantom railings in front

We've all seen phantom railings like the ones above, only the holes in the ground now remaining. In most cases, they're relics from the second world war, when iron railings were sawn off to provide metal for the war effort. 80 years later and the scars are still visible all over the city. This particularly fine example is from Charles Square, just north of Old Street.

2. Ailing railings

Railings made from second world war stretchers

After the war, the government found itself in possession of thousands of mass-produced stretchers that, happily, no longer had a purpose. Solution? Weld them together and you have a ready-made replacement for some of those absent railings. You can spot the repurposed stretches at various sites around town, mostly on post-war estates of south London. The one above was snapped near Oval. They're easily identified thanks to their curly legs.

3. Memorialising railings

Crossbones cemetery

Railings are often used as impromptu notice boards for messages ("Have you seen this cat?"), memorials and outpourings of grief (think the gates and fence of Kensington Palace after Diana died). Here's a more enduring example. Crossbones Graveyard on Redcross Way, Southwark, is the final resting place of thousands of paupers, prostitutes and other outcasts, buried here in unconsecrated graves from medieval times up to the 19th century. It was all but forgotten until a local shaman called John Constable (sometimes John Crow) revived interest in the site in the 1990s. Crossbones has since become a living memorial to the unnamed dead, with monthly vigils, a garden of remembrance and this remarkable set of railings upon which people leave prayers, ribbons, poetry, flowers and other motley tokens.

4. Bittersweet railings

A lost mitten sculpture by Tracey Emin

A more minimalist, and easily missed memorial can be found on the railings outside the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. This single mitten symbolises the innocence of childhood, and the poignancy of something left behind. It is not cloth, as might be expected, but a brass sculpture made by Tracey Emin.

5. Cool railings

Fitzrovia ice cream cone

In neighbouring Fitzrovia, you might stumble across another railing-top intervention, this time in the form of an inverted ice cream. It was first pointed out to me by tour guide Peter Berthoud, though I can't recall who put it there or why. The cone has since been painted the same deep black as the railings, meaning that it goes largely unobserved. I won't reveal the exact location, but it's not too far from Goodge Street station if you want to have a bit of fun trying to track it down.

6. Foxy railings

Wooden fox sculpture nunhead

More artistic fun on Nunhead Green, where sculptor Arthur de Mowbray has installed a wooden fox squeezing through the railings. It's a joy to encounter, unless you're bashing your shin against it on a dark night.

7. Painted railings

Street art railings

More phantom railings, only these ones never existed in the first place. This mural, painted on Commercial Street in 2023, is the handiwork of street artist ONLY. The railings, boy and ball aren't really there; it's all painterly illusion.

8. Love railings

Padlocks on railings

The railings along Bankside are one of those places where loved-up couples deploy padlocks, as a tricky-to-remove symbol of their affection. It's not the only place. I've seen similar doings on Tower Bridge, Hungerford Bridge and — for reasons I've never quite fathomed — outside a grubby meanwhile space near Shoreditch station.

9. Failing railings

Railings around horse fountains

The Horses of Helios is a much-loved sculptural fountain where Haymarket meets Piccadilly Circus. Or, at least, it was much-loved until the pandemic, when the stable door was inelegantly bolted with this monstrosity. OK, it's more of a security barrier than a set of railings, but its unsightly presence deserves wider attention. Free the horses!

10. Tomb railer

A grave in a cage

Tombs surrounded by railings are surprisingly common. Such barriers are not to prevent zombie egress, but to to deter casual vandalism. In this case, in St Luke's churchyard on Old Street, the railings also dissuade office workers from using the flat surface for a macabre picnic.

As it happens, this is something of a celebrity grave. Down below are the mortal remains of William Caslon, of typographical fame. And you thought fonts were always found inside the church?

11. Immense fence

Railings of Hampton Court

Royal London is replete with fancy railings. You'll find overblown ironmongery around Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and the Albert Memorial, for example. Perhaps the most opulent frame the privy garden of Hampton Court Palace. These railings are so resplendent that they have to be cordoned off by a second, more plebby barrier. It's the only place in London I've seen railings protecting railings.

And on that slightly meta note, we'll close the gate on this niche but fascinating subject.