Why You Should Always Look *Down* In London: Pavement Oddities

By M@ Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 17 October 2023

Why You Should Always Look *Down* In London: Pavement Oddities

For more of all things London history, sign up for our new (free) newsletter and community: Londonist: Time Machine.

Looking along a road. A surface layer of tar has eroded, revealing stone sets beneath.

They say you should "always look up in London", or you'll miss half its charms. But we should also remember to look down when exploring the city — not at our phones, but at the innumerable features at our feet. Here are 15 pavement oddities we've spotted on our walks around the capital.

1. Hidden rivers

A pavement roundel showing the location of the River Effra

London's supposedly "lost" rivers are now pretty well known, thanks to an endless supply of articles, books, videos and exhibitions. Most of these vanished waterways, like the Fleet and Tyburn, still flow beneath the ground as part of the sewer network. A few are even indicated by pavement plaques, such as the one above in Herne Hill, where the River Effra's course is marked. A related example is the Regent's Canal's progress beneath Islington, which is tracked by a series of small, blue plaques. And then there's this intriguing message we once discovered in Uxbridge...

A manhole cover surrounded by white spray paint suggesting a secret underground canal

2. Foundling tokens in Bloomsbury

A silver token in the form of an anchor embedded in the pavement

When walking along Marchmont Street, look carefully at the pavement alongside the Brunswick Centre, and you might spy silver devices like the one shown above. They are replicas of tokens left at the Foundling Hospital in the 18th and 19th century. Their story is heartbreaking. Faced with abject poverty, many mothers left their children to the care of the Hospital, where they might grow up under better circumstances. The infants were often accompanied by small trinkets, such as the one shown above, to help identify a child if their family later came to reclaim them. Examples can now be seen at the Foundling Museum, while the small art trail on Marchmont Street was created by artist John Aldus.

3. A Roman footprint

An aerial view of Guildhall Yard with an oval marking the footprint of a roman amphitheatre
Image: Google

The Guildhall complex in the Square Mile is ancient, with some parts dating back to medieval times. A clue to still older structures can be found in the flagstones. Look out for the black oval shape which arcs across almost the full length of the yard. This indicates the footprint of a Roman amphitheatre that once stood on the site, and whose remains were only discovered in 1988. Pop into the basement of Guildhall Art Gallery (free) to see those remains. A similar, though smaller, circle marks an old Templar church in St John's Square, Clerkenwell.

4. Street nipples!

A collection of metal studs in the pavement.
Images by Chris Clarke

Ever spotted these curious brass "nipples" embedded in the pavement? Once you've got an eye for them, you'll notice them everywhere. They seem to serve a variety of functions, from marking boundaries, to aiding surveyors, to earthing utility pipes, as we explored in this previous feature.  

5. The world of coal hole covers

A coal hole decorated with beer mugs

Coal hole covers can be spotted in the pavements of London's older streets. Back when everyone had a coal fire, these small holes were used by delivery men, who could tip the black stuff straight into a cellar without having to carry it through the house. Thousands of coal hole covers survive around London, and they come in dozens of geometric designs. The one shown above is part of an art trail around Spitalfields, devised by Keith Bowler. Each one shows a trade or activity associated with the area.

6. Musical Walks of Fame

A record-shaped plaque in the pavement remembering the band Madness

Did you know that London has its very own rock and roll hall of fame? The Camden Town trail is still in its early days at time of writing, with plaques to just four acts: Madness, David Bowie, The Who and Amy Winehouse. Find the vinyl-style roundels in the pavements around Camden Town tube station.

Wembley Park has its own "Square of Fame", which commemorates acts who have played at the nearby stadium and arena. Look out for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Bryan Adams, The Police and, erm, Michael Flatley's feet...

A pair of footprints in a pavement roundel commemorating Michael Flatley

7. News from the last millennium

A pavement plaque revealing that Tate Modern will open soon

Before Londonist existed, Londoners could only learn about new cultural experiences by looking out for posters, notices and pavement adverts. This still-surviving message on Southwark Street informs us that Tate gallery of modern art will open in 2000. We're sure it'll be a huge success.

8. HP source

An hydraulic power point

Spotted in Clerkenwell: an old pavement cover containing the mysterious initials "LHP". Lower Holborn Pipeline? Lenny Henry's Pantry? A magical portkey to the London of Harry Potter?

Nope. It stands for London Hydraulic Power. The plate is a rare survivor of this now mostly forgotten utility, which saw high-pressure water pumped around London as a means for powering machinery. The network was constructed in the late 19th century and, incredibly, survived into the 1970s. Many of the old pipes are still used today for telecommunications.

9. Random quotes and heritage

A hose-like message inscribed on the pavement

This serpentine inscription marks the site of Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Stones like this are a pretty common feature of heritage sites. They prompt us to stop, read, and ponder our surroundings. This one is particularly haunting, conjuring the ghosts of the notorious debtors' prison in which Charles Dickens' own father was incarcerated.

10. A plaque to Mr Benn

A plaque to Mr Benn and his creator

And here's a heritage plaque of a very different tone. Festing Road in Putney was home to children's author David McKee. Under a minor name change to Festive Road, it was also home to one of his most famous creations, Mr Benn. The pair are commemorated with the kind of simple pavement memorial we'd like to see on more suburban streets, celebrating other local heroes.

11. Wood-block paving

Wooden block paving shines after rainfall

As children, we learned that London's streets were paved with gold. In fact, they were once paved with wood. Wood-block paving was a common sight in Victorian times, but has now almost entirely vanished from our streets. This tiny stretch on Chequer Street (just south of Old Street) is one of the best-surviving examples. But you can see other bits here and there.

12. An historic fatberg

A metal manhole cover commemorating a fatberg

"The Whitechapel fatberg was defeated here in 2017." So reads this enigmatic plaque-cum-drain-cover on Whitechapel Road. For the uninitiated, a fatberg is the solid mass that forms when too much cooking fat ends up in the drains. It agglomerates with waste tissue, excrement and other detritus to form a sewer-blocking obstacle that must be chiselled away by hand. The 2017 monster was particularly notorious, weighing in at 130 tonnes. Part of the fatberg was collected and exhibited at the Museum of London.

13. Freaky double-yellows

Freaky double yellow lines bending back on themselves

Few things in life are as sober and sensible as road markings. Which makes it all the more hilarious when you spot something a little out of the ordinary. These famous double-double-yellows can be found in Crawford Passage, Clerkenwell. At first, they appear non-sensical, until you realise that their purpose is to deter motorcycle parking. They're not the only intriguing yella's in town, though. Get your head around these wavy interventions in Harrow.

Wavy double-yellow lines

14. You had one job

A sign saying look right, but with a left-pointing arrow

Speaking of dubious road markings. This potentially dangerous instruction can be found outside Baker Street station. We've also found the opposite error, a right-pointing arrow on a Look Left sign, over on Old Street.

15. Stonemasons' marks

A kerb with letters and an arrow inscribed

Any regular pavement gazers will be familiar with the curious signs and symbols commonly inscribed into the kerb, such as the arrow shown here. Their interpretation is disputed, though most commentators agree that they are the marks of stonemasons, either indicating which stones a particular individual cut from the quarry, or else laid in the street. The mark shown above has the added detail of the letters SPB, which we take to be the St Pancras borough boundary (the kerb is in Regent's Park).

16. Spot the typo

Michael Pallin commemorated with a mis-spelled name on a flagstone

And finally... this mis-spelling of Michael Palin's name was reportedly deliberate — a mischievous joke by his fellow Python John Cleese. Find the duo among the list of donors at Shakespeare's Globe.

All images by the author unless otherwise indicated.