The Lost Oddities Of London

By M@ Last edited 14 months ago
The Lost Oddities Of London

London is filled with oddities — strange plaques, unusual bollards and other unexpected points of interest. The true oddity serves no practical purpose, but brings a smile to the face by its very existence. It is the bench plaque that remembers a man "who hated this spot", or the old phone box filled with flowers. It is the chewing gum artwork of Millennium Bridge, or the musical gravestones of the clown Grimaldi. Oddities are everywhere, and we have mapped them.

But, like anything in this world, every oddity has its day. Many a plaque has vanished to vandalism or redevelopment. Quirky street furniture may be removed at any time, on the whim of a council. Here, then, are a selection of oddities that once graced London's streets and parks, but which have now gone to the great oddbox in the sky.

The Hardy Tree

Lots of grave stones around the base of a tree
Image: Londonist

This enigmatic ash beside Old St Pancras Church collapsed at the tail end of 2022 after years of fungal attack. It was a sad moment. This was possibly London's most-photographed tree. Its girdle of tombstones was — according to modern myth — put in place by Thomas Hardy. The future novelist did work in the churchyard as a young man, clearing graves to make way for rail expansion. Nothing but folklore connects him to the tree itself, however. Now it has fallen and the graves stand without their arboreal superintendent.

The gold-beater's arm of Soho

A golden arm and hammer protrude from an indoor wall
The original gold-beater's arm in the Dickens Museum. Image: Londonist

Until a few years ago, Manette Street in Soho was arguably the best street in London. It had Foyles bookshop on one side, The Crobar on the other, and it led to the historic Pillars of Hercules pub on Greek Street. All that has now changed. Foyles moved; the Crobar closed; and the Pillars of Hercules keeps reopening as a new cocktail bar.

Manette Street is still named after a Dickens character, though. Dr Manette from A Tale of Two Cities lived “In a building at the back attainable by a courtyard where a plane tree rustled its green leaves, church organs claim to be made, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall...". The gold-beater's arm was a real feature of the road and the original (pictured above) can still be seen at the Dickens Museum. However, a decent replica of the arm jutted out of the south wall of Manette Street for many years, until it too was swept away by the redevelopment of the Foyles site.

The plaque to Jacob von Hogflume

A collection of spoof blue plaques to Jacob von Hogflume

Noted time traveller Jacob von Hogflume (1864-1909) will be a resident of Golden Square, Soho in 2189, as noted by the blue plaque that once marked the spot. The spoof English Heritage plaque was short lived, but other memorials to the temporal hobo have appeared around the world. The plaques were supposedly placed by Monty Python fans irked at English Heritage's refusal to recognise Graham Chapman with an official Blue Plaque (a connection we haven't been able to verify).

The Swiss Centre Carillon

A brown curvy building with Switzerland written on the side
Image: Londonist

The Swiss Centre in Leicester Square was all kinds of odd. Wonderful odd, mind you. It had that hidden cinema only accessible by lift. It sported a curvy facade the colour of Swiss chocolate. And then there was the chiming bell clock (technically, a carillon), which would mark the hours in the most jingly-jangly way. Well, we all know what happened next. The characterful Swiss chocolate gave way to M&Ms, whose unlikely superstore remains a magnet for sweet-toothed tourists. The carillon was disassembled, but not entirely lost. The bells have since been stitched together into a new form, and reanimated by electricity — which is kind of appropriate, given that Frankenstein was written and set in Switzerland.

Bus stop potatoes

Three colourful spiky potatoes
Image: Londonist

Back in 2006, top-deck bus passengers were treated to a peculiar form of guerrilla art. Someone had painted and skewered a selection of potatoes, then hurled them onto bus shelter roofs. The phenomenon reappears from time to time, but never to the same extent as that mid-Noughties spudwave.

Brooke Shields Alphabet

A piece of scrawl that says Brooke Shields Alphabet
Image: Londonist

This now-obscure oddity was the talk of the town back in 2007. In short, someone had scrawled the phrase "Brooke Shields Alphabet" (sometimes "The Alphabet of Brooke Shields") onto dozens of London walls. We crowdsourced a map of all the occurrences and... found no pattern whatsoever. To this day, we still have no idea what the phrase meant, or who was behind it.

A Room for London

A ship-like structure sticks out from the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The image is in sepia for some strange reason
Image: Londonist

Remember this strange thing? Called 'A Room for London', the vaguely nautical oddity protruded from the roof of the South Bank's Queen Elizabeth Hall from 2012 to 2016. As its name suggests, the ship-shaped structure contained one bedroom, which could be booked for single-night residencies. The project was jointly realised by Artangel and Living Architecture.

Oliver Cromwell, with massive fist and turban

A massive-fisted figure lies beneath an equestrian statue in a sepia illustration
Oliver "massive fist" Cromwell under the horse of Charles II

One historical oddity that nobody will remember is the statue of Charles II trampling a brawny, turban-wearing Oliver Cromwell. The equestrian statue stood for many years at Bank junction, on the site of what is now Mansion House. The history books do not record an incident in which Charles rode roughshod over the Lord Protector, nor does any portrait show Cromwell in cloth headgear. The statue was, in fact, recycled from an earlier one depicting John III Sobieski trampling a Turkish soldier. This oddity still exists — it was shifted up to Lincolnshire when its services were no longer required in the City.

And finally... the Admiralty Arch nose?

A pink nose sticks out of a portland stone
Image: Londonist

If this one hasn't yet vanished, then it is certainly endangered. The calcified conk has protruded from one of the arch's spans for a couple of decades, supposedly modelled on the Duke of Wellington's nose and rubbed by mounted soldiers for luck (all myth). It's thought to be the work of artist Rick Buckley, who has a nose for such things. Admiralty Arch is currently undergoing a multi-million pound refit to turn it into a hotel and posh apartments. The arch is sealed off, and it seems likely that its celebrated oddity will be removed during the works.

Anything to add? Let us know in the comments.

Last Updated 14 February 2023