Working as a QI researcher or 'Elf' means hunting for 'Quite Interesting' things wherever we go.
Often we accidentally stumble across the very best facts during our day-to-day lives. So we are incredibly lucky to have our headquarters in London, where ludicrous laws and astonishing anecdotes live, tucked away between the pubs of Soho and the imposing stonework of Westminster.
An Elf's guide to the capital does not compare Selfridges to Fortnum & Mason (although we might mention that the latter was the first shop to sell Heinz Baked Beans); nor do we announce what's on at Sadler's Wells (unless it's naval battles, which the theatre exhibited in the 19th century and was regularly flooded for). Instead, we want to tell people the lesser-known facts about the city — and where better to start than the Tower of London?
Everyone knows about the Tower's legendary ravens, but they have only been there for 150 years or so. Go back eight centuries and you might have spotted a polar bear swimming alongside the tower, secured by a long leash but allowed to hunt for fish in the Thames. Over a period of more than half a millennium, the Tower housed a menagerie that was home to eagles, monkeys, lions, tigers and elephants (which at one stage were given only wine to drink). The monkeys lived in their own furnished room, and one publication from the 1800s reported that they were only removed from public display after a boy's leg was torn off "in a dangerous manner".
Slightly less dangerous, but no less interesting, is a building on Dean Street in Soho that today hosts a branch of Pizza Express but which 200 years ago was the site of an 'ear hospital' run by a charlatan called John Curtis. Curtis would persuade patients of their deafness by showing them a clock whose ticking mechanism had been silenced and asking if they could hear the 'tick-tock'. After treatment, he'd present them with a loudly ticking clock, and they'd marvel at their miraculously restored hearing. Today's Soho-approved methods for dulling the senses are rather different; they include the Spamarita, a cocktail served up at Jinjuu restaurant that combines spam with tequila.
A great way to see London is from the top of a double decker bus — although in December 1952 the passengers on the number 78 may have disagreed. Their driver, Albert Gunton, made a leap across Tower Bridge as it began to rise. As the gap grew, he decided to accelerate instead of braking, and miraculously the bus and everyone on board crossed the three-foot opening and landed safely. Gunton later received £10 for his bravery.
Many tourists confuse Tower Bridge with London Bridge. The former came to London around the same time as the ravens, but the latter has existed in some form since the city was still run by the Romans and called Londinium. One of London Bridge's earlier iterations can now be found in Arizona. It was sold to the American Robert McCulloch who had each brick marked and shipped over to be built again exactly the same as it was when it straddled the Thames. The rumour that McCulloch thought he was buying Tower Bridge is probably a myth — the American denied it, anyway.
Peering over the Thames, of course, is the London Eye, which the Southbank Centre attempted to evict in 2005. The owners of the Eye were already paying £65,000 in rent for the single supporting foot which rested on the Southbank Centre’s land (the other leg stands on someone else’s property), but the landowners attempted to increase this to £2.5 million. If the owners of the Eye didn't pay, they were told they would have to leave the site within two months. The row was eventually resolved, but one person who might have been glad to see the back of the attraction is American actress Jessica Alba. Alba rode the giant observation wheel 31 times in a row, back in 2005, while conducting interviews for the Fantastic Four movie. She must've had bizarre flashbacks three years later when she received the script for a horror movie about a blind violinist, called The Eye.
That's just a tiny selection of our favourite London facts. The city's extensive and vivid history means discovering all of its secrets would take an eternity. But for that very reason, it's the ideal home for a bunch of researchers who are Quite Interested in everything.