The Strange Things You Can Find On London's Roundabouts

M@
By M@
The Strange Things You Can Find On London's Roundabouts

Roundabouts have been a familiar part of the London streetscape since the 1960s. Most are humdrum affairs with little to make you stop and ponder. But, ever so occasionally, one finds something peculiar lurking within the turf disc.

Here, then, is a roundup of roundabouts, each with a nugget of charm (to be admired on foot... not while driving past).

1. A Giant Naked Goddess, Silvertown

A giant female form, arching backwards as though in a yoga pose, stands on a roundabout.
What is she doing?

So, we were wandering around the industrial estates of Silvertown — as you do — when who should we chance across but Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom. Here she is, living up to her sagacious reputation, by practicing yoga on a roundabout next to the Connaught Bridge.

The sculpture was installed in 2012 and is the work of Nasser Azam. It faces towards City Airport, and looks as though it's guiding in planes, yet oddly it was commissioned by Newham Council and not the airport. According to Ian Visits, mighty Athena is the tallest bronze sculpture in the UK, even though she looks like she's made from something less spendy.

2. An Interdimensional Portal, Wandsworth

Steel hoops the size of houses hold up a rectangular advertising board, partly obscured by a tree.
The portal's complex machinery is housed in that concrete blast bunker on the left.

Have you ever seen the film Contact? In the 1997 sci-fi flick, Jodie Foster's character is sent on an interstellar journey after dropping through a series of spinning hoops. Her improbable mode of transport was perhaps inspired by the advertising cradle that dominates the Wandsworth roundabout (whose other film connection, of course, is for the subway scenes in A Clockwork Orange). We've always wondered... if you step inside, will you be instantaneously transported to the similar structure on Old Street roundabout? Let's go there now...

3. The Relics Of Unbuilt Old Street

A blue block sits before a fence hiding the Old Street roundabout.
This unassuming block holds a really dull secret.

As we write these words, the Old Street roundabout is in the final stages of becoming... not a roundabout. The north-west corner has been sealed off to traffic, and it is now something of an imposter on this list. But we had to include this notorious junction, given its fame as the 'Silicon Roundabout', and for the sheer calibre of oddity that could be found there.

The Beatles, for starters. The Fab Four posed for publicity shots on the Old Street roundabout in 1968. They returned, in statue form, 50 years later.

Most peculiar of all, though, are the rectangular concrete blocks, which were given a bit of a multicolour jazzing up in the noughties (see picture). These are supposedly the supports for an east-west flyover, which was planned for the roundabout but never built. Their fate is uncertain, although one of them currently holds up the interdimensional portal to Wandsworth, so it's probably staying.

4. The Rotherhithe Rider

A grey sculpture of a cyclist, head down and determined, stands on a verdant roundabout with a copper-spired church in the background.
Tour de Rotherhithe.

The Rotherhithe Tunnel is notorious as a choking hellhole of motor traffic. (You can walk through, but you wouldn't want to.) A symbol of greener transport stands at the southern approach roundabout. Here you'll find this streamlined cyclist fashioned from hundreds of interlocking metal leaves. It's the work of sculptor Heather Burrell, who created it to mark the time the Tour de France began in London, in 2007. The same artist created the Blue Iridescence sculpture in nearby Deptford Park, which is patently not on a roundabout.

5. An Upside-Down Horse's Head, A Banksy, An Itinerate Arch And A Hill Nobody Likes

A horses head stands upon its nose like a macabre magic trick, while buses drive past. A tower rises in the background.
Nothing improves road safety like placing a giant, severed horse's head next to the carriageway.

Does Marble Arch count as a roundabout? It's perhaps more of a gyratory, but it's oddity-filled enough to make our list. For starters, there's THAT sculpture — a severed horse's head sniffing the ground where convicts were once hanged from the Tyburn gallows (a plaque nearby marks the precise spot). After 10 years on the spot, the equine distraction has now been moved to Achilles Way close to Hyde Park Corner.

A somewhat longer-lived erection is the Marble Arch itself. The famous structure was designed by John Nash almost 200 years ago. For its first quarter-century, it stood in front of what is now Buckingham Palace, before relocating to its present site in the year of the Great Exhibition (1851).

London red buses fill the lower frame, while a green mound rises in the background,
It's had its detractors, but the Marble Arch Mound is definitely among the top 5 artificial hills of Oxford Street.

The latest addition to the site is an artificial mound of scaffolding, commissioned by Westminster Council as a novelty viewing platform (without, some would say, any real views). The Mound has proved controversial to say the least, and is likely to be demolished at the end of 2021. At its base can be seen a piece of political commentary from Banksy, which has been preserved in perspex and is likely to outlive the Mound. Quite possibly London's most talked-about roundabout.

6. Traffic Light Overkill, Canary Wharf

A roundabout with medium-sized trees, only one of the trees is actually a dystopian sculpture of branching traffic lights. Argghhh. Run!
That grey car's been stuck on this junction since March.

See this roundabout full of trees. One of them is a little different. Can you tell which one? Yes, it's the plane tree on the right, which leans contrary to the prevailing winds. But in the middle of the roundabout is something different — a bewildering cluster of 75 traffic lights — that blink at random and help nobody. It is, of course, a work of art, created by Pierre Vivant in 1997. Find it near Billingsgate Market at the north-east of the Isle of Dogs.

7. A Mysterious Column That Looks Like Something From Willy Wonka, Shepherd's Bush

A large shaft eclipses the sun in a fairly old photo that frankly, should have been taken with more care.
Augustus Gloop not pictured.

This semi-transparent shaft has long bamboozled circumnavigators of the Holland Park roundabout. It might be the world's most terrifying waterslide, or else the pipe that sucked away Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The truth is more prosaic, yet also rather fascinating. Its one of 11 pumping stations on the Thames Water Ring Main — a vast, aqueous circuit that supplies tap water to much of London. The tower serves multiple functions, including as a giant barometer, a water pump and as a relief pipe in the event of a water surge.

8. A World-Beating Cinema, Waterloo

A vintage image of the drum-shaped IMAX at Waterloo, showing an advert of an ancient model of iPhone.
As you can see, the IMAX dates back to a different era.

Roundabouts can also be cultural centres, as exemplified by the drum-shaped BFI IMAX building near Waterloo Station. It popped up in 1999, a vintage year for 'iconic' structures that also gave us the Millennium Dome, Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge, London Eye and the Jubilee Line Extension. It remains the largest cinema screen in Britain. We have much better file photographs of the cinema, but there's something quite charming about this one, taken when the world was young and iPhones were as thick as bricks.

9. A Roundabout Of Roundabouts, Hatton Cross

A roundabout surrounded by five smaller roundabouts like something out of a Ballardian nightmare.
The pentagon of terror.

Out on the south-eastern perimeter of Heathrow Airport sits one of London's most peculiar junctions. It's a roundabout of five exits, each of which is governed by a mini-roundabout. This presents the driver or rider with options. You can pass round clockwise, as on any normal roundabout, or else make your way anti-clockwise for that feeling of rebellion against Her Majesty and all her highways.

We have to confess that we've never visited this one. Judging by the multiple captures on Google Street View, it's not the busiest of junctions. So quite why such a complex braid was needed is a mystery. Perhaps it was a half-arsed attempt to emulate Hemel Hempstead's 'Magic Roundabout', which includes SIX mini-roundabouts AND a river.

10. Seven Dials of Seven Dials

A bollard bearing the legend Seven Dials stands before a column, which is topped with dials.
Yes, the logo of Seven Dials really does include a wounded, dying animal.

We sometimes forget that Seven Dials near Covent Garden is a roundabout. It feels like it should be pedestrianised, but the occasional car comes through to honk us out of the way. This historic roundabout has been a feature of the streetscape since the 17th century, regulating the flow of traffic from the seven approach roads.

The central column is a replacement for the original, which ended up in Weybridge, Surrey during the 19th century. It is topped by six separate sundials; the seventh is the column itself, which casts a long shadow onto the surrounding streets.

11. Random Chunks of Modern Art

Like a motorist unsure which exit to take on a busy roundabout, this article could keep going and going. Many of our suburban roundabout feature works of art. Gants Hill tube station, for example, is topped by this beguiling piece, known as Vortex by Wolfgang Buttress.

Imagine a dandelion clock made of corten steel emerging from a roundabout and you're not far off.

Then, not so far away in Barking, we have a site-specific sculpture which recalls the long defunct fishing industry that once dominated the River Roding. It's called The Catch, by Lorraine Leeson.

A curving steel sculpture resembling a fishing net with a haul of metallic fish.

There's also a whole essay to be written on how roundabout got their names - from the Charlie Brown roundabout in Woodford to the Polish War Memorial roundabout in Ruislip. Fortunately, we've already written such an essay.

No, we're going to turn off at this point and follow a different road, but we'd love to hear in the comments about your own favourite roundabouts and gyratories. You do have one, don't you?

All images by the author, except for the Hatton Cross roundabout, which is obviously from Google Maps.

Last Updated 07 October 2021