10 Hidden Treasures To Look Up For In Central London

10 Hidden Treasures To Look Up For In Central London

Katie Wignall, author of Look Up London, selects 10 treasures hidden in plain sight to look up for, as you walk around central London.

1. A martyred archbishop, Cheapside

A black statue of Becket in religious regalia
The figure imagines what Becket, er, mitre looked like. Image: Katie Wignall

Along the historic thoroughfare of Cheapside, the City's Medieval shopping street, there's a little figure staring down at you. This is Thomas Becket, born here around 1120. Son of a Mercer (whose Livery Hall is found around the corner), he rose through the ranks to become Archbishop of Canterbury, only to be brutally martyred in his own cathedral in 1170.

2. A lamppost that's not a lamppost, Tower Bridge

The marine blue fake chimney
Fake flues. Image: Katie Wignall

Passed by thousands every day, most people don't notice that one lamppost along Tower Bridge looks a little different from the rest. The reason: it's a chimney hiding in plain sight. Once connected to a guard room beneath the bridge, the Clean Air Act of 1956 banned coal fires, leaving it redundant.

3. The first gas-powered light, Pall Mall...

A green plaque marking  Frederick Winsor's demonstration of gas-powered street lighting.
An illuminating plaque. Image: Katie Wignall

...Well, a plaque to it, anyway. St James's gets its name from an obscure lawn game — like croquet — popular with the Stuart court; "Paille Maile". Less well known is the fact that this street bore witness to the world's first demonstration of gas-powered street lighting. Unfortunately, the light itself isn't still in situ, but there's a green plaque recording the occasion.

4. Home of the inventor of the fire extinguisher, Covent Garden

The green plaque marking the site
Let us spray. Image: Katie Wignall

Another plaque remembering a peculiar first can be found on Southampton Street. Ambrose Godfrey, an 18th century chemist lived and worked on this site. He's credited with inventing the fire extinguisher in the 1720s. Incredibly, the design involved a chamber of gunpowder.

5. A beautiful tower with a lifesaving purpose, Marylebone

A decadent, crenellated redbrick and limestone tower
Not a castle, but a fire station. Image: Katie Wignall

Speaking of fires... atop the celebrity dining hotspot Chiltern Firehouse is a brilliant feature of the original Victorian Fire Station; a watchtower from which firefighters would scan London for fires. It's so ornate, it looks more like a castle.

6. The first world war memorial you walk through without realising, Waterloo

The dramatic sculpture above Waterloo station
The main entrance to Waterloo station is one huge war memorial. Image: Katie Wignall

Outside the main entrance of Waterloo Station, look up! The whole entrance is in fact a massive first world war memorial with huge sculptures by Charles Whiffen. There are two groups, one depicting the skeletal Goddess of War surrounded by misery, while the other is a happier scene of peace and prosperity.

7. A pioneering African, Whitehall

Rectangular white plaque celebrating Ignatius Sancho
Sancho was the first known person of African descent to vote in a British election. Image: Katie Wignall

Between two mighty government buildings — The Treasury and the Foreign Office — is Charles II Street where you can find a surprising plaque. It remembers Ignatius Sancho, who escaped slavery in Greenwich and became a self-made business man, as well as the first known person of African descent to vote in a British election, in 1774.

8. Reliefs that celebrate gin, Clerkenwell

A carving depicting people distilling gin using various pots and pipes
Making mother's ruin. Image: Katie Wignall

Today Britton Street in Clerkenwell is lined with smart offices, but in the 19th century it was dominated by Booth's gin distillery, one of the largest in London. Although demolished in 1978 you can still look up to see carvings celebrating gin production, created by Frederick W Pomeroy in 1903. One gin maker who features on the reliefs is possibly turning his nose up at the fumes!

9. A Jewish newspaper logo, Whitechapel

An alleyway, to the right of which is the logo, featuring a Star of David
Lots of signs going on here, but the Jewish Daily Post one is a real beaut. Image: Katie Wignall

Along Aldgate High Street there's a reminder that this area of Whitechapel was once the epicentre of Jewish London. Look up beside Gunthorpe Street to see the ornate symbol of the Jewish Daily Post, est.1926 and based here until 1935.

10. A moooving reminder of a rural past, Chelsea

A horned bovine bust sticking out of a red brick wall
Got milk? Image: Katie Wignall

Around the King's Road you will find a surprising reminder of Chelsea's rural past — cow's heads looking down at you! They once promoted Wrights Dairy which, from the late 1700s, had around 50 grazing cows providing milk for Londoners. Find the heads on the old dairy HQ and former shop on Old Church Street.

Look Up London by Katie Wignall, published by Greenfinch, RRP £12.99.

Katie Wignall is a City of London and Blue Badge Tourist guide whose popular blog has been sharing a weekly piece of London's more unusual history since 2015.

Last Updated 22 July 2022