"Underwhelming" Attractions: London Top Five


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August 1st 2018
Published: August 1st 2018
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There is no doubt that for the tourist or traveller, London has more than it’s fair share of less-explored, hidden gems. Personal favourites of mine range from the pathos of Postman’s Park in the City to the restrained beauty of the Kyoto Gardens in Holland Park through to the eclectic, inspired John Soanes Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields.

However, there is also a bunch of odd sights that are often historical non-sequitur; not fitting well into their surroundings but still frequently going entirely unnoticed. They can be randomly one-off, weird, quirky or equally very mundane.The mundane are often profoundly underwhelming in appearance but they still can have a deeper relevance or a longer story than an inital viewing would flatter them with.

The following is my favourite five underwhelming London attractions. They can be a little banal but for me they are all very familiar touchstones from living in the Capital for over thirty years.

1. Nose

Admiralty Arch spans The Mall towards it’s Trafalgar Square end. The Apartments above were the former home of the First Sealord, it’s now mainly known for providing Grace-and-Favour shag pads for the UK’s third rate expense fiddling political class such as former Deputy Prime Ministers etc. The building is supported by three archs which are a busy thoroughfare for traffic continually going up and down the Mall.

On the inside wall of the northern arch is a human nose made of stone.

What is surprising is the sheer amount of urban mythologising that's been centred on the nose that simply cannot be sniffed at. Some very strange theories suddenly sprang up in the 1990's and started doing the rounds on it’s origin and significance. This was in the early internet period and speculation was all by word of mouth or in the local Evening Standard newspaper. Unfortunately, a tap room consensus was never reached and the Capitals’ journos at the Standard were stumped by this newly noticed nasal interloper.

The most common theory was that the nose was there to honour the Duke of Wellington, who was known to have a large nose. Other stories state that it is Napoleon’s nose and that it would be rubbed by anyone riding through the arch on their horse as a snub to the general, who was small in stature. It was also atributed to Edward the VII who also had a rather large nose and who commissioned building of the arch in memory of his mother. Another explanation is that it was a spare for the statue of Nelson atop his column in Trafalger Square opposite.

In the fact the nose was placed there by Situalist artist Rick Buckley in 1997. It was part of a campaign against the spread of CCTV cameras and the advent of “Big Brother” society.

A run of further noses are to be found in Soho and other artists have also been responsible for an rash of ears in Convent Garden. In spite of these various challengers, the Admirality Arch nose can be easily picked as the most prominent of these appendages.

2. Bath

The Roman Bath is definitely not Roman and probably not even Medieval. It is likely to be some remanant such as a cistern from a Tudor era grand house. All remains a bit unclear. The general confusion and bafflement has spread onto Tripadvsior where it is mistaken for the Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset and also a gay male massage parlour. At least the internet confusion has allowed this underwhelming attraction to rocket up the rankings due to higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Upon its discovery over two hundred years ago, the bath was made use of by local entrepreneurs of the day and and in the late eighteenth and nineteeth centuries it was used as a cold plunge bath. It gets the obligatory nod from Charles Dickens in David Copperfield (published 1849/50) who speaks of an old Roman bath at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand. It may, unfortunately, have had less than restorative properties as a certain William Weddell died from “a sudden internal chill” when bathing there in April 1792.

The Bath is situated up the highly unpreposessing Strand Lane, a claustophobic alleyway near the Temple tube station. With the entrance off Surrey Street marked by a tatty looking sign is shut by a padlocked grill. When I worked in an office nearby on the Strand, it made an impression on me as being a rather folorn spot on an earlier visit. Nowadays, it almost feels like this unloved sight is being slowly forgotten. Tightly closed for most of the day a light switch does allow you to illuminate the interior. Not much is to be discerned peering through the grime encrusted windows, while chilly winds blow old crisp packets around your feet.

3. Pump

Any remaining handpumps are a rarity in London. The most notable example is the impressive Georgian Phoenix handpump on the side of the Royal Exchange which has recently been restored and is now resplendent in a new coat of cream and white paint.

A less attractive piece of street furniture was the handpump located in Broad Street in Soho. The pump is actually a replica placed there in 1992. You would often stumble upon this black laquered piece of brutalist iron mongery almost by accident, set upon a grey octangonal plinth in a semi-pedestrinised area.

It commemorates the founding father of epidemiologists, John Snow. In the mid nineteenth century Snow established that cholera was water borne and debunked the prevailing miasma theory which suggested diseases were spread through bad air.

In the summer of 1854, a major cholera outbreak struck Soho causing the deaths of hundreds. John Snow investigated the causes and his sleuthing included talking to anyone he could and then mapping out the occurrences of the disease. The evidence pointed to the Broad Street pump being responsible as there was a significant cluster of occurrences of the disease in its immediate vicinity. The assembled evidence was compelling enough for the council to remove the pump handle causing the chlorea cases to reduce in number.

The Broad Street Pump has secured a place in the iconography of epidemiology and is used on various logos and designs related to this scientific field. The temporary? removal of the pump has left budding epidemiologists crying into their beer at the nearby John Snow pub. Currently the only thing that marks John Snow’s breakthrough in public health is a small plaque attached the pub that bears his name. The frustration is heartfelt among many, as the location of the pump represented the definitive place of origin for an entire branch of medicine.

4. Bell

St Sepulchre’s church is located two minutes walk from one of my former office locations at the top of Old Bailey. The Old Bailey Central Criminal Court partly stands on the site of Newgate Gaol which was a grim fixture of London for 700 years. The style of the Church belies a longer history due to extensive remodelling during the nineteenth century.

Within the church behind the third pillar on the right is a large, dull, leaden-looking handbell. Its rather humble character is misleading, as when deployed this was once an instrument of extreme pyschological terror.

The church was linked by a tunnel to Newgate. On the eve of an execution of one of Newgates’ unlucky inmates, the sexton of the church would appear outside the prisoners cell. Opening a window he gave 12 tolls of the bell and recited a charming little ditty:

All you that in the condemened hole to lie

Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die

Watch all, and pray the hour is drawing near

That you before the Almighty must appear

Examine well yourselves; in time repent

And when St Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls

The Lord above have mercy on your souls

Past twelve o’clock

What was to become this ghastly little curio was donated to the parish in 1605 and was inflicted on inmates before they faced the drop at Tyburn for the next hundred years or so. Thankfully becalmed and silent it is now housed in a handsome glass case; the bell luckily tolls no more.

5. Stone

In the 1990’s my train arrived in Cannon Street and I would pass the location of the London Stone. It was housed in it’s own little back-lit under-dwelling in the rather dilapidated Bank of China building. Sitting behind a heavy metal grill it was easy to pass by without noticing. Closer examination would show a lumpen greyish chunk of limestone with few obvious features.

Despite apprearances, the London Stone is an amazing piece of urban flotsome that has bounced and floated along on the tide of London history. It has been a witness to a Peasants Revolt, has been name checked by Shakespeare, roasted in the Great Fire of London and bombed by the Luftwaffe. The edges have been progressively knocked-off over successive generations and it is now in much reduced circumstances. It is currently receiving some much needed TLC in the Museum of London after the wrecking ball had done for it’s previous home.

This item of mysterious origin has been subject to a good deal of cryptohistorical nonsense and pseaudoarchilogical garbage by writers of dubious merit. Theories as to its origin and purpose have included that it was a druidic alter, excalibur’s resting place and the remains of the palace of the Roman governor of Britain. The most impressive theory in terms of sheer delusion of granduer is that Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, brought it from the sack of Troy.

Some of these fanciful projections started as early as Elizabethan times, where it was reputed to have been set up by the order of King Lud the rebuilder of London or was the centre of the City. Prior to that is was likely to be a local landmark and frequent traffic hazard standing towards the southern edge of medieval candlewick (Cannon) Street.

It certaintly seems to have become a visitor attraction in its own right by early seventeenth century. It was listed in a poem by Samuel Rowlands as one of the “sights” of London (perhaps the first time the word has been used in that sense) and shown to “an honest country foole” on his visit to town.

Hopefully future honest country fools will be in for a treat before too long, as the London Stone may well be released after it’s clean-up to take up residence at its newly installed plinth back at Cannon Street.

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