Look at London... really look

london collage
London can seem overwhelming in its size, diversity and depth. Sometimes it’s worth concentrating on a small area and looking in more detail, perhaps taking a fresh look at places you consider familiar. Everywhere you go look out for curiosities – there are so many stories in the small details. Here are a few insights…

Even in run down areas, you can often spot signs of grander days. Look out for bootscrapers, hooks to hold back window shutters, lamps… Examine the knockers on fine Georgian buildings and you’ll see a clue to the house’s past. In Spitalfields in East London, many door-knockers are in the form of a hand with lace around the wrist, telling of the Huguenot silk-weavers who brought their craft to the area. Some houses by the side of the Thames in West London are built in a similar style but have door-knockers with a more maritime or fishy theme.

The Victorians liked to give an indication of what was inside a building using the decoration on the outside. The Natural History Museum is a great example of this with hundreds of relief carvings of plants and animals, representing biological diversity.

As you walk along the High Street look up. Looking above the shop fronts you can ignore the monotonous brands and homogenised shops and appreciate the finer architecture which is often ignored. Look out for clues to former uses for the building, such as old signs and inscriptions. Even the lettering on signs gives clues to the history and usage of diffferent buildings. There’s a great self-guided walk to download developed by a graphic design lecturer at St. Martin's.

Trade signs are now fairly rare but you can still spot the odd red and white pole signifying a barber’s shop, the three brass balls for a pawnbrokers, or in Spitalfields the bobbins of the silk-weavers. Look out for quirky details too such as strange numbering. Apsley House has a wonderful address – No 1 London. A house at Strand on the Green near Chiswick is number Nought, while another near Brick Lane is eleven and a half…

Street names sometimes betray long forgotten histories. They can bring back past events such as battles (Waterloo Station & Trafalgar Square); or recall trades (Baker St, Tanner Row) or relate to forgotten local features (Wood Lane, Castle Road).

Old notice-boards sometimes remain such as the “rules” at Covent Garden Market explaining what behaviour was expected of market traders.

The smallest details often tell a story of their own. Lamp posts show changing fashions and tastes and pillar boxes show royal monograms. At the Royal Chelsea Hospital the postbox is probably unique – it’s almost built into the railings around the former Hospital and is two-way, with a slit on the inside for the Chelsea Pensioners to use and another on the roadside for passers by to use.

The size, form and details on doorways give an indication of the age of the building and social status of its early residents – often showing how much a neighbourhood has changed over the years. Roofs, chimney stacks, brick sizes and window styles are further clues and just some of the details which make each area distinctive.

Statues and even grave stones usually bear closer inspection – do you know why the statue you pass every day on your way to work is there? What’s the story? Have you looked at all the details? Underneath the statue of Richard I the Lionheart in Old Palace Yard, there is a bas-relief telling a story from the Crusades and hiding below the throne is a cat…

There are some great stories on the headstones in London's cemetries such as Kensal Rise and Manor Park. At All Saints Church in Fulham, there’s a headstone full of rapt admiration for “a tender friend, a kind indulgent wife” by “the spoiled being she’s left behind”. When it was turn for the husband to die, the inscription was somewhat simpler – “He’s gone too”.

Take a closer look at London’s bridges – each one is very different from the other. Look over the side at Vauxhall Bridge on the upriver side and you might spot a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral...

Where-ever you go, keep your eyes open and look above and beyond the familiar street-scapes - London is full of curiosities and that's not just the people...