London is stranger than fiction. Much of its charm comes from true British eccentricity
CITY OF CHARACTER: If great age tends to bring eccentricity with it, then London is almost by definition an eccentric city with some weird people. The ancient rules and systems have survived the centuries to baffle historians create numerous bizarre anomalies. Eccentric London can also be attributed to our love of the old ways; dusty traditions, archaic rituals and ceremonies which continues to be practised despite, on the face of it, no longer being necessary.
The historic layers of London stretch so far back – to Roman times and beyond – that the past can seem almost touchable. Whatever your interest – architecture, history or people – you will find much to enjoy in this guide to peculiarities of what is one of the worlds´s most endearingly eccentric cities. For the tourist, London is a thrilling place with a wealth of places to visit.
Soho and Westminster
Soho has always been a place of pleasure and scandal while, just a short distance away, Westminster looks along the river Thames with a solemn. Self-important air that speaks of government and the grand state occasion. The journey between these two very different places may be a short one – yet it takes us on an odyssey through the old and the quirky, the mad and the bad. The journey from Soho to Westminster is an expedition into the eccentric lanes.
Weird Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea is an English institution and London offers a range of high profiled places. But here are some alternatives that are a bit more interesting than the regular cucumber sandwiches and Victoria sponge. Some for a quirky date or a day out with friends.
The Ampersand Hotel is inspired by nearby Science Museum and serves a mix of exciting and curious dishes, from jams served in petri dishes, to chocolate spacemen and dinosaur biscuits. Ampersand won Best Themed Afternoon Tea at the Afternoon Tea Awards 2018.
Sherlock Holmes Afternoon Tea served at Tac 51. Fans of Britain’s famous detective will also appreciate the cigar made with smoked caramel mousse and a stout beer cupcake topped with ‘Watson’s moustache’.
A kinkier option; High tea and tease served with a big side of seductive burlesque and cabaret. Work your way while magicians, a show girl, and a honky-tonky piano player dazzle you – served in West End. When there are Oompa Loompa cupcakes to be eaten, who needs scones!
Walk Eccentric London
London is stranger than fiction and here is the proof and a collector´s piece of a walk. Eccentric London is organized by the guide-company Walks and said to be a little something for the connoisseur. A walk loaded with unexpected delights, odd places and passing strange things and people. You´ll crack the mystery of the Trafalgar Square lions, learn how an acrobat risked everything at St Martin´s in the Fields, and if the spinning dome on the top of the Coliseum actually spins. This is a morning walk, and the meeting point is just outside the river exit of Embankment Tube.
Weirs people in Oxford Street
When Stanley Green died in 1992, he had spent 30 years of his life parading Oxford Street with a placard warning against the danger of eating protein. “If we eat less protein, the world will be a happier place”, he would say to anyone who would listen. He explained why lustful feelings were induced by fish, birds, meat, cheese, egg, peas, beans, nuts and sitting. Before starting his one-man campaign against lust in the mid 1960s, Green had worked in the Civil Service.
Green produced his leaflets on a small press in his tiny flat in north-west London. The cycled each day to Oxford Street to present his motto: “Protein makes passion”. He was occasionally spat at, but rarely upset by abuse. People only attached him because they thought they thought he was a religious person. Loved by some, loathed by others, Stanley Green spent decades campaigning against the consumption of peanuts, peas and beans. Green was known as the Protein Man, a human billboard. A writer called him “The most famous non-famous person in London”.
Famous Corner Shop
Fortnum and Mason is one of London´s last truly old-fashioned stores. They still insist that the staff in its wine department wear frock coats. The man in charge of the bakery, for example, is known as the Groom of the Pastry. Fortum and Mason Hamper is as famous as the shop’s royal connection.
Fortnum & Mason was founded in Duke Street, London in 1707 by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. And while the iconic brand is internationally renowned for its stunning selection of teas, food and china, we bet there are some secrets of the store that you don’t know about.
Fortnum and Mason´s old shop was rebuilt in the 1920s and in 1964 the famous clock was added to the front of the Piccadilly building. The two men represent the store´s founders and appear once an hour. The clock weights three tonnes, and each of the men is 4ft high.
Address: Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER.
Call it Big Ben!
Elizabeth Tower, commonly called Big Ben, is one of London´s oldest buildings and the tallest clock tower in England. The Houses of Parliament’s iconic clock tower is London’s most famous landmarks. It stands at more than 97 meters tall, with 399 steps to climb up to the very top of the tower.
There are two theories surrounding the origins of the name Big Ben. One is related to the fighter Ben Caunt who went 60 rounds with the best boxer in the country. The fight was declared a draw, but it made national heroes of both men. The other story, however, attributes the name to Benjamin Hall, who was addressing the House on the name for the new bell tower. To great laughter, someone shouted “Call it Big Ben!”
In the rare event that the clock gets slightly out of time, a tiny coin is placed on the huge pendulum, as the weight of the coin is enough to adjust the clock by a fraction of a second.
A Fleet Street Giant
Caesar James Crespi became a brilliant advocate and he was a remarkable eccentric by any standard. Crespi claimed that he saved his most expressive speeches for the Fleet Street wine bar El Vinos. Vast in size and with impressive intellectual muscle, his imposing presence was said to be recognised by most cab-drivers. When he moved from Kensington to Marylebone, it took weeks for him to remember his new address, but he only had to hail a taxi and say “Take me home, my good fellow”, and the driver would know where to go. He was one of the last robust English eccentrics.
An IRA bomb outside the Old Bailey in 1972 knocked him over and would have killed him had he not been so fat. The surgeons told him that pieces of the bomb were still inside him, but that it would require a major archaeological expedition to find them and they were better left alone. “The doctors say I will die because of my fat. Now the doctors say I have only been saved because of my fat.”
Crespi married a woman he met in a nightclub. He described the marriage as “obviously a case of mistaken identity” and it lasted for less than a week.
Weird Queen of Snuff
When she made her will in the early part of the 19th century. Mrs Margaret Thomson, who lived just off Strand, stipulated that her coffin be filled with all the snuff handkerchiefs that were unwashed at the time of her death. She also wanted to be surrounded with snuff in her coffin. Six of the greatest snuff-takers in the parish were requested to be her pall-bearers, each to wear a snuff-coloured hat. Six girls were instructed to walk behind the hearse, each with a box of snuff for their refreshment.
Mrs Thomson left money and snuff for the priest and her servants walked in front of the funeral procession throwing snuff onto the crowd of onlookers. Throughout the long day of the funeral, snuff was given to all those attending.
The Eccentric Fisherman
If you know where to look, London is rich in quirky survivals and historic oddities, and long time ago at least one eccentric fisherman. The Serpentine Lake in London´s Hyde Park offered urban youngsters the change to fish. One adult had permit too, one extraordinary man in his sixties, very tall and very thin.
This man always fished using the longest rod anyone had ever seen, and he always fished from the same park bench and always on Saturdays. As long as anyone could remember, he had never missed a Saturday in any season.
New youngsters to the lake near Knightsbridge corner would secretly laugh at the thin man – until they realised he was good at fishing. In fact, for the boys who fished here regularly, the thin man was something of a hero.
His technique was unusual and he never showed the least sign of excitement when he hooked a fish that had every other gazing at him open-mouthed. The fisherman might easily catch 40 or 50, and almost always bigger than anyone else´s.
Perhaps the oddest thing of all about the tall, thin fisherman was that throughout the 30 years he fished in the Serpentine he noted down the length and weight of every single fish – in 60 leather-bound notebooks. Why the fisherman did all this, no one knew. Some said he was a disappointed Oxford academic who had turned to fishing as a relief. Others said that he was probably a spy. No one ever found out. Then, on the first day of the season one year, he failed to turn up and was never heard of or seen again.
The Oxo Tower
Tall houses would have provided excellent sites for advertisements but the authorities were horrified at the prospect. As a result, advertising is banned on the sides on buildings. Few advertisers, though, were determined to get around the ban, and in at least one strange instance they got away with it.
Near Blackfriars Bridge, a tower was built above a warehouse and is now home to the fashionable Oxo restaurant which offers magnificent view along the river.
At the top of the tower and visible from miles away there is an advertisement for the famous Oxo beef cube. It escaped the ban on advertisement on buildings by incorporating the letters OXO. The giant letters are three vast windows filled with red glass.
Old Pub – Wacky past
Dirty Dicks in Bishopsgate was once owned by a broken-hearted eccentric who rarely washed and let the place go to ruin. Strangely, he made a fortune in the process.
The original Dirty Dick pub was owned by Richard Bentley, one of London´s most extraordinary and eccentric characters. A businessman who had been quite a dandy in his youth and decided to get married. All was prepared. The pub´s dining rooms were decorated with beautiful flowers, cutlery, linen and a huge cake. But then, on the night before the wedding tragedy struck: The Bride died.
Bentley sealed up the room and never opened it again. He reportedly refused to clean anything, including himself. The house turned out to be so filthy that he became what you could call “celebrity of dirt”. Letters for Bentley would be addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse”. Yet people flocked to the pub to see if it really was as bad as they had been told.
As a result, Bentley made a fortune – a fortune he never spent. He lived for nearly 40 years after being left in the lurch, finally dying in 1809. Dirty Dicks still has a few fake rags here and there to remind us of its definitely wacky past.
Address: Dirty Dicks, 202 Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, London EC2M 4NR
Museum of Childhood
The Bertnal Green Museum of Childhood will re-open in 2022 after a 13-million-pound revamp. The new museum reopens with new spaces that are “less about nostalgia”. It has been fascinating for its collection of toys, games, dolls house, puppets and books.
The new will be a more forward-thinking museum, more emphasis on unlocking the potential of future generations. There will be three new galleries. “Play”, “Imagine” and “Design”.
The museum opened as the Bethnal Green Museum of Science and Arts in 1872, becoming the V&A Museum of Childhood in 1974. When reopen in 2022, it will be the museum´s 150th anniversary year.
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