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10 March 2015

London Relics I ● by Jess

In the 16th century, nearly all wealthy Londoners had a little box of secrets. They called them cabinets of curiosity, and inside were collections of the weird, beautiful and mysterious. A cabinet might contain the calcified hand of a hero turned to stone... or the jewelled hilt of Excalibur... or better still, the pious writings of a saint. These were treasures from the past and were considered incredibly valuable.

Today I'm going to let you take a peek at my own cabinet of curiosity. Though it consists of photographs instead of actual objects, they are no less magical or historic. These are relics of London-- forgotten little secrets that I've found in my research of the city. They are things you'd walk by daily, but have no idea they even exist. Shall we begin?

1) The Hunchback &  The Monkey | Chiltern St & Porter St

In Marylebone, near Baker Street tube station, there is a beautiful little corner of red bricked Victorian flats called the Portman Mansions. They were built between 1890-1900 by an architect named Henry Saxon Snell.

The curious thing about these flats is that, if you look closely among the gargoyles, you can see a hunchback and a monkey staring down at you from opposite sides of the street. If you look at the original architectural plans by Snell, you'll see that these statues were never part of the building. The pair somehow magically appeared one night in the summer of 1935.

2) The Lamp Post with a Russian Secret | 2 Audley Square

Even relatively innocuous lamp posts have stories to tell. In Mayfair, one lamp post in particular (pictured to the right in both images) held many covert Cold War tales. The 1950s and 60s, Russian spies used this lamp post both to drop messages in the small trapdoor (pictured in first image) and to signal dead letter drops (DLB) at the Brompton Oratory via a small light blue chalk mark at the base of the post.

Coincidentally, #3 Audley Square (pictured above as the building with the pink-ish arch over the doorway) was where the producers of James Bond's Dr No had their offices while casting for the film.

3) Oldest Statue in London | 186 Fleet Street 

The oldest outdoor statue in London has seen its fair share of sorrow. Made in 1586, this figure of Queen Elizabeth the I was crafted while she was still living. It started out on the west side of the Lud-Gate (which was a part of the Roman city wall), then put there again when Ludgate was remade in 1670 after the Great Fire. After this she made her way to a myriad of monuments that were built and torn down before eventually being lost and forgotten in a pub basement. 

It was only when the pub too was about to be demolished that she was rediscovered and placed at the St. Dunstan-in-the-West church in the 1830s. Money from the will of Millicent Fawcett now insures its upkeep.

4) Secret Garden in the City | St. Dunstan-in-the-East

This sister church of the one where the Queen Elizabeth I statue rests, has a peculiar history. Originally built in 1100, it has had to be rebuilt repeatedly. Eventually, when when it was destroyed in the Blitz of 1941, Londoners decided St. Dunstans had had it's run and made the ruins into a public garden. 

It is a little treasure in the City and is almost entirely surrounded by tall buildings. If you didn't know where you were going, you'd never find it, but it is a glorious little oasis in the middle of all the glass and steel. The images above are from a shoot I did a couple of years ago. If you'd like to see more, you can check those images on my photography site.

4) The London Stone | 111 Cannon Street

When I went to photograph this one, an elderly couple saw me and stopped to read the plaque (which was admittedly a little frustrating when your trying to take photos). After reading the brass inscription which basically says 'here's a rock, which was once part of a bigger rock' they looked at me with total confusion. What was this thing that's rammed into the side of a WH Smith? And why was this girl stopping traffic to take photos of it?

This relic is perhaps the most special of all. In the most mundane of terms, this stone has been the symbol of the City (in 1450, Jack Cade struck the stone with his sword during an rebellion against Henry VI and declared himself "Lord of the City). But in grander terms, it could actually be its saviour.

No one knows when or where this stone came from, so legends and myths abound. Some say that it was the stone that King Arthur drew his sword from, others have suggested it is an index stone from a druidic monument. Regardless of its origin, the general belief in the stone as London's "Palladium," or protective talisman has lasted centuries. 

Anyway, a couple of years ago a company called Minerva tried to move the stone to its office building and there was a mad craze by the Victorian Society to protect it. Apparently, they were successful because it's still in the same place today!

So ,while the stone goes on protecting London, I'll go on collecting its little secrets. 

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