London is celebrated for many things. And rightly so; it’s up there with the most progressive, creative and historic cities in the world. But here at Rough Guides the thing we love most about London is its marvellous eccentricities.
While editing the latest Rough Guide to London, Greg Dickinson took note of some of the barmiest goings-ons in the city.
From the overstuffed Horniman walrus, to a lamp fuelled by Savoy sewers, to a hipster clown funeral in Dalston, these are a few of his highlights.
This philosopher didn’t want to miss meetings after he died
One of the founders of UCL (University College London), philosopher Jeremy Bentham bequeathed his fully clothed skeleton so that he could be posthumously present at board meetings of the University College Hospital governors, where he was duly recorded as “present, but not voting”.
Bentham’s Auto-Icon, topped by a wax head and wide-brimmed hat, is in “thinking and writing” pose as the philosopher requested, and can be seen in a hermetically sealed mahogany booth.
You can attend a clown’s funeral in Dalston…
Iconic nineteenth-century clown Joseph Grimaldi’s annual remembrance service, held at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, has become a cult event among hipsters and circus performers alike.
… and if you jump over his grave, a song will play
His actual grave is set back behind respectful railings at Joseph Grimaldi Park, just off Pentonville Road, but a modern memorial nearby allows a more irreverent homage. Two bronze casket shapes set into the ground, one dedicated to Grimaldi and the other Charles Dibdin, who employed him at Sadler’s Wells, lie side by side.
Against all instincts, just take the leap and dance on Grimaldi’s “grave” – the pressure of your footsteps sets off his trademark tune Hot Codlins. Less Rest in Peace than Rest in Play, it’s a fitting, and poignant, celebration of one of the world’s wisest fools.
This 90s American artist created his own Victorian home
Just to the north of Old Spitalfields Market, you can visit one of the area’s characteristic eighteenth-century terraced houses at 18 Folgate St, where the eccentric American artist Dennis Severs lived until 1999.
Eschewing all modern conveniences, Severs lived under candlelight, decorating his house as it would have been two hundred years ago. The public were invited to share in the experience, which he described as like “passing through a frame into a painting”.
Today, visitors are free to explore the candle-lit rooms, with the conceit that the resident Huguenot family has literally just popped out: during these “Silent Night” explorations, you’ll experience the smell of food, lots of clutter and the sound of horses’ hooves on the cobbled street outside.
Brad Pitt takes on a whole new meaning in Cockney
Cockney rhyming slang is London’s very own eccentric coded language, where a word is replaced by two or more words, the last one of which rhymes with the original. For example, instead of the word “stairs” you have “apples and pears”; a piano (pronounced “pianner”) is a “Joanna”; and pinch becomes “half-inch”.
Rhyming slang is constantly evolving, too, with public figures providing rich pickings: Brad Pitt (shit), Posh & Becks (specs) and Gordon Brown (clown).
There’s a massive, overstuffed walrus at the Horniman Museum…
Pride of place in the Horniman’s gallery of curiosities goes to the splendid overstuffed Horniman Walrus (who even has his own Twitter account). The taxidermist didn’t know he was supposed to have wrinkles, so stuffed him to capacity.
There are dinosaurs that look nothing like dinosaurs in Crystal Palace
Competing with the Horniman Walrus for best-loved Victorian curiosity in south London, the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace may look like extras from a 1970s sci-fi film, but they have an illustrious place in the history of the public understanding of paleontology.
Created by animal sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854, he consulted the experts of the day, in particular Richard Owen who had coined the term “dinosaur” in 1842. Though most are wildly inaccurate according to our current understanding of dinosaur anatomy, at the time it was an ambitious project to show to the public the latest scientific discoveries.
Only… when Hawkins didn’t know how they looked – or if the scientists disagreed – he had to be a little “creative”.
There’s a place where you can stand on a box and be heard
For over 150 years, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park has been one of London’s most popular spots for political demos. In 1872 the government licensed free assembly at Speakers’ Corner, a peculiarly English Sunday-morning tradition that continues to this day, featuring a motley assortment of ranters and hecklers.
This family at Eltham Palace adored their pet lemur so much…
… that they gave him its own bedroom.
The ring-tailed lemur, called Mah-Jongg and alive during the 1920s and 1930s, was also notorious for biting disliked male visitors. Such was his owners’ devotion to him that Mah-Jongg crops up in numerous artworks displayed in Eltham Palace, such as the mural by Mary Adshead in the billiard room in the basement, which is set out as it would have been during the Blitz, when the family, staff and visitors sheltered there.
There’s a ‘wind-powered’ lamp near the Savoy
Don’t miss London’s last remaining Patent Sewer Ventilating Lamp, halfway down Carting Lane and historically powered by methane collected in a U-bend in the sewers below. The original lamp, erected in the 1880s, was replaced by this replica after being damaged in a traffic accident.
And some trivia for you Rough Guides fans out there – the building behind the lamp at 136 Tooley Street is Rough Guides HQ!