Look Down London – The 9 Best Finds Under Your Feet
I’ve spent a long time encouraging people to look up in London, but sometimes it’s worth looking down. In this post I’m sharing the snippets of London’s art and history that’s hiding under your feet!
1. Spitalfields Roundels
Across Spitalfields you can spot subtle bronze roundels embedded in the pavement.
They’re dotted around historic sites in E1, celebrating the history related to their location. So you’ll see apples and pears by Spitalfields Market…
Beer tankards (left) outside the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane and a violin on Princelet Street remembering a 19th century Jewish theatre on that site.
An area famous for its immigrant population, there’s scissors and buttons for the French Huguenot community and a henna-covered hand for the more recent Bengalis.
Below, two children in a book surrounded by pencils stand outside a primary school on Brick Lane while the world map hammers home E1’s multicultural history.
So far I’ve spotted 10 in total, but the original commission from Bethnal Green City Challenge (1995) was for 25. The artist is Keith Bowler, who lives in nearby Wilkes Street, confessed that two were mistakenly placed in City of London territory so had to be removed.
As for the other missing ones, they’ve probably been either covered by workmen or stolen by thieves. In 2010 Bowler told The Gentle Author that he had errant roundels that had wound their way back to him stacked up in his hallway, ready to be installed again.
2. V&A’s Opus Criminale
Not all history is found on the streets of London and in huge institutions the floors often tell a story.
In the V&A take a look at the monochromatic mosaic floor. Not only is it a beautiful piece of craftmanship, but it has the added interest of being created by the ‘Lady criminals’ of Woking Prison in 1869 and the staff refer to it as it ‘Opus Criminale’.
The National Gallery also has some lovely (and somewhat bizarre) mosaic flooring dating from 1933. More info on their website here.
3. Chewing Gum Art
It’s not always old things you should look out for either. Next time you cross Millennium Bridge, be sure to look down.
These miniature masterpieces are the work of Street Artist Ben Wilson, aka Chewing Gum Man.
Using layers of acrylic paint finished with a blow torch, the bits of discarded gum become shining jewels! Find out more and see more pictures in my dedicated blog post here.
4. A Hidden Street
This one really blew my mind.
Seek out this non-descript traffic island on Charing Cross Road (it’s a busy street so be careful!) and look down.
There’s a secret underground street waiting to be discovered!
Little Compton Street was wiped out in 1896 with the construction of Charing Cross Road, now forming part of the Cambridge Circus utility tunnels.
It’s not clear whether these signs were left by chance, restored by a helpful enthusiast or simply left there for way-finding, but in any case it’s a favourite London surprise of mine!
5. Good Ol’ Coal Holes
Of all the features that made this list, the most prolific are coal holes.
Mostly found in surviving 18th and 19th century neighbourhoods, the clue is in the name; they cover a chute where coal would’ve been dropped into cellars.
There’s a whole host of cost iron cover designs across London (and the rest of the UK) from when coal was the main fuel source and if you’re really committed there’s even a dedicated blog all about them here.
6. Newly Revealed Ruins
Another subterranean surprise in Spitalfields comes in an unexpected place; underneath the modern development of Bishops Square (completed in 2005).
In a sunken courtyard under a glass floor you can see the ruins of St Mary Spital (spital being a shortening of hospital) which was founded in 1197.
Since the 1990s all archeological remains have been protected under British planning systems and sometimes buildings’ designs have to be adapted to incorporate a display of the ruins. Another example can bee seen off Fleet Street;
It’s the old priory of the Whitefriars, a Christian sect who wore white while the Blackfriars preferred black. Originally from Carmel (modern day Israel) there’s evidence of them settling here from 1253 but the priory ruins date from later, around the 14th century.
You can find out more secrets of Fleet Street on my walking tour of the area. See upcoming dates and book via eventbrite here:
Or if it’s Spitalfields that tickles your fancy, see what dates are coming up here:
7. Marble Arch’s Secret
Plaques are a great way of uncovering history in London, but they’re not always found on interesting-looking buildings.
Sometimes they’re embedded on the floor, In the middle of a busy traffic junction.
Next time you’re at Marble Arch, seek out this bit of gruesome history. The roundel marks the spot where London’s gallows stood from c.1108 – 1798 where public executions took place in front of crowds of up to 200,000!
Its history is full of martyrs, criminals and hangings – with some nuns thrown in too! Read all about it in my blog post here.
8. London’s Colosseum
The historical clues under your feet are sometimes a little bit sneaky. A good example of this can be found in the yard of the City of London’s Guildhall.
Ignore the fabulous hall for a minute and instead focus on the floor, particularly the black curved line.
It marks the outer edge of the Roman amphitheatre that stood here around 70AD, capable of holding 7,000 roaring spectators who witnessed gladiator fights and public executions.
Today you can visit the ruins of the amphitheatre in the Guildhall Art Gallery which is open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12pm-4pm. Find out more here.
Related Post : 9 Historic Things To Look Out For In London
9. Historical Shops
If you ever fancy a bit of food in Greenwich and wander into Bill’s Kitchen, make sure you look down as you enter.
The tiles are from the previous life of this building when it was a Burton’s Menswear Shop in the 1930s.
Burton – still seen on the high street today – was founded in 1900 by a Lithuanian immigrant Montague Burton. He build up an impressive empire and when he died in 1952 there were 616 Burton stores across the UK.
There’s a few still dotted around, including this mosaic near Chrisp Street, Poplar.
My favourite part of the Burton story though has a whiff of the urban myth about it. But I’ll share it anyway…
Montague Burton was a supplier of demob suits to the British government (civilian clothing provided for servicemen who were demobilised after WWII). This comprised of a jacket, trousers, a waistcoat, shirt and underwear, so it’s speculated that this is the origin of the phrase “The Full Monty”!
Have you spotted any other hidden gems under your feet? Share some of your favourites in the comments!
More London Inspiration
The oldest democracy in the world, based in a building with parts from the 11th century. If only those walls could talk. Thankfully, with the help of a Parliament guide they sort of do. Here's 10 things I learned from a guided tour of Parliament....
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....
Concerned by Hanging Sword Alley in EC4? Intrigued by Knightrider Street? Or tempted by Wardrobe Place? There are the best street names in the city and they each have a story to tell....
There's 47 churches within London's square mile. Each with their own history and often some special quirk up their sleeve. From ancient relics to pop-up gardens and cutting edge sculpture to 17th century shoes, there's plenty of surprises to be found......
Londoners are very proud of their 150+ year old subterranean network. Sure, we can complain about it, but we love it really. The main reason I love the tube is the little quirks you find at every new station....