London is packed with easily overlooked historical sites in hidden corners or seemingly ordinary locations. We pick our favourite places with a story to tell.
Lombard Street, amid the hullabaloo of the City, is one of the few places in London where 17th- and 18th-century-style shop signs survive in all their gilt glory, jutting from buildings on wrought-iron brackets, creaking and groaning in the wind. Walking west from Birchin Lane to St Mary Woolnoth’s, you can see the sign of the king’s head, “cat-a-fiddling”, golden grasshopper (originally the emblem of the Gresham family, who built the Royal Exchange), and golden anchor. They are Edwardian reconstructions of earlier (mainly goldsmiths’) signs, reappropriated by early 20th-century banks, though the signs of the black eagle and the black horse, which became the logos for Barclays and Lloyd’s, have vanished. Lateral thinking was needed to decipher old signs: Adam and Eve meant a fruiterer; a bugle’s horn, a post office; a unicorn, an apothecary’s; a spotted cat, a perfumer’s (since civet, a fashionable musky perfume, was scraped from the anal glands of African civet cats). Some signs breathed – there were cats in baskets, rats and parrots in cages, vultures tethered to wine shacks, and so on, often with bells around their necks. When these “live signs” expired, they were sometimes stuffed to ensure brand continuity.
Unlikely among the office blocks and old warehouses of Clerkenwell, this bare, battlemented gate tower was built in 1504 as the entrance to the priory of St John (the charitable Order still exists today as St John Ambulance) when Clerkenwell was but a village in the fields. Long after the monastery had been dissolved and Clerkenwell swallowed by the growing metropolis, the east tower was home to Hogarth’s coffeehouse, opened by Richard, father of the famous artist, in 1703. The Hogarth family lived in the gate tower and we can imagine the child William at a window, gathering inspiration for his later engravings. His father was a quixotic Latin nut, who dreamed of publishing a Latin dictionary. There was only one rule in his coffeehouse: everyone had to speak, or at least learn to speak, in Latin. It was short-lived. The Hogarth family soon found themselves living within the “liberties” of another fortress-like structure: the Fleet Prison, where Richard was incarcerated for debt, while today the gate tower is occupied by an unexpectedly absorbing Order of St John museum.
This lively gastropub stands between uber-gentrified Broadway Market and London Fields, once common grazing ground and a haunt of cut-throats and robbers, now more of a barbecue beach for mankle-flashing hipsters. In the 18th century, the Shoulder of Mutton and Cat was a watering hole for drovers en route to the meat markets and thrill-seekers from the City. And what thrills lay in store – each week, a pig was seized from the fields and brought to the pub, where it had its tail lathered in soap. The drinkers would then spill out and chase the pig, screaming and shouting, and pulling each other down. Their aim was to grab the pig by the tail, swing it round their heads, and hurl it into the fields. The prize: a gold-laced hat, elevated on a pole. Happily, the Cat & Mutton no longer sponsors pig swinging but, if it did, there’s a chance the poor creature’s snout would come crashing down onto a platter of organic olives or Brie de Meaux, sure to raise the eyebrows of the “bruschetta society” at the farmers’ market each Saturday. The Cat & Mutton pub, 76 Broadway Market, E8
On Tottenham Court Road, opposite Heal’s department store, is a solitary Caffè Nero. It sits, forlorn, in a moat of open space, like a lone domino. The concrete space around the café, in front of the mural, is a favourite spot for people to eat their lunch or feed pigeons, perhaps oblivious to the area’s tragic history. On Palm Sunday 1945, much of this area was decimated by a V2 rocket blast – the last, in fact, to rock central London. It destroyed Whitefield’s Tabernacle (since rebuilt on a smaller scale and today housing the American International Church), killing at least nine and damaging the surrounding buildings, many of which were never redeveloped. In the final stages of the second world war, just over 500 V2 rockets swooped down upon London, disembowelling entire streets without warning, sending mountainous halos of jet-black smoke swirling into the sky, and leaving parts of the city looking like the surface of the moon. They killed approximately 2,700 people. Today, the only signs of death are the seven non-flowering trees to the right of the café.