I Never knew that about London


The London Underground is the oldest in the world, but once it was also bigger in terms of distance than it is now. The district line used to run from Ealing Broadway all the way out to Windsor, but the line was discontinued in 1885 due to lack of passengers. And if the thought of whipping out to the Berkshire countryside to visit the castle by tube is astounding, know this;

You could once jump on a tube at say, Blackfriars and without changing trains, get off in Southend-on-Sea. The service ran from 1910 to 1939, the golden years of the seaside holiday.

Here’s something many Londoners have walked past without thinking about. Next to the Angel pub in the now all-but-destroyed St Giles, at the base of Tottenham Court Road, is a lychgate, a roofed gateway to a churchyard that would once have been used at burials for sheltering the coffin until the clergyman’s arrival.

This one is a rather grubby Palladian stone arch with a depiction of the Last Judgement carved on it. The tableau used to be made of wood, but was replaced with a stone carving in 1800 (you can still see the wooden version in St Giles church behind it).

The Angel pub next door used to be called the Bowl, and was the last stop for condemned prisoners on their way to be hanged at Tyburn (Marble Arch) so they could look upon the Judgement and think about their fate. Or get sloshed. It has partitions, decorative ceilings and several cosy neo-Georgian rooms. We still meet there on bookish occasions.

Finally, here’s something we tend to forget; until WW2 there were still wooden streets in London. Surprisingly, the wood blocks were hard wearing but stank, so up they came and were burned for fuel.

There were different kinds of wood used according to usage and, inevitably, class. The smarter neighbourhoods got creosoted blocks of Jarrah, an Australian hardwood that was pricey but hard-wearing. The poorer neighbourhoods had to make do with yellow deal from Sweden, a soft wood that absorbed horse urine and sprayed it back out whenever a carriage went over them. The roads had been built for horses, not the weight of carriages and cars. There are a few small sections still around if you look carefully, one near Bunhill Row by Old Street.


7 comments on “I Never knew that about London”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    They did the same out here on the edge of empire. It was a much smaller area so they didn’t use different woods and I imagine it was all Douglas fir. The blocks used to come loose a bit and Dad said you could gather them up along the streetcar tracks. They were all creosoted for permanence so they smelled when burned. This would have been during the thirties. My grandfather was a motorman on the streetcars so he had a steady job and they didn’t need to gather that wood.

  2. Crprod says:

    Deal is mentioned in the Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45234/the-emperor-of-ice-cream

  3. Jo W says:

    Ah, the Angel, hope it’s not too long until we can pop in for a livener. Always handy after a browse around FP.

  4. snowy says:

    Where did I put that copy of ‘Bartholomew’s road surface map of London & neighbourhood’?

    Oh, here it is!

    [NB. Link cribbed from: Ian visits!, who has all the details you could possibly need and then some!]

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    So in most cases you can’t see the wood for the street.

    Typical of the Victorians to build on top of stuff whereas today we destroy what is there and build again.


  6. Liz Thompson says:

    There are still streets in Leeds where the original stone setts/cobbles have been simply covered with tarmac. There are still a few places where the originals have never been covered, but it doesn’t half bounce when you drive down them.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Being full of such lovely flammable materials, the wooden road blocks were occasionally set alight, especially in the era of steam traction engines and steam waggons – cinders dropping from fireboxes, etc. That must have been entertaining.

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