London Surprises

A few of the surprises – people, places, events – that London is always able to spring. This is what makes the city so exciting.

Grimaldi Service, Dalston

This is a church service for clowns, which is usually attended by about sixty of them. It happens once a year at Holy Trinity Church, Dalston. They come in their suits of many colours, enormous bow ties, Pierrot collars, stripy socks, green-and-yellow curly wigs, jesters’ caps, painted faces and false noses, carrying feather dusters and trick flowers. Their full performing rig, as if they were about to go on stage. The service pays tribute to Joseph Grimaldi, the father of modern clowning, who died in 1837 and remembers today’s clowns who’ve died over the last year.  

Cavalry Black Pairs Shoeing Competition, Knightsbridge Barracks, Hyde Park

Every year, some of the best farriers in the Army come to Knightsbridge Barracks for this competition. Each team has two men in it. Their task is to take some straight strips of cold metal, make them into two horse-shoes of a specified design in the forge there and fit them to the feet of the waiting horses. The key point, however, is that they have only one hour to do all that. It requires a furious bout of activity in the heat of the blacksmith’s shop, where three furnaces are roaring away the whole time.

Cross Bones Prostitutes’ Burial Ground, Borough

This area of Southwark was called the Liberty of the Clink. Many nefarious activities which were forbidden in the City were allowed here and regulated by the lord of the manor, the Bishop of Winchester. One such activity was prostitution. But when the prostitutes died, the church wanted nothing more to do with them. They weren’t even allowed a Christian burial. Instead, their graveyard was an unconsecrated plot of land, which was given the name “the Single Women’s Churchyard”. This is what’s commemorated today by these trinkets on the rusty iron gate.

Beating the Bounds, the City

All Hallows by the Tower Church, which is the oldest church in the City and four hundred years older than its neighbour, the Tower of London, still follows the ancient tradition of beating its boundaries each Ascension Day. They start in the middle of the Thames, which is one of their boundaries, and beat the water with sticks. And then a large party goes round all the rest of the boundaries on foot, beating marker stones occasionally as they go.

Broadgate Bowlout, the City

One day in April 2012, a cricket net was set up in the middle of the office blocks at Broadgate. Anyone could pay a small sum and have a bowl.  The money went to the Benevolent Fund for Professional Cricketers. They were bowling at Essex All-rounder Graham Napier, who was just beginning his benefit season with the County side. Graham is famous for his “see ball, hit ball” approach to batting. He once scored 152 not out off 58 balls against Sussex. Only a handful of people managed to bowl Graham out during the whole afternoon.

Chess in Brick Lane

Brick Lane at lunchtime on Sunday is a bustling, noisy place, especially if it’s a fine day. In the middle of all the clamour, on the day when Richard took this picture, there were five men sitting in complete silence staring down at the chess boards in front of them. One of them – he’s the one in the umbrella hat – was taking on all the other four at the same time, moving up and down along the boards. As far as Richard could judge by the faces of his opponents, he was on his way to beating all four.

Peter Pan Cup, Christmas Day, the Serpentine

This photograph was taken at 9.00 am on Christmas Day. The Serpentine Swimming Club reckons that wetsuits are not within the spirit of all-year-round, open-air swimming and so they’re not allowed for races. These people were competing for the Peter Pan Cup. This is a 100 yards handicapped race and it’s taken place every Christmas morning since 1864.

Temporary beach, Roundhouse, Chalk Farm

For the last couple of summers, there’s been a beach on the terrace at the Roundhouse. They import tonnes of nice fine sand and set up deckchairs. For people who don’t want to get too sunburned, they provide umbrellas round the edge of the beach. To help you feel as though you’re on a real beach, there’s a barbecue hut and a margarita shack.

Chelsea Physic Garden

This garden started life in 1673 as the Apothecaries’ Garden and its main purpose was to train apprentices in that line of business to identify the plants that they used. The site of the garden was chosen with some care because, in this spot down near the Thames, there was a particular microclimate, which was warmer than the rest of the country. The garden’s origins are reflected in its collections today, which focus on medicinal, pharmaceutical and edible plants.

Brixton Windmill

When it was built in the early 19th century, Brixton Windmill was in the middle of the countryside. By the 1850s, it was surrounded by houses, which deprived it of the wind that it needed. It was closed and the sails were taken away. In 1902, first a steam and then a gas engine were installed to drive the millstones. But by 1934 the demand for wholemeal flour was so poor that the mill closed again. It was nearly knocked down several times but it survived and was restored to its present state, complete with sails again.

Greenwich from Island Gardens

There is a peaceful little public park right across the river from Greenwich. It has a wonderful view of the Royal Naval College and the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill. It’s easy to get to as well. Just hop on the DLR at Cutty Sark and go one stop north to Island Gardens. Although Canaletto himself probably didn’t ever come here, people think it very likely that this is the view on which his famous painting 'Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames' was based.

Little Venice

Local residents like to imagine that the area’s canals make it a dead ringer for Venice. In winter snow, though, the scene looks more Dutch. A stroll down the canal might feel much like being in Amsterdam. 

© Richard Slater