London above street level
At ground level, the capital can be a mass of identikit shops and drab office fronts. But let your gaze drift up and you‘ll find amazing art, forgotten architecture, intriguing signs – and a drainpipe shaped like a spinal column
It pays to keep your eyes peeled in London. For blindsiding cyclists, charity muggers and psycopathic squirrels certainly, but also for fingerprints of London’s past: frescoes, statues, friezes, plaques, embellishments, old signs, new signs, artwork and other architectural bric-à-brac, things that indicate what our city did before we were born. Some buildings wear their previous usage boldly (the former stained-glass window manufacturer on Endell Street, for instance) while others refer to it only obliquely – the beavers on the roof of 105 Oxford Street signify it was once a hat factory; if you go to the rear of the building on Hollen Street, you’ll see this spelled out in magnificent and indelible stone.
In fact, Oxford Street is a good place to start. If you walk the length of this scabby avenue and raise your eyes above the identikit store fronts, you’ll see treats aplenty: pub signs, art deco music halls, camp Nazis (above Swatch, since you ask), huge clocks, modern sculptures and more. Not all of these are defunct signifiers – the clock above Selfridges is as pointlessly brilliant now as it was when it was installed a century ago.
Even Kingsway, London’s dullest thoroughfare, has secrets to reveal to the upper-deck bus rider: an abandoned church, an impressive statue of John Bunyan, the remarkable decoration of Africa House – glories that will outlast the monotony of the Subways and Costcutters beneath. A trip to the City is a constant source of discovery – here are money, style, power and the determination to be remembered, attributes that manifest themselves in a cornucopia of impeccable detail. The numerous livery companies boast some of the most quietly spectacular frontages you are ever likely to see. Along Southwark Street you’ll find a mysterious ‘Testing and Experimenting Works’; on Battersea Rise is a former Temperance Billiard Hall, now converted to a pub. And in Camden and Covent Garden are modern marvels, shop signs and pieces of art that might be missed if you kept your gaze at pavement level.
Most of London’s formal plinthed statues are of great men, leaders and pioneers, but these signs and markers are more personal, showing the real workings of the city, the factories and the businesses, and the real heroes, the ones who made it tick. So keep your eyes open next time you’re taking your lunch break. You never know what you might see.
Spotted your own marvels above street level? Take a photograph of them and email the images to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish the best and send a Time Out guide to every successful snapper. Photographs need to be 300dpi, 60mm wide and at least 1Mb
- Add your comment to this feature