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From unusual urban farming to hidden reminders of times gone by, Ellina Webb looks at the weird and wonderful spots in London that highlight how British society has changed over hundreds of years.

From gothic horror cemeteries to grim reminders of medieval torture, early modern punishment and fatbergs, there are hundreds of locations across London that offer an insight into British life from the past, to the future.

The history of London serves as a microcosm for British society and the more you look around, the more you see the reminders and symbols of the past; and it’s far more interesting than first meets the eye.

For example, have you ever walked through Smithfield and noticed the Golden Boy on Pye Corner? This golden chubby cherub marks the spot where the 1666 Great Fire of London was stopped and the significance of his plump appearance is the Sin of Gluttony.

Or have you ever stumbled across Joseph Grimaldi Park and wondered why there are so many clowns there? Mr Grimaldi, ‘the father of modern clowning’ was buried in this Islington public park in 1837 and it has now become a place where many clowns gather to celebrate his life.

But there are other weird and wonderful places in London that, while bizarre, are still relevant to political, social and environmental issues that still plague our great isle, so what are they?

The wonderful agricultural revolution

Located in the city is the ‘world’s first underground farm’ – you can even purchase a ticket and take a tour!

This unique urban farmland is located 33 meters under the streets of Clapham in a World War II air raid shelter. Aptly named Growing Underground, this subterranean farm plays a huge role in our sustainable future and utilises technology such as LEDs and hydroponic systems (that use 70% less water than traditional open-field farming). It is also a pesticide free environment and serves local restaurants and shops in order to “drastically reduce the food miles for retailers and consumers”. Nationwide retailers include Whole Foods, Planet Organic, M&S and Waitrose.

Not only is this a revolutionary and fascinating set up, it also serves as a great example of how to reuse old spaces. Underneath London is huge network of disused and derelict tunnels, including air raid shelters with the potential to become fantastic locations for whatever interesting ideas we think up.

The wonderful solar-powered studio

Opened in 1986 The Premises Studio in Hackney was opened by two local jazz musicians in a Victorian terrace house which supposedly served as a club run by East End gangsters the Kray Brothers. Over the years it expanded out across the street and by 2007 it became the first solar-powered recording studio in the UK.

Its role in promoting a renewable powered future was enhanced by Razorlight choosing to record their 2007 song Friends of the Earth there which was part of the Big Ask campaign designed to lobby the government to introduce a climate change law in the UK. The studio was also part of the effort to establish the 10:10 movement advocating the cut of carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.

Again this studio serves as a great example of how to reuse spaces outside of their intended purpose. It also highlights how businesses and buildings can use their status to help drive change in society, especially when it comes to renewable power and sustainable operation.

The weird clean-up of the streets of London

Maybe not somewhere you’d like to visit on a Saturday afternoon but on the weirder side of the scale sits (or stands) the urine deflections of Fleet Street. These angled bits of metal were installed in the 19th Century to deal with the staggering drunks of the local drink establishments.

The 19th Century was a period of growth in pollution and not only due to the expanding industrial revolution. The River Thames was filled with sewage and the streets weren’t much better. The heaving waste soon took its toll on the buildings (and of course the health of the residents) so the deflectors were installed to drain the waste into the gutter.

Not only unique to Fleet Street, these Victorian ‘systems’ feature throughout the capital alongside more modern systems installed to deal with the still ongoing (but not as bad!) problem.

The wonderful stretch to upcycling

Heading back to the more wonderful side of the scale is the stretcher railings.

Believe it or not, numerous housing estates in London utilise old World War II stretchers as their railings. These very quirky additions are easily missed at first glance but the story behind the fences is completely fascinating

The stretchers used are the emergency stretchers that served the injured during the Blitz. More than 600,000 of these mental mesh stretchers were produced leading up to the start of the war in 1939 and their thought-out design, while uncomfortable, meant they were easy to disinfect.

Nowadays, their usage highlights how post-war Britain was “eager to upcycle or find alternative uses for otherwise obsolete equipment”. The trend in upcycling has spiked again in recent years as we all look to reduce our waste and carbon footprints.

You can see the stretcher railings yourself at locations such as Rockingham Estate located in Southwark.

The weird secret Chimney

A perfect example of a hidden treasure is the chimney on Tower Bridge.

Nestled between the lampposts that line the edge of this famous London landmark is a chimney designed to match the style and colour of the lamps.

The chimney was connected to the old coal fire in the Royal Fusiliers room but following the Clean Air Act of 1956 the chimney become redundant.

It now stands as a subtle symbol of life before the revolutionary Act was passed. Air quality in London is still a huge issue affecting the health of millions of people.

Pre 1956 the London smog was mainly caused by the increased consumption of coal. Post 1956, while the smog is gone and respiratory death rates have reduced, modern causes of air pollution such as car emissions are forcing new laws across the UK, for example the phase out of diesel vehicles by 2025.

Some issues with coal burning are also still prominent in the UK as we look to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable power. More famous reminders of the coal power problem include the Tate Modern/Bankside Power Station and Battersea Power Station which are now great examples of how redundant buildings can be changed to serve our modern society.

Currently there are only 6 coal power stations operating in the UK, producing less than 10% of Britain’s power output.

The wonderful vision of living

Walking through the streets of London, you will definitely observe the mish-mash of architecture scattered throughout the neighbourhoods. The quadrants of London can easily by identify based on the style of houses and how they signify the old changes in wealth from west to east.

Hidden away however, you can often stumble upon something unexpected, a small mews of stables turned into million pound cottages or a brutalist high rise that at first glance seems ugly but on closure inspection signifies a major movement in urban living.

The Isokon Flats for example, in the beautiful neighbourhood of Hampstead is another hidden surprise offering up a glimpse into a different type of housing manifesto. The reinforced concrete block developed between 1929 and 1932 is an experiment in minimalist urban living that utilises the concept of communal kitchens for meal prep and services such as laundry on site.

Over the years the flats became the home to many types of people in the art and intellectual community, such as Agatha Christie.

New ways of living are still concepts that many architects are exploring. I even discussed this in a previous article about co-living, a concept which is very popular in Scandinavia.

As we move forward, the notion of how we live in a sustainable future is also at the forefront of everyone’s thinking and architectures such as George Clarke are able to showcase some ‘amazing spaces’ on TV and in other forms of media.

The weird fat flush

Ask any Londoner about a significant event that happened in 2017 and probably most of the wet wipe flushing individuals will have forgotten about the famous Fatberg of Whitechapel!

A quick reminder however will no doubt flood their memory with visions of the fatty nappy ridden clot that terrorised the Thames Water sewage system. The fatberg was actually a 130 tonne blockage (the size of over 30 elephants) which made worldwide headlines. Pieces of it even went on display at the Museum of London – I know that, because I went to see it!

But that isn’t the weird place I’m going to tempt you to visit, it’s actually the quirky manhole cover that marks the defeat of the greasy beast and the heroes who destroyed it. The manhole sits just outside of Whitechapel station reminding all who walk over it of what may lie beneath their feet.

On a serious note, fatbergs are huge environmental and health hazards and in extreme cases the sewage can spill into rivers and coastal waters. According to Scottish Water, they deal with 37,000 blockages every year costing £6.5 million to attend and clear.

The fatbergs also signify a larger social problem relating to what we do when it comes to recycling and the make-up of the (often plastic) products we use and dispose of down the loo.

Ellina Webb is Marketing Services Manager