The London right under your nose
26th October 2015 - Jamie Manners
Amid London's grand buildings and monuments that dominate the skyline and feature on a million different postcards are countless smaller manifestations of London's long and colourful history. For every well-worn tale about Parliament, the Globe or the Great Fire, there are countless more about crocodiles, flamingos and camels, rockstars, artists and emperors, Soviet spies, Egyptian goddesses and subterranean Turkish baths, saucy stained windows, riots over dog statues and the little bit of Holborn that's technically part of Cambridgeshire.
The Seven Noses of Soho is collection of 192 of these historical titbits, showcasing the capital at its most delightfully eccentric and engaging. Its author is Jamie Manners, author of the popular Baedeker Raids blog and here he shares the story of an historical puzzle that remains unsolved.
On Saturday 7th November, you can join Jamie Manners, along with fellow author Travis Elborough, as they conduct a walking tour of Soho, highlighting some of its most curious landmarks. Places are free, but you do need to book, which you can do here.
Around the corner from Wren’s Monument is an ordinary Victorian building on Eastcheap, occupied by a coffee chain. Let your eyes follow the ledge around the corner and you will spot a sculpture, no bigger than the palm of your hand, of two little mice nibbling on a lump of cheddar.
London is a crowded city that draws in people from every corner of the world, and people love stories. Over the centuries our capital has accumulated layers of history and each age has left its mark. The origins of the smaller curiosities that decorate our streets are often shrouded in mystery, but urban myths and theories are never in short supply.
For fourteen years, the seven noses of Soho gathered all kinds of legend about their origins and supposed magical properties. Only in 2011, when their creator officially acknowledged his work, did we learn that his intention had been to protest against CCTV. By this point, however, Londoners had already come up with their own explanation for the mysterious noses, and the folklore has stuck.
In the city streets, the very old and the brand new sit side by side. The Panyer Boy and his bread basket are so ancient that no-one really knows their exact vintage, while the haughty, pot-bellied Golden Boy of Pye Corner reminds us that the Great Fire of 1666 was blamed on the sin of gluttony. Travel beyond the historical core of City and West End, and you will find the fruits of London’s current status as a global capital and a microcosm of the world; Wimbledon boasts a beautiful Thai Buddhist temple, Chiswick a Russian cathedral with a bright blue onion dome, and a visit the to Arab Hall in the house of painter Frederick Leighton will transport you several thousand miles east.
The Tower of London, St Paul’s, Canary Wharf and The Shard may be impressive, but they were built to express the might of church, state or high finance. It is the small things that sneak between the cracks, unsanctioned by the powers that be, which humanise the city. The granite pavement blocks that helped an elderly Duke of Wellington to mount his horse make us feel closer to the Iron Duke than his triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner. These details give London its charm, and suggest that it still has room for the average Joe. The Seven Noses of Soho is a collection of the eccentric things I have found on my travels, but go outside, wander the streets, and you will discover plenty of your own.
As for those two mice? The most frequent explanation is that they are a memorial to two builders who fell from the top of the Monument, after fighting over a vanished cheese sandwich that had been eaten by mice. As the building dates from the 1860s, this is unlikely; but as the noses know, the stories that tend to live on are those which catch our imagination.
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