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The Locals List: A Less than Ordinary Tour around Trafalgar Square

Posted on May 29, 2015 by Laura

The latest in our series in which locals share their insider knowledge of destinations across the UK.

Trafalgar Square – it’s one of the Capital’s iconic public squares and a magnet for tourists from all over the world. However, those who visit rarely venture away from the famous lion statues, fountains and shadow of Nelson’s Column. That’s a shame as within a few minutes’ walk are a whole host of quirky sights and attractions.

We got in touch with alternative tours company Insider London, whose offices are just a stone’s throw from the Square. They’ve drawn up a list of their favourite 'off the beaten track' attractions that are all within walking distance of this famous landmark.

1. World Smallest Police Station

Photo credit: One Leicester Square on Pinterest

You may well have walked past without giving it too much of a second glance before now but the next (or first) time you walk to the south-east corner of the Square, keep an eye out for the tiny box that used to hold up to two prisoners at a time back in the 1920s.

The ‘Station’ which is about the size of a phone booth, was originally built so that police officers could keep a surreptitious eye on demonstrators. The peculiar shape is down to the fact that the public objected to the siting of a permanent police box in the Square and so another avenue was decided upon; a light fitting.

This light fitting was hollowed out, given windows and also a phone line to Scotland Yard in case backup was needed. As it turned out, the phone line wasn’t always needed, since the ornamental light on top of the box always flashed when the phone was picked up, meaning that any nearby officers were quickly alerted to the fact that they were needed.

Now, when you visit the box, don’t be put off by the fact that it is used as a broom cupboard, instead take a good look at the ornamental light on top, for legend has it that it comes from Nelson's HMS Victory, from the Battle of Trafalgar!

2. Official inch, foot and yard imperial measures

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When visiting Trafalgar Square, people often miss out on a key part of history that is set into the steps just below the National Gallery; the Standard Imperial Measures of length, which detail the official measurements of inches, feet, yards, links, chains, perches and poles.

Set firmly into the granite steps in brass, the measures were originally set into the wall of the north terrace in 1876 after a great fire, which ravaged through the House of Parliament destroyed the original Standards. (The Measures were relocated to the steps in 2003).

After the originals were destroyed, A Standards Commission was tasked to create these new Standards. The Commission decided to create additional copies (three in total), so that never again would we be without measurements to refer to.

As well as Trafalgar Square, the Measures can also be seen in the Guildhall’s Great Hall and in Greenwich. Throughout the years, up until we changed to the metric system, people would often come along to the Square in order to check the accuracy of their rulers. So you see, even though they are no longer required since the UK adopted the metric system, the Measures are an important part of the UK’s history and should therefore not be overlooked when you’re out exploring London.

3. Carting Lane Sewage Lamps (aka Farting Lane)

Photo credit: Andy Aldridge on flickr

So, perhaps not the most tempting of names to get you to visit and definitely not a ‘gem’ in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s definitely an interesting back story and you can bet this is something most tourists haven’t done or seen.

So, this time you need to head to the world-renowned Savoy Hotel, where, around the back you will find a piece of ingenious Victorian engineering; a sewage lamp. This lamp is the last remaining sewage lamp in London (perhaps thankfully!)

So, granted it might be a tad bit stomach-turning but you have to appreciate the genius behind its design. Originally designed by Joseph Webb late in the 19 th century, these lamps were used to burn off the horrid gasses that stemmed from the smells and germs radiating from the traditional sewer system of London and, as an added bonus, to light London up at night.

Powering of the lamps came from the collection of methane from the sewers into a small dome at the top of the sewer; this was then diverted to the lamps. The lamps would have remained lit all day, powered by the waste activities occurring nearby (in this particular case from the Savoy Hotel)

The streets of London more than likely didn’t smell great during this period of time anyway but you can bet this street more than earned its nickname…

4. The Royal Cockpit (Cockpit Steps)

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Many might have walked past or through this passageway and down the steps but far less would be able to tell you the story behind the Cockpit Steps.

So-named after its connection to the old and long since banned hobby of cock fighting, the steps are all that’s left of the 18 th century Royal Cockpit, which was built for the upper classes so that they could watch cock fights and wager at their pleasure.

The pastime of cockfighting was extremely popular back in Tudor times, not least because it was an easy way to make some money. However, it may surprise you to learn that the rules were actually rather complex and regulations strict; a good thing too for traditional cockpits were often very dirty and full of raucous chaps spoiling for a fight. In this case the Royal Cockpits would have been a (slightly) classier affair, mostly thanks to its stepper admission charge of 5 shillings!

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Another reason to visit these steps is to dispel the myth of the headless lady, who supposedly haunts the stairs. The Times newspaper first reported the story of a headless lady in 1804, telling how two Coldstream Guards had been hospitalised following their witnessing a headless lady drifting down the stairs across to St James’ Park.

You may scoff at such stories but fuel was added to the ghost story fire when in 1972 a motorist, upon driving past the steps, crashed after swerving to avoid a women who had suddenly appeared in front of his car!

5. Tyburn Tree and Speakers Corner

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Anyone who has a firm grasp of British history will no doubt have heard of Speakers’ Corner; a place where many an amateur, as well as professional, politician debated and discussed topics of the moment.

Located in Hyde Park, just off Park Lane, Speakers’ Corner was allocated following an Act of Parliament in 1872 to allow for public speaking. However, history does tend to be somewhat gruesome and what many people don’t realise is that the history of Speakers’ Corner actually started long before this date.

Centuries before the 1872 Act the area had already been appropriated by the public as a place to meet and have discussions. Unfortunately for some, it was also the place of public execution; something the London crowds loved to see. One execution, the hanging of the highwayman, Jack Sheppard, is said to have had a crowd of 200,000!

Home to the notorious Tyburn hanging tree, the earliest recorded execution we have at Speakers’ Corner is from 1196, although it is thought executions could have been occurring there from 1108. You can see the precise location of where the gallows would have once stood at the junction of Tyburn Road, which is now Oxford Street and Tyburn Lane, which is now Park Lane.

Hangings would have been big days for the common man and woman, for they were declared as public holidays (for labouring classes). The day itself would have seen thousands of people track the journey and the arrival of the condemned, all the way through Holborn and along Tyburn Road to the gallows. The condemned were allowed to have a drink, or two, from the local inns along the way, which is where the saying ‘one for the road’ came into being.

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It soon became commonplace for the condemned to make bold and impassioned speeches upon arriving at the gallows, alongside clergymen who took the chance to preach their religious messages, and so the public speeches continued to flow, until it officially became a place for public debate in 1872.

6. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

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So we’re going to finish on a fun note; one that children, teenagers and many an adult will enjoy - Ripley’s Believe It or Not! offers a wide variety of fun and weird things to do.

We recommend the Marvellous Mirror Maze, which gives you the chance to get lost with the help of a number of infinity mirrors and then try and find your way out…good luck! If you give LaseRace a go, it will bring back visions of Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment – do you fancy testing your agility by twisting your way through the laser beams?

You can test out your balance in the black hole, a rotating vortex tunnel, which will leave your senses boggled or get creative using the digital graffiti wall. It’s not all about trying to confuse your senses though; there is also a lot of history hidden amongst the crazier exhibits at Ripley’s.

Photo credit: Smart Save

From a 3,000lb real piece of the Berlin Wall, various galleries and artefacts including a Christmas card to Prince Charles from his father, first edition books from Agatha Christie and original illustrations from Peter Pan, visitors can also see gloves worn by King Charles I, a lock of Napoleon's hair and much more!

Insider London provides walking tours that give you the inside track on what the UKs capital has to offer. All of the Company’s guides live on London’s doorstep and are often drawn from the City’s artistic community. The Company’s Quirky London Tour takes in Trafalgar Square as well as a number of other off-beat locations.

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