Originally installed to shield buildings and pedestrians from horse-drawn wagons, bollards are a familiar sight in cities all over the world. It is believed that the metallic stakes made their debut in London during the 17th century.
It is no coincidence that these metal columns resemble cannons. The very first bollards were a mixture of surplus, outdated & captured matériel and were initially found around harbours and military ports where they protected warehouses and acted as mooring posts.
Predominantly buried muzzle-up in residential and commercial districts, the opening would have been sealed - often with an oversized cannonball. In towns, some bollards additionally served as boundary markers.
The vast majority of bollards in London today are replicas and distinguishing the early ones from the clones is not always easy (even aficionados can disagree on what is genuine). One of the best authentic examples can be found in the City outside St Helen's Bishopsgate.
Buried breech-up, this 18th century French cannon nestles nicely between the medieval church and the nearby 'Cheesegrater' and 'Gherkin' towers.
It would be fair to say that checking out the street furniture is not going to be a priority for most visitors to London! If however, you are looking for something a bit quirky, surveying bollards can be a fun way to complement your sightseeing.
Grotto Passage in Marylebone is one of those locations that you are more likely to stumble across by accident than by design.
Its name derives from a exhibit of (sea)shell work by John Castles who began displaying here in 1737. Collecting shells had been a popular hobby and the Georgians in particular were keen to flaunt them. Grottoes would be constructed on the estates of their wealthy owners. These flamboyant structures would often include crystals, minerals, bones and fossils. The 'Grotto' in Marylebone proved to be a hit at a time when the district was well known for its pleasure gardens.
By the end of the 18th Century, this crowd-pleaser and the surrounding area had succumbed to redevelopment. A school was erected on the site in the mid 19th Century which catered for the poorest of the poor. The so-called 'Ragged Schools' referenced the appearance of the children who attended. Regarded as being too difficult and disruptive to educate, these youngsters were frequently shunned by other institutions.
Led by volunteers, 'Ragged Schools' offered a basic level of education as well as supplying meals, clothes, refuge and the obligatory righteous guidance. The 'Industrial' tag relates to schools specifically created for the offspring of the poor who had not yet become unteachable. Effectively, the academy served a number of functions for the neighbourhood's destitute children; the ultimate goal being to save them from slipping into delinquency. Expanding across several buildings, the school survived until the early part of the last century.
Grotto Passage is best approached from Paddington Street - the entrance is on the southern side with Nottingham Place being almost opposite.
The Victoria Embankment runs on the north stretch of the River Thames between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Despite the cars, coaches, bicycles and emergency vehicles, it still remains one of the capital's most iconic locations. Indeed, it is a welcome contrast to the bustling South Bank which has become a little too popular in recent years.
If you can't catch it on a foggy morning, then the Victoria Embankment looks its best at night. Beautifully lit, there are numerous benches for you to park yourself and take in the neon canyons on the other side of the water.
The icing on the cake (so to speak) are the heraldic dolphins, sphinxes and camels that surround you - all the work of architect George John Vulliamy.
Constructed in the 1860s, the Victoria Embankment was the brainchild of engineer Joseph Bazalgette. The implementation of a modern sewerage network required the partial reclamation of the Thames at various points. With the sewers below ground, the road above relieved traffic congestion and delivered a magnificent walkway. Vulliamy's 'dolphin lamps' provided the illumination and the promenade soon became the envy of Europe.
Cleopatra's Needle arrived in 1878. To celebrate its appearance, the elevated seating was given a suitably Egyptian feel by Vulliamy with the adornment of sphinxes¹ and camels. Incidentally, Vulliamy also worked on the ancient obelisk as well - the two sphinxes² are his too (even if they are incorrectly installed).
¹ Classical Greek