And other true and amazing tales from London!
While in London, I took a walking tour called “Eccentric London” and learned several weird and interesting things.
Hawking for pigeons
As some people may recall, Trafalgar Square was long known for its massive flocks of pigeons covering the square. They were not exactly beloved by all. Certainly, I know when akdmyers was there for her semester abroad, she got heartily sick of them. In a move I’m sure she’ll appreciate, the latest mayor of London decided it was in the city’s best interests to get rid of them. And indeed, they are now pretty much gone. But how did they do it?
Hawks. There is a company that makes its money flying hawks over public areas to scare the other birds away, particularly pigeons. We were told the scent of the raptors warns the pigeons away, so simply flying the hawks over the area every day is enough. They are also flown over Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, although at St. Paul’s (I think; it’s one or the other anyway) they are also flown to kill, so the pigeons don’t roost. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the hawkers that day.
Also in Trafalgar Square, we learned the secret of the lions. The story is that Queen Victoria wanted four large lions around the base of Admiral Nelson’s statue, to celebrate the monarchy. She had a particular artist in mind, who was quite famous for his realistic wildlife paintings. Unfortunately, he only did paintings, not sculptures, and certainly not ginormous bronze ones for public areas. But the queen was not to be denied, so he eventually said he’d do the designs and the maquettes, but only if he could have a real lion to use as a model.
They had to wait two years for a lion at the Royal Zoo to die, but when it did, they carted it over to the artist’s studio and propped it up in the desired pose. He then set to work making drawings and little sculptures. Alas, the lion started to go manky before he was finished, so he had to improvise the final details. Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions. (Wrong number of pads, you see.)
Champagne for 14 on top of the column
When the statue of Nelson was put up in Trafalgar Square, they first had to build the extremely tall column that it stands on. The builder of the column was reportedly so proud of his achievement that when he was done, he had a party for his friends on the platform at the top of the column. When you’re standing in the square, that doesn’t look that big, but it is apparently big enough to have champagne and caviar for 14 people. The tour guide wasn’t too keen on being up so high, though, so she didn’t linger on that story.
Speaking of Admiral Nelson’s statue, let’s have a story about Admiral Nelson. Though he won the Battle of Trafalgar, he was mortally wounded by a French sniper while standing on the deck of his ship. He lived long enough to know they’d won, but then he died, and the Royal Navy needed to get him back to England for a hero’s funeral. Given that the fleet had just been in a rather large battle, though, it was going to take a while to get all the way back there, so they needed to preserve him. So they stuck him in a keg of brandy.
During the trip back, many of the sailors wanted to share in Nelson’s glory, so they snuck belowdecks and tapped his keg to have a bit of his preservative brandy. By the time they reached a resupply point, so many sailors had done so that there was very little brandy left, and poor Admiral Nelson was beginning to bloat. There was no more brandy to be had at the resupply station, so they refilled his barrel with fortified wine. And so Nelson came home, pickled in a mix of brandy and wine. This mix is now served in at least one bar under the name Nelson’s Blood, though we were assured it is not, really.
Nelson’s journey didn’t stop there, though. He was now a national hero, and he needed a hero’s burial! Right away, too. But they didn’t have time to carve him a proper hero’s casket from marble and such. What to do? Rummage around in the basements of the royal family’s castles and find a spare casket, that’s what. As it turned out, they found one that had been made for a cardinal who had fallen out of favor with Henry VIII and beheaded before he could make use of the grand sarcophagus he had ordered. They lopped the cardinal hat off the top, replaced it with a lord’s coronet, and voila! A hero’s casket. Nelson’s procession was so long that the front of it reached St. Paul’s before the back end had even left the starting point. More people turned out for it than did for the funeral of Princess Di. He was a popular guy.
Hmmm, it seems that most of my stories came from Trafalgar Square. I’m sure there must be more. I’ll have to think about it.