London is a city with a rich and fascinating history. Its streets and buildings are littered with small reminders of its past – blocked off doorways, ghost signs and ageing plaques – but many of these visual cues go largely unnoticed by passers-by.
A new book published by Penguin Random House imprint Particular offers a guide to these curiosities and the many unusual activities on offer in the capital, from visiting a globe-makers workshop to touring chalk mines at night.
Written by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose, Curiocity is divided into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and lists facts about the city’s history alongside details of interesting places to visit and things to do. Each chapter explores a different aspect of London – there’s one on Pearls, on Knowledge (not just ‘the knowledge’ but universities and museums) and the Isles that dot the Thames Estuary – and features an illustrated map at its centre.
Curiocity started out as a series of maps offering unusual journeys across London. Eliot and Lloyd-Rose are old friends – Eliot is a writer who runs guided tours and cheese walks around the city while Lloyd-Rose has worked as a teacher, police officer and social researcher.
The pair had the idea for a project after coming to London in 2008 and being struck by its half-hidden “signs, stories and mysteries” as well as the range of things to do.
“London is among the most vibrant, fascinating cities in the world, seemingly limitless in its variety, but it’s also sprawling and cacophonous, making impossible demands on our time, attention and purse. How do you get to know somewhere this complex and layered?” write the pair in their foreword.
“On a walk through Oxleas Woods, southeast of Greenwich, we had an idea for a folded magazine where we could share lesser-known stories and places and, in so doing, get a firmer grip on London ourselves. At the centre would be a map of the city, looking at it from an unexpected point of view. We made eight editions of Curiocty magazine before embarking on this book-length exploration…. As we pegged out the 26 chapters, we attempted to touch on every dimension of London life, down to the most functional and taboo, and to suggest ways of interacting with issues and subcultures that can seem inaccessible.”
The vast collection of trivia sheds new light on familiar landmarks and highlights some of the fascinating stories behind seemingly mundane items – low metal railings dotted around the city take on a new poignancy once you discover they are made out of World War Two stretchers.
It also brings to attention some hard-to-spot curiosities, such as the glass porthole at Sadler’s Wells theatre that offers visitors a glimpse into the Underground from above and the carvings of a horned god in Blackheath, marking the former entrance to a mysterious network of caves that were a popular nighttime haunt in the 19th century.
The book was designed by Here and is packaged in a minimal red cover with a lovely use of London’s most famous typeface, Johnston. Illustrated letters introduce each chapter and smaller spot illustrations appear throughout. Artist Stanley Donwood has created some black-and-white endpapers and the book boasts a long list of contributors, from author Philip Pullman to occult bookseller Geraldine Beskin, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees and the Gentle Author.
London’s bookshops and libraries are filled with printed guides to the city but few (if any) are as comprehensive as Curiocity. The book stands out not just for the vast amount of information it contains but for the detailed and imaginative drawings and maps that fill its pages.
Curiocity is published by Particular Books on August 25 and costs £30. You can pre-order copies here.London