The most realistic story ever told.

Category: walk

Pete the Conk(eror)

In Soho, the walls have noses.

I’d heard a few times from cab drivers and London trivia goons about there being a nose in Admiralty Arch, and that – for example – as part of The Knowledge exams that cab drivers take they’re told to drive from somewhere like “The chimney on the bridge to the nose”… which you wouldn’t be able to do unless you had a particular level of insider information, or were unusually observant.

Stories about the origins of this nose seem to vary wildly, from being a spare nose for a statue of the Duke of Wellington, to being a replica of Napoleon’s nose which people on horseback could tweak on the way past.

I’d never seen it myself because I kept forgetting about it and when I did remember (usually in a cab) we didn’t know which of the 3 arches it was in, and be assured that whilst in the throes of London traffic it’s not easy to spot a life-sized nose from a moving vehicle.

Cut to a several months ago when I was having my first ever listen to the utterly brilliant podcast from the Londonist website – Londonist Out Loud, presented by N Quentin Woolf.  Londonist is a fantastic site for anyone who’s interested in London, and contains all manner of interesting information of all sorts: be it historical or contemporary, news, reviews, or anything and everything else*.  This edition of the podcast featured a couple of Westminster tour guides – Jo Moncrieff and Pete Berthoud – and Julia from The Star Cafe.  The thing which caught my attention was Pete talking about a walking tour he periodically leads, entitled “The Seven Noses of Soho“.

SEVEN NOSES?!  Could there really be SEVEN?!

The only way to find out seemed to be to sign up for this tour & go find out!  And so on a nice sunny Saturday that’s exactly what we did…  Liz, Hannah, Paul, and Hannah’s parents & I met up with Pete, and spent 2 hours of our afternoon on what was an absolutely fascinating and group-customised walking tour.

We spent the afternoon meandering around some of the alleys and byways of Soho, being pointed out various Interesting Things by Pete, and every now and again he’d stop the group and say “Let me know when you’ve found it”.  He’s certainly calculated the best way to playfully frustrate a group of people, in that regard.

It’s totally ridiculous – several of the noses are located in places which I’ve frequented over the past 8 years (including one I *know* I’ve stood next to for about an hour) and never noticed before.  Is it the brain’s self-censorship mechanism that prevents us from seeing/remembering these noses?

It’s not just noses though – prior to the tour Pete asks if anyone’s got any special interests, so our tour takes in some interesting fixtures of rock music history, some Marx Brothers trivia, a few architectural notes & highlights (including Soho’s reluctant Art Deco carpark), other non-proboscial bits of sculpture hidden about the place in plain view, and loads more – all delivered by Pete’s easy-to-get-along-with manner.  And it’s certainly not just wandering about going “Oh look – a nose!  How odd!”.


I recall Pete saying something about him being the descendant of Huguenots, but don’t remember whether the undergrad-quality joke about “huge nose” was played at the time.  Would’ve certainly been relevant, and before anyone says anything I’d like to point out that I’m sailing fairly close to the wind in the big nose stakes.  With a humungous spinnaker, yes.

Beak comparisons aside (ooh, just thinking – I don’t recall their being any noses on Beak Street – missed a trick there…), I’d thoroughly recommend any of Pete Berthoud’s walks, and intend to get along to more of them as soon as my schedule permits.  He combines an inquisitive & interested mind with the ability to tell you all sorts of things you didn’t know about London without making you feel stupid for not knowing it.  His “Oddities of Strand” and “Hidden Mayfair” walks call to me particularly, so maybe there’ll be some info about those on these hallowed pages some time “soon”.

And no, I’m not telling you where any of the other noses are.

* I wasn’t going to wax overly lyrical about Londonist at this point, but it’s one of my favourite Londony websites, and the podcast is similarly wondrous.  All sorts of facets about London, by people who live in London and are interested in London.  Might’ve mentioned before, but yours truly featured on another episode of their podcast, talking about whisky and morris dancing (2 separate topics, that is).


Anatomy of a walk to work

Following on from the gripping photo-documentary I did of walking from my hotel to the bus stop in Shimla a few years ago I thought I’d do a similar exercise concerning my daily walk to work.

I’m always fascinated by photographing the mundane, because it’s only mundane at the time and your circumstances may change or indeed history might roll on and you’ll lose track of incremental changes that have taken place.  But photographing mundane things in isolation just leads to a bloody confusing and irrelevant Flickr album.  So here’s my collection of the walk to work.

Currently I’m living in Chinatown in London.  The office isn’t very far away, although that’s already changing, because we move to a new building at the end of the month.

I think our upstairs is the only non-knocking shop along our street.

Along one side of the street everything’s always shuttered up when I leave and quite often when I get back, too.  One day when I was home sick I was amazed to go outside with it all open and find what sort of weird things there are going on every day right where I live!  There’s a litte window that sells steamed Chinese buns, there’s a shop that sells the ubiquitous trilbies and bowler hats that market stalls have, there’s a Chinese supermarket full of stuff I won’t even try to identify, there used to be a jeweller until they moved out (presumably sick of junkies trying to smash the door in), and there’s a weird shop which doesn’t appear to have any conducive theme to it, but sells weight loss powder, unlocks phones, and sells cutesy Japanese bullshit.

Late Doric architecture.  Very late indeed.

This bit of Charing Cross Road is the Easternmost end of Chinatown.  At varying times of day you’ll see stalls selling cheap shoes set up in here, or reprobates spilling out of a seedy club at the top end of the colonnade.  Or is it a cloister?  I don’t know.


Caffe Vergnano is what you might call the “best available”: their coffee’s acceptable, although nowhere near in the same league as several other places in the area.  Notes on St Martin’s Lane is completely the wrong direction, so no use for me to go when I’m in a hurry, and there’s always a queue at Monmouth.  Since Damson Cafe opened up though I’ve not been into Vergnano.

North along Charing X Road

G. Smith & Son was formerly a tobacconist, but is now closed down & up for sale.  Shame – they seem to have been in there a while.  One of the windows has “Noted Snuff Merchant” emblazoned on it.  A snuff merchant now the casualty of the modern economy.

Trapping mice and tourists for 50 years and counting

If you look east down a sidestreet you can see The Mousetrap – the Agatha Christie play which started in 1952 and has famously been surprising audiences with its utterly impenetrable twist ending ever since.  My grandparents went to see it on their honeymoon.

Palace Theatre

Since I’ve been in London I’ve seen Spamalot, Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, Whistle Down The Wind, The Woman In White set up in this theatre, and now Singin’ in the Rain’s in there.  I took these photos back in January, whereas if I’d waited til summer, it’d be actually raining in this shot.

Shaftesbury out of focus Avenue

A right turn onto Shaftesbury Avenue at the corner.

Yep, a Dyno-Rod van

I didn’t say they would all be riveting, did I?

Cambridge Circus down a sidestreet

Quickly peeping right you can see the Tim Minchin orchestrated/lyricised musical of the Roald Dahl book, Matilda.  One of the better things on in the West End at the moment.

Seems an odd place for a hardware store

Finding a hardware store in London’s always been something I’ve had trouble with since moving here.  There’s a few big B&Qs and HomeBase stores around the place, but for central London this one’s really handy to know about to pick up tools & whatnot.

Blurry nerdtopia

Crossing the road here, you wind up at Forbidden Planet – the huge collection of film/comic toys, accessories, costumes, and soforth.  They’ve always got lots of implausible bullshit in the front window, designed to tempt moneyed kids and 30-something man-children.  They had a complete set of replica Harry Potter wands in there a few weeks ago.  The sorts of things where you buy them thinking “awesome”, and then never have out on display once you’ve got a girlfriend.


Walking up a bit and looking back south over Shaftesbury Ave are a couple of sandwich shops, and the top bit of Monmouth Street (home to Monmouth Coffee Company).

Rock & side meat.

Continuing up Shaftesbury now, there’s the Shaftesbury Theatre across the road – where Rock of Ages presently resides, but was most known to me for being the place where the 1986 Comic Relief video was filmed, which introduced me to loads of UK comics back in the old days – and ahead to the left is the Central St Giles branch of Byron (burgers).


Taking a left to go through the plaza of the Central St Giles development, there’s this sculpture thing which looks like somebody probably paid a lot for it.  It looks like a bronze cast of somebody’s digestive tract.

Not a creature was stirring.

The Central St Giles development was designed by Renzo Piano, the guy famous for London’s newest erection, The Shard.  We’ve craftily nicknamed this complex “Legoland”, and I learned the other day that the colouring of the buildings (ceramic frontage, to prevent fading) is inspired by & designed to blend into the colours of guitars in windows nearby on Denmark Street (aka “Tin Pan Alley”).  The shops are filling up mainly with eateries –  Zizzi’s & Byron were first.  Now there’s a POD (weirdo lunch stuff), a Brazilian BBQ, a Peyton & Byrne (coffee/pastries), and Union Jack’s – a Jamie Oliver led joint selling “flatbreads” (i.e. pizzas) with a British bent.

Look! Postman Pat!

The walk takes me through the back of CSG through to a service lane.  Nothing interesting about that.

Jacobs is rhyming slang for testicles, but that’s because of the crackers – not the camera shop across the road.

There’s a little lane thing now joining to New Oxford Street – caution to be exercised here, because impatient cabbies quite often swing down here unexpectedly if the lights are red.

An excellent place, indeed.

On the opposite corner to where I’m heading is a very fine shop – James Smith & Sons, umbrella makers.  After losing the last brolly I lost, I bought a new one from in here (seeing as it was handy to work), and am extremely happy with it.  And, even though I only got a cheap(ish) one, I’m yet to leave it somewhere – never quite had the same presence of mind with cheap brollies.  A Victorian shopfront, though the sign says “Established 1830” it didn’t actually take up this site til 1857.  As well as brollies, they sell walking sticks, seat-sticks, and all manner of related stuff (including “dog walking canes”, with provision for booze flask inside).

Traffic heading into the crappest intersection in London

After crossing the road the destination is Bloomsbury Street.  This intersection’s usually totally jammed up, and will be one thing I don’t miss one bit when we move office.  A little bit further up is the British Museum, and another thing I won’t miss much is the at least daily enquiry by a tourist on how to find the British Museum.

A handily located whisky shop

Just over from us – by utter coincidence, I promise – is Royal Mile Whiskies; the London branch of the well-known Edinburgh specialists. This is invaluable as both a source of booze, and a handy landmark.

The portal

Turning right, you get to our office.  Further down on the opposite side is a Wagamama, and at the end of the backstreet, a Pizza Express. So all pretty handy if you’re not obsessed with a thrifty lunch.

And that’s the walk to work!  Not exactly as rich and textured as the Shimla walk I guess, but that’s all relative.  I’ll probably look back on this in years and think, “What was my issue with being able to find hardware stores??”.

2006-11-16 : Anatomy of a walk to the bus stop

Back when I was in India I thought that whilst my every-day walk to the bus stop was nothing special at the time, it might be a good idea to photographically document it, because years later after returning to Western culture what was a daily occurrence would once again seem strange and interesting, so I set about taking a photo approximately every 30 seconds of whatever was at that point on the walk.

Am glad I did. Here’s the results:

From the bottom of the hotel steps, you look out to the left and see a view of Shimla.

A quick peek up the hill shows the little stall where I swear they buy half of the room service items from, and the Clarks Hotel on the left.

Turning up the hill the walk commences.

Seeing people carrying things is pretty well the norm. It's unusual for them to be shifting things as manageable as carpets.

Not much is open at this time of day, but the place that cells cigarettes, chips, drinks - and (bizzarrely) refrigerated tennis balls - is going strong.

This is the Willow Banks hotel, which is the somewhat more luxurious option where many of my colleagues stay, and which features the chicken-only restaurant where Shimla's own Borat lookalike works.

Indian sweets place. Why this is open so early I don't know.

The red sign indicates the vegetarian place I've been eating at - it's dirt cheap, and it's fantastic ! Special Vege Thali. Mmmmmmmm.

Can't see what these guys are carrying, but here we are coming up to a big left turn.

Heading up the hill (this is more for continuity really).

This is, obviously, the Levis store and also the little post office. The big post office is only about 500m up the road, so I'm not convinced that their placement system is the most efficient.

More uphill.

One of those tiny ambulances which I've referred to before.

The barber dude's up early ! It's a shame I couldn't get a closer shot of him; he's got the most amazing haircut in the town of Shimla.

Bit of building activity taking place.

Here's the road split (or, "bifurcation", as the locals earnestly describe) to the Lower Bazar.

No idea what this is, but isn't photography marvellous ?

The track on the right goes up towards the church, and The Ridge.

Sneaky shot of a guy preparing his shop.

The electronics shipment obviously arrived that morning and was waiting patiently outside the TV store. Incidentally, crime up here seems to be virtually absent.

All very quiet, but photos at night time don't come out so well. And these places don't open til about 10 or 10:30.

The Ridge up on the right. I suspect I took this to capture some of the local plantlife, but it's so blurry you can't see a thing.

Rotary Town Hall, handily adjacent to underground public bogs.

Christ Church peeking out over the fence.

The underground public bog. I love the whole 'He/She' thing in the labelling here. It excludes options for the hermaphrodites we saw the other night though.

Not a very good shot of one of the myriad stairways leading down to the middle or lower bazar.

These guys were just out washing their venetian blinds. As you do.

I think I took this just cos the shop was open, and that breaks the photos up a bit. The tailor's shop next door is where I got one of my suits, and is (I later find out) run by someone known as 'The Big Cheat'.

Coming up to the theatre, with its crazy wooden scaffolding.

The theatre, and a couple of the local dogs having a snooze in the road. Doubtless they're all tuckered out after being up all night shagging and barking and keeping everybody awake.

More stairs down to the middle bazar.

Good architectural shot - I love that there's all the random ramshackle buildings up here, with the odd remnant from British Colonisation... such as the theatre & police station just further on.

Bank branch waiting to open - they seem to have Saddam Hussein as a security guard. Or the guy from 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines'.

I don't know why these guys were organising mattresses out in the street, but that's the sort of CRAZY photo you're gonna see round here.

A bloke shifting propane tanks. Whilst potentially an alarming sight in the streets of London, guys with gas strapped to their back are commonplace here. Every now and again there's a thunderous boom in the distance, which suggests to me another one's tripped and gone over the hillside.

Another dog having a kip.

The firemen, drying out their hoses, I guess ?

And they've got a fire truck, as well. It doesn't fit inside the fire station, so they just park it across the road.

The weird podium thing that the police stand on of an evening. Not sure why, because there's no traffic on this road to direct. Banks and big post office in the distance.

Turning up the hill now, we see the tourism office, and guys shifting stuff. All the more amazing when you see the hill they've had to get up to get here.

The beginning of the descent to the bus stop. You can *just* make out the little green cobbler's hut at the end of the steps.

Looking out over the other side of the ridge, past the delightful refuse options.

On the other side of the hill is the Tibetan Market, so named because the stores are mainly owned by members of the (large) Tibetan community in Shimla. There's all sorts of stuff for sale here, and most of it - from what I've heard - is designer knockoffs. Genuine Rolex sir ! 100 Rupees !

Plenty of food for sale down here too.

Yuh huh.

This side of the hill seems to be a little less affluent/maintained than The Mall.

I had to grab a covert snap of the dude in the blazer.

More TVs or something being hoiked up the hill. Any thoughts of mugging these guys to steal their TVs are pretty well moot when you see how far they've carried them - chasing down a pasty computer nerd would be no trouble.

Over the rail shot.

More food & people.

As much as people say 'don't eat the roadside food', clearly these guys are selling it to SOMEONE.

I didn't have any pick heads that needed sharpening, or this guy could have been really handy. There's quite a lot of this sort of enterprise here - shoeshiners, knife sharpeners, cobblers, and on the way home the other night I even saw a guy with a barber's chair set up by the side of the road. Anyone fancy a roadside shave in decreasing natural light ? The most confusing ones were these guys with what looked like single-string musical instruments by the roadside. It turns out these things are for beating/rejuvenating quilts. Which explains why they're covered in fluff and why you never hear anyone playing one.

Plenty of fruit & veg around here.

Actually I'm cheating a bit - I took these photos a few weeks ago, as these Diwali decorations indicate. Busted.

Coming here to buy a TV wouldn't have been my first thought, but it's an option.

The last steps down towards the bus stop. I kinda dig the little dude selling spices & grains out of sacks on the left. This shot's also a good illustration of the women wearing bright clothes and the men wearing neutral clothing.

Last few shops and then the buses.

And more propane bottles. When I say 'bus stop', it's just a big open dirt patch where the buses happen to congregate.

A couple of buses, and you can see the ice skating rink as well.

Not sure if there's a numbering system - we just go up to the drivers and ask "Sanjauli ?" until one says yes, and then get on that one.

Sneaky photo on the bus.

Right, that’s it ! Any questions ?

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