London Peculiars is a new book by Peter Ashley. Subtitled “a guide to the city’s offbeat places”, it is a miscellany of dozens of unknown, overlooked or just plain bizarre places and objects in London. It is the sort of book I would like to have written myself…
The author defines a peculiar as “something that has eccentric or individual variations to the general or expected pattern”. London is full of such things, a place where the unexpected is to be found around every corner. And, despite my lifelong acquaintance with the city, this book was full of things I hadn’t seen before.
London Peculiars is organised in sections such as London Creatures – a stuffed cat or a stone lion – or London Trade – old markets and the Art Deco Hoover Building. I was immediately drawn to London Letters, a miscellany of old or obsolete pub signage and “ghost signs” – the faded letters and images on the sides of buildings that indicate their past use, giving a glimpse of their history. The former London Docklands appear to be particularly rich in ghost signs.
Many of the features in this book are old: relics that have no current use. Others are more contemporary, like the tunnel ventilator built into the O2 arena. Every entry has a detailed description, often with tantalising snippets of information. For instance, the famous Liberty store on Regent Street was built from the timbers of two Royal Navy warships. And “pupils from Westminster School row up to [Black Rod’s Steps] once a year to partake of a cream tea on the House of Lords terrace”.
As I read London Peculiars, I was impressed by the author’s eye for detail. Many of his “peculiars” are hidden in plain sight, visible to anyone who explores with an enquiring mind. And that is partly the point of the book. Peter Ashley ends his introduction by saying, “And, of course, hopefully you will find curiosities of your own”. Be inspired by this book, then enjoy the hunt for your own peculiars.
London Peculiars by Peter Ashley. ACC Art Books, 2019, 9781851499182