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25 Things You Should Know About London

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Buckingham Palace, Wimbledon, Notting Hill, Westminster Abbey, and the West End—none of these sights are in the City of London. Before you call us mad, consider this: While they are all in what we call London, which is technically Greater London, the City of London is actually a small city-within-a-city, squeezing 7400 residents [PDF] (plus some 300,000 commuters) into an area slightly larger than a square mile. The larger London area has 8.6 million residents living in its 32 boroughs (the City of London is considered the 33rd). Within its former walls, the City of London is home to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Leadenhall Market, and the cucumber-shaped Gherkin Tower. It also has its own mayor, whose official title is “Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of the City of London.” Read on for more facts about England's capital city.

1. The original settlement of the City of London was formed when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 ACE and established Londinium, where the Thames River was narrow enough to build a bridge. Londinium replaced Colchester as capital of Britannia in the 2nd century, but was completely abandoned in the 5th century.

2. Many versions of bridges have spanned the River Thames connecting the City of London and Southwark, but an early medieval version of London Bridge, which lasted 600 years, really did fall down—in 1281, 1309, 1425 and 1437. Although the rhyme has roots in a Nordic saga, “my fair lady” was added during this time, attacking Queen Eleanor for taking the tolls for her personal use instead of spending it on the necessary bridge repairs.

3. The site where the 828,821-square-foot Buckingham Palace stands today used to be a mulberry garden, meant to rear silkworms for King James I in the 1600s. (Unfortunately for him, his staff planted the wrong kind of mulberry bushes.) Now the Queen’s official London residence has 775 rooms, including 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms, 514 doors and 760 windows. 

4. Every single morning—even Christmas Day—gravel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace is “dragged” in order to clean and comb it. Two more inspections happen every day “just in case there is any rubbish.” The purpose? “To ensure the forecourt always looks spick and span.”

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5. Hidden underneath the city are dozens of lost rivers and canals. As the population grew, many were converted into sewers, including River Fleet in Smithfield, into which butchers had tossed the remains of dead animal. The banks of the former River Effra, however, turned into the The Oval, home of the Surrey County Cricket Club

6. The London Beer Flood took place on October 17, 1814, after a three-story high wooden vat of beer exploded at Henry Meux and Co. brewery. The tidal wave ended up killing eight people

7. The nickname Big Ben is actually for the Great Bell at the Palace of Westminster, not the tower or clock. The 13.7-ton bell chimes at the musical note E. Also in the belfry are four quarter bells, which ring at G sharp, F sharp, E and B. None of the bells swing—they’re all struck with hammers.

8. So what is the name of the tower? Victorian journalists called it St. Stephen’s Tower and most refer to it as the Clock Tower, but in 2012, the 315-feet tall structure was officially renamed the Elizabeth Tower, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee.

9. Harrods department store in Knightsbridge has 330 departments—including a “Perfumery Hall,” “Toy Kingdom,” and “Great Writing Room”—and hosts 15 million customers a year on its seven floors spread over 4.5 acres. 

10. Forget the GPS: For more than 150 years, in order to get a license to drive a traditional black taxi (also called a Hackney carriage) in London, cab drivers must pass The Knowledge, a test requiring them to memorize every route within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross [PDF], which includes 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. Typically, it takes cabbies two to four years to cruise through it.

11. The largest catering operation for any annual sporting event in Europe? Tennis’ grass Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon. During the two-week event in 2015, 28,000 bottles of champagne were supplied—only to be topped by the 150,000 bottles of water, 235,000 glasses of British Pimm’s, and 350,000 cups of tea and coffee. Also on hand were 190,000 sandwiches, 32,000 fish and chips portions, 142,000 servings of English strawberries, and 6,000 stone-baked pizzas. 

12. Charles Dickens’ “house in town,” which he called it, was at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury and is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum, housing more than 100,000 items related to the 19th century author. Special events include candlelight tours to experience the home the way Dickens wrote in—as well as taxidermy workshops which are, per a warning on the museum's site, “not for the faint hearted.”

13. All the world’s a stage, but William Shakespeare's favorite performance space was London’s Globe Theater. (His first play performed there was likely Julius Caesar, in 1599 [PDF].) But on June 29, 1613, a stage cannon misfired during a Henry VIII performance and the theater burned down in less than two hours. It was quickly rebuilt, but shut down by the Puritans in 1642. The current Globe Theater, also known as the Third Globe, opened in 1993, thanks to the persistence of American actor/director Sam Wanamaker [PDF].

14. The only fully independent market in London is Borough Market, with a history that dates back to the 11th century. A blue plaque hangs there, calling it “London’s oldest fruit and veg market” as “voted by the people” of the borough of Southwark.

15. Arguably the world’s most famous crosswalk, Abbey Road—where The Beatles posed for their iconic 1969 album cover—crosses an actual (busy!) street, where cars often have to wait for tourists to snap their photos mid-walk. Abbey Road Studios now has a live cam pointed at the intersection.

16. The London Eye on the south bank of the Thames isn't a Ferris wheel—according to a London Eye press release [PDF], it’s actually “the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel.” Still, at 443 feet high, it would have been the tallest Ferris wheel when it opened on the last day before the new millennium (thus its nickname, the Millennium Wheel). Since then, taller Ferris wheels have gone up in China, Singapore, and Las Vegas. The Eye has been used as a filming location for movies like Wimbledon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and for $552 you can get a private ride in a Cupid’s Capsule, which includes a bottle of Pommery Brut Royal Champagne and a box of Hotel Chocolat Pink Champagne truffles.   

17. London plays an important role in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (after all, it's home to both the British Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley). Rowling herself, however, was born 110 miles away in Yate. A very different double-initialed female author hails from the British capital: 50 Shades of Grey scribe EL James.

18. In southeast London’s Shooters Hill district of Woolwich, there’s a street called Ha-Ha Road, so named, some say, because locals would laugh at people falling into the ditch that used to run alongside it. But the joke was on the locals when the road was closed from July 7 to September 19 in 2012 while the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks hosted the Olympics and Paralympics shooting events. 

19. Despite its name, only 45 percent of the London Underground, which opened in 1863 and carries 1.3 billion riders a year, is in tunnels. 

20. Teen genius 13-year-old Joseph Malin is credited for inventing fish and chips on the East End around 1860. He came from a rug weaving family who started making fries in their basement to supplement their income—until little Joseph decided to combine them with fried fish from a nearby shop. The business continued until 1970s. Now the longest running chippie (Brit speak for fish-and-chip shop) is Rock and Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, which opened in 1871, and where a regular-sized order costs $21.80.


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Another young man who broke from his family’s weaving business: Thomas Twining, founded the Twining of London tea business more than 300 years ago. The shop he bought in 1706, Tom’s Coffee Shop, which stood apart from the competition by also serving tea, is still open at 216 Strand. 

22. Crime pays: Among the many dark attractions in London are The Clink Prison Museum, The London Dungeon and the Crime Museum exhibit at the Museum of London.

23. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who was born in London, sometimes pays the rent of struggling students in the city. “I get letters from people trying to go to drama school and needing to pay their rent,” he told GQ. “And so that's something I occasionally do. It's impossibly expensive to live in London." 

24. London was named 2016’s best city for volunteering in Europe, thanks in great part to Team London — Mayor Boris Johnson’s program, which has 120,000 active volunteers, half of them being children and youth. 

25. The famous blue door Hugh Grant invited Julia Roberts through in the 1999 film Notting Hill is at 280 Westbourne Park Road. But the original chipped one from the film was sold at a Christie’s auction for about $8000 in 1999. For a while, the door was painted black to deter tourists, but the current owners have painted it blue again—nearby shops even sell tote bags featuring “The Blue Door.”

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Delightful Photo Series Celebrates Britain’s Municipal Trash Cans
Harry Trimble
Harry Trimble

Not all trash cans are alike. In the UK, few know this better than Harry Trimble, the brains behind #govbins, a photo project that aims to catalog all the trash can designs used by local governments across Britain.

Trimble, a 29-year-old designer based in South London, began the series in 2016, when he noticed the variation in trash can design across the cities he visited in the UK. While most bins are similar sizes and shapes, cities make trash cans their own with unique graphics and unusual colors. He started to photograph the cans he happened to see day-to-day, but the project soon morphed beyond that. Now, he tries to photograph at least one new bin a week.

A bright blue trash can reads ‘Knowsley Council: Recycle for Knowsley.’
Knowsley Village, England

“I got impatient,” Trimble says in an email to Mental Floss. “Now there’s increasingly more little detours and day trips” to track down new bin designs, he says, “which my friends, family and workmates patiently let me drag them on.” He has even pulled over on the road just to capture a new bin he spotted.

So far, he’s found cans that are blue, green, brown, black, gray, maroon, purple, and red. Some are only one color, while others feature lids of a different shade than the body of the can. Some look very modern, with minimalist logos and city website addresses, Trimble describes, “while others look all stately with coats of arms and crests of mythical creatures.”

A black trash can features an 'H' logo.
Hertsmere, England

A blue trash can reads ‘South Ribble Borough Council: Forward with South Ribble.’
South Ribble, England

A green trash can with a crest reads ‘Trafford Council: Food and Garden Waste Only.’
Trafford, Greater Manchester, England

Trimble began putting his images up online in 2017, and recently started an Instagram to show off his finds.

For now, he’s “more than managing” his one-can-a-week goal. See the whole series at govbins.uk.

All images by Harry Trimble

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Why a Train Full of New York City Poop Was Stranded in Alabama for Two Months
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Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

Update: Parrish residents can officially breathe easy. The last of the sludge has now been removed from the town, and Big Sky has ended its operation there, according to a Facebook post from Mayor Heather Hall. The containers that remain have been emptied of their smelly cargo and will be removed sometime before Friday, April 20.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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