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).