The London Marathon: The Hidden History Along the Race Route


, by Howard Calvert

Photography by: Sampajano_Anizza

For 26.2 miles, runners at the London Marathon are surrounded by the long and storied history of the Capital of the United Kingdom. Whether you're running the race, spectating, or watching from home, here are things to look out for.

This Sunday, 50,000 runners will take to the streets of London to make their way around a 26.2-mile route steeped in history. However, for most runners, this history falls largely by the wayside — most would admit Buckingham Palace passes by in a blur as their focus is on one thing only: the finish line on The Mall.

Let's change that.

Because if you’re running, spectating, or watching the London Marathon this weekend, we thought we’d add a little extra to your journey, as there’s so much history right under your nose that could enhance your marathon experience (or at least give you some facts to pass on to fellow runners or supporters). Here are some of the best bits to look out for.

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Mile 3.1: Powis Street

As you head through Woolwich, trying not to let adrenaline and other runners sweep you along too quickly, look to your right as you pass mile 3 and you’ll see Powis Street, home to the UK’s first McDonald’s, which opened in 1974 (it even has a commemorative plaque). You may not be thinking about fast food at this point, but wait 23.1 more miles…

Mile 6.37: Monument for a Dead Parrot

This sculpture will be difficult to spot on the day, as it will be behind the crowd nestled inside the grounds of the Devonport House Hotel, just before the turn to the Cutty Sark. It’s a piece of art by Jon Reardon, depicting a certain ex-parrot made famous by a certain comedy sketch.

Mile 6.5: Cutty Sark

You’ll run around Cutty Sark at 10km, and it’s the point where the crowd surges in size and volume and you’ll find the hairs on your neck tingling. The 150-year-old merchant ship, and the world’s only surviving extreme clipper, takes its name from a Robert Burns poem called ‘Tam O’Shanter’, and refers to a short nightie worn by a witch called Nannie.

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Mile 6.9: Deptford Creek Bascule Bridge

At this point you’ll cross Deptford Creek, which feeds into the Thames. Deptford was once known as ‘Deep Ford’, and before bridges existed, it was said a hermit helped people cross the forded section towards Deptford Bridge station.

Mile 12.5: The Tower of London

Just before halfway, see if you can spot a raven in the Tower of London on your left-hand side as you come off Tower Bridge. One wears a grey ankle band. His name is Bran, after the legend of the raven god, Bran the Blessed. The ravens are there to preserve the memory of the god, and if they ever leave, legend has it the kingdom will fail.

The Tower of London is one of London's great historic sites. Photography by: Udo Weber

Mile 17: Mudchute

At mile 17, your mind is likely to be focused on one question: Why is this place I find myself in called Mudchute? Well, we can tell you: it’s been named that since the 1860s when the docks at Mill Wall were dredged and the mud was removed to this area via a mud pipe, hence ‘mud shoot’. It was pretty disgusting and smelly though, and as well as a health risk, so eventually it was converted into warehouse space.

Mile 19.5:Trafalgar Way Roundabout

If you’re wondering why there’s a giant metallic tree with 75 sets of traffic lights twinkling through their cycles in the center of the roundabout you’re running past, don’t worry, you’re not hallucinating — it’s the Traffic Light Tree, a sculpture created by French artist Pierre Vivant.

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Mile 22.9: Tower Hill Tube Station

Look out for the biggest existing remains of the original London Wall, built by the Romans in 200AD, after which it formed the boundary of the city for 1,500 years. Spectators can also see a section of the wall among the Tube station platforms.

Mile 23.1: Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub

Look beyond the crowds on your right for the Hung, Drawn & Quartered Pub. This was located near the Tower Hill scaffold, the site of many executions throughout history, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury, Thomas Cromwell, and Sir Thomas More.

Inside the pub you’ll find a quote from Samuel Pepys describing some of the sights he saw nearby. In terms of executions within the Tower of London itself (which you have just passed for the second time), there were only seven recorded there, including the beheading of Ann Boleyn.

Samuel Pepys' quote on the wall of the pub reads: 'I went to see Major General Harrison. Hung drawn and quartered. He was looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition'. Photo by: Paul French

Mile 23.3: Pudding Lane

There’s almost too much history surrounding you once you hit the seemingly never-ending riverside section. Look to your right here and you’ll pass Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London started. There’s a plaque on the street marking the source of the fire, widely believed to have been Thomas Farriner’s bakery, on 2 September 1666.

Mile 24.9: Cleopatra’s Needle

Many Londoners have no doubt walked past this obelisk hundreds of times and never given it a second thought. It was made in 1460 for the Pharaoh Thotmes III, and presented to the British government by the Sultan of Egypt and Sudan in 1819 to mark Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. It wasn’t until 60 years later that it could actually be transported from Egypt, and even then almost didn’t make it due to a near-disastrous journey.

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Mile 25.1: Pay homage to Sir Joseph Bazalgette

You’ll run past the bust of Sir Joseph on your left, the man behind the construction of London’s revolutionary sewer network in the 1860s, much of which still serves the city today. The words ‘Flumini vincula posuit’ adorn his memorial – ‘He shackled the river’. Now it’s time for you to shackle this last mile.

Towards the end of the London Marathon there are historical landmarks aplenty. Photography by: Sampajano_Anizza

Mile 25.7: Royal pelicans

As you head down Birdcage Walk, and St James’s Park comes into view on your right, you might spot one of the 40-plus pelicans on the pond. They’ve been resident in the pond since 1664, after a Russian ambassador gifted some to King Charles II.

Mile 26: Nautical lampposts along The Mall

The finish is there, in sight. Your only focus. Admittedly, the last thing you’ll be thinking about is the lampposts, but if you have the wherewithal, have glance on top – you’ll see miniatures of what is thought to be Nelson’s ships.

Post-finish: Find the nose on Admiralty Arch

Once you’ve crossed the line and recomposed yourself, shuffle to Admiralty Arch after the finish line at the end of the Mall, and search for the ‘London Nose’. Find the pink nose in the arch, and rub it for luck, as cavalryman did when it they believed it to be the Duke of Wellington’s nose.

Not that you need luck, you’ve finished the marathon!

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