London : Sayings and Stories

A friend called and asked if I’d like to join her on a guided walking tour of London. It was organised by Sevenoaks School, so we were slightly bemused as we’ve had no links with the school since our sons left nearly 5 years ago. However, we haven’t seen each other for ages and it sounded quite fun, so we signed up.

We met near Tower Bridge. Our guide was a nice man, short, carrying a briefcase and umbrella (he looked like the accountant in The Untouchables, but I didn’t mention it.) I was worried he might stick the umbrella into the air for us all to follow – at which point I would’ve left – but it stayed safely in his bag. He was actually very interesting, he remembered a huge number of facts, and told little stories as we walked around. The walk took 2 hours, mainly because we walked very slowly. I thought I’d tell you some of his stories, about the origins of sayings. They might, or might not, be true, but they were interesting.

Near the Tower of London, is the spot where they executed people who were not considered royal enough to be killed within the walls. There were a few plaques, one of which commemorated the husband of Lady Jane Grey (but I’ve forgotten his name. I would not make a good guide!) Lady Jane Grey was queen, after Henry VIII, for 9 days. After this, Mary (Henry’s daughter) rode into London and had Jane locked up in the tower. Hence the saying, “a nine day wonder”.

We also passed the pub, ‘The Hung, Drawn and Quartered’. It’s possible the owners have very bad grammar (paintings are hung, people are hanged). However, on the side is a plaque with a quote from Samuel Pepys, which includes the same words. So perhaps it was Pepys who had bad grammar and the publican was being ironic.

We passed Bakers Hall, owned by the guild of bakers. When they used fire-heated bread ovens, they got it to temperature, then shoved a piece of elm across the opening, to keep the heat in. This was the “stop gap”. The underside of the loaf would be covered in ash, so that was sold cheaply to the poor. Only the rich could afford “the upper crust”.

We went to a small lane, called Lovats Lane (used to be called Lovers Lane). It was very narrow, and led away from Eastcheap (which is where the meat and fish were sold). ‘Cheap’ was the word for ‘exchange’, or a market. In the past, horse-drawn wagons would have used the lane, going from the river to the market. It would be difficult to pass as it was so narrow, and often the wheels would touch and get stuck. Sometimes though, they touched but managed to keep going, hence the saying, “touch and go”.

We walked down to the river, just below Monument (great tall monument which my son has walked past many times without ever noticing! It’s a monument to the great fire of London). Next to St Magnus the Martyr church, you can see the remains of previous London Bridges. There is a lump of wood which was from the original Roman London Bridge. There is the stone that replaced the wooden bridge, which was destroyed in 1014 when London was attacked, and gave rise to the song, “London Bridge is Falling Down”. There is also the stone from the bridge that was replaced in the 70s because it was too narrow. Apparently we sold it to a chap from Arizona who bought the wrong bridge, as he thought he was buying Tower Bridge. Easy mistake. I was quite surprised the current bridge has only been there since the 1970s, I had assumed it was older.

We walked towards St Paul’s Cathedral, passing other guildhalls on the way. All the guilds used to take part in the Lord Mayor’s Show each year. It was held on the Thames, hence each guild entered a “float”. Two of the guilds constantly argued about their position in the procession, so it was decided they would alternate each year between the places six and seven. Hence the saying, “at sixes and sevens”.

We came to Cheapside, which was where in the past you could buy a piglet. So it didn’t escape, it would be sold, wriggling, in a tied sack. Sometimes the dishonest farmer would substitute the pig, and you’d get home, open the sack, and find not a piglet but a cat. If you checked when at the market and opened the sack in the market, you would “let the cat out of the bag”.
During the reformation, Westminster Abbey, which was catholic, was emptied of everything valuable. At the time it was called St Peter’s. The poor people didn’t gain from this though, as all the icons were carried to the anglican church, which happened to be St Paul’s. Hence, they “robbed Peter to pay Paul”.

We went behind The Old Bailey, and peered through some gates to where you can see a wall, which is all that remains of Newgate Prison. Prisoners to be executed would have a last confession to a priest (called shrift), but as they were deemed to be going to Hell anyway, the priest wouldn’t waste too much time on them, so they would receive “short shrift”. They could then have one last drink in the pub on the way to the gallows – hence “one for the road”. The cart that carried them was called a lurch, hence you could be “left in the lurch”. Anyone who didn’t go into the pub to drink was left “on the wagon”.

There was one guy (name escapes me, I’ll call him James) who was stuck for a few years in the debtors prison. He got to know many of London’s criminals. When he was released, a new law was passed, increasing the penalty for buying stolen goods. This meant few people wanted to buy them, and the price went down. James figured that the people most likely to want to buy the stolen goods, were the people who had had them stolen. He therefore set up a system whereby, if you were robbed, you could go to James with a list of stolen goods and he would find them and sell them back to you. When the items were reunited with the owner, James put a cross next to the robber’s name. Sometimes James discovered a robber hadn’t been honest with him, and so instead of buying the goods and selling them back to the original owner, James would tell the police where to find the robber. When that happened, he put two crosses next to the robber’s name. Hence, the robber was “double crossed”. Eventually, James himself was caught and hanged. (But not hung, because he wasn’t a painting…..)


Thank you for reading.


If you enjoyed this, you will love my new book: The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary.
I have always written a diary on holiday, so last Christmas, I decided to find all my old diaries and blogs, and make a book for my children. However, several other people also asked for a copy, so I have written a public version – it’s available on Amazon and has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

Why not buy a copy today? I think it will make you laugh.

The US link is here:

The India link is here:

The UK link is here:


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