You might be forgiven for thinking that I’ve watched a little too much Game of Thrones, recanting stories of dragons in London as if I were Saint George and his sword. But I kid you not, I have seen countless dragons this past week, right in the very heart of London. Silver dragons with bright red tongues and a grimacing look in their eyes. I would be frightened... If they weren't made out of cast iron.
To find these dragons, we’re first going to have to talk briefly about the City of London. Not to be confused with Greater London, the City of London, also know as the Square Mile, or simply The City, is a special county located geographically inside, but not governed by, Greater London. It’s the site of the Roman settlement Londinium and because of a strange and complicated history, they have their own separate Mayor, their own Police, and their own Coat of Arms, the last of which particularly interests me, as it is the crest of the City of London, held up by two dragons. It is because of these dragons that the City has been associated with them for centuries.
You will know when you are entering the City of London because all of the main gates to the City are presided over by a dragon. On Fleet Street you will find by far the most frightening dragon standing a crest the Temple Bar Memorial. His ominous presence bears down on those who wish to enter the City.
At all the former gates to the City, you will find a cast iron dragon, painted silver with a flashy red tongue holding the crest to the City. They were designed by the City Architect, J. B. Bunning for the Coal Exchange, and it wasn’t until it was demolished in 1963 that the Corporation of London's Streets Committee decided to make them boundary markers. These original dragons can be found today at the Victoria Embankment. Half size replicas can be found at High Holborn, Farringdon Street, Aldersgate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate, London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge.
Other buildings in the City are home to the dragons as well. There are some particularly fine examples that adorn the walls and facades of the City's markets. Smithfield market is the largest Meat Market in Europe and has been continually running on the same site since the 10th century. We asked inside if anyone had any Dragon meat, but all we could find were sculptures on the side of the 1866 Central Market Hall building.
Not wanting to let Smithfield take centre stage, Leadenhall market sports some intricate dragons in the supports for its ornate roof. The market is very picturesque and has been the filming location for a number of movies, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to name but just a couple. It’s also a great spot to take photographs if the weather has turned a little sour.
Saint Mary-le-Bow (whose bells you must be born within earshot to be a real Cockney) has a steeple that just happens to be topped with a gold dragon weathervane. It was reconstructed after the Great Fire of London in 1679 and the Dragon was raised to the top of the steeple by Jacob Hill, a famous traps artist, to the amusement of crowds.
When Jacob Hall on his high rope she's tricks,
The Dragon flutters, the Lord Mayor’s horse kicks;
The Cheapside crowds and parents scarcely know
Which most t’admire, Hall, hobby-horse, or Bow.
- State Poems, vol. iv. p. 379
To be a true Dragon aficionado, one must not mistake Griffins and Dragons. Whilst the two can both fly and are both seen on the Holborn Viaduct, they have many differences. The Griffin has the body and legs of a lion with thick fur, and the wings of an eagle. Whereas the dragon is a serpent, and therefore has scales that are more similar to those of an alligator.
I wanted to save my favourite Dragons for last. These miniature dragons can be found atop of the lights in the forecourt of the Royal Exchange building outside Bank underground (which in itself has impressive Dragons bounding their exit signs). I just found them irresistibly cute. I would love to have one as a pet that could light my cigarettes or maybe toast some marshmallows during cold winter nights.
We created a custom google map with a few of the impressive Dragons we found in the City of London. This is by no means an exhaustive list as the City is filled with dragons everywhere. Once you are privy to their existence, it is hard not to notice them everywhere. You’ll be scouting the architecture, looking on the roofs and noticing the many places the Coat of Arms lie. Or why not go on a photo safari with Aperture Tours and see how many you can shoot. Make sure to bring along a telephoto lens and shoot quick, these little guys can be hard to capture.
Author: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours which run photography tours in the most photogenic cities across the globe. A professional photographer for over a decade, Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.