City of London Dragon Photo Safari
Travel photography for visitors
Stalking dragons in the City of London is a serious affair requiring patience, a sharp eye and keeping your wits about you. Unlike many other tourist subjects, images of dragons rarely offer themselves up to the camera neatly poised against a powder blue sky. London dragons inhabit a complex world of ancient ledges, curving architectural spans and elusive corners. They secret themselves in places of distraction, extreme texture and busy background. To capture photographs of London dragons requires almost a sixth sense, an awareness that ... just over your shoulder could lurk ... a fierce eye, a fleshy snout, a darting tongue, claws bared beneath rising wings.
That said, dragon stalking is probably more obsessive than dangerous. This safari guide – not really a tour as such – is for those who find themselves fresh in London and interested in a lightweight excuse to wander into some of the more obscure corners of this great city and experience something new and different. Something that even City commuters might have missed. This Dragon Safari should act as a sort of theme, or ‘thread of discovery’, that acts as an occasional nudge when you find your feet paused at a street corner and wonder which way to turn next. The Safari can be relied on to keep you challenged and entertained between otherwise beautifully intoxicating stretches of aimless wide-eyed wandering. Of course it also suggests a photographic adventure – a chance to take travel photographs not usually associated with London. Quirky images of fabulous beasts.
Dragons or Griffins?
There is some confusion in identifying dragons and griffins in a number of London publications and guide books. Certainly both are mythical winged creatures. A griffin is the offspring of a lion and an eagle. It has the head, shoulders and legs of an eagle, while the body is that of a lion. So, think beak and talons on a large cat. With wings. Traditionally, griffins have kept watch over hidden treasure.
A dragon is a ‘winged crocodile’ or scaled creature with a serpent tail, capable of breathing smoke or fire. Think teeth, flared nostrils, scales and a snakey tail. With wings. Dragons of classical legend are associated with guarding something, such as the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides. In medieval romance dragons spent a lot of time guarding pretty captive women. A host of dragon-slaying Saints are associated with the beast, St George being the most pertinent to England and especially the City of London.
The City of London
When I say ‘City of London’ I refer to the famous ‘square mile’, the original heart of London established by the Romans in 55BC, roughly bounded by the River Thames to the south, the Tower of London to the east, Temple to the west and The Barbican and Liverpool Street station to the north (see the map above). This is the London of London Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire, the monolithic Bank of England, trendy new Stock Exchange and towering Gherkin. In these streets walked Shakespeare, Dr Johnson, Dickens, Dick Whittington ... and his cat!
Boundary dragons are the most obvious dragons in London and probably the first you will see. These fierce silver beasts – standing on plinths with upswept wings and arrowhead tongues, clutching shields bearing the red cross of St George and short sword of St Paul – guard many of the main entrances to the City of London. They stand at the south end of London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. They flank either side of Holborn opposite the medieval, timber-framed Staple Inn. Boundary dragons also live on the Victoria Embankment, alongside the River Thames. These dragons are the originals from which the other boundary dragons were produced. They lived under the entranceway eaves of the Coal Exchange in Lower Thames Street until 1963, when it was pulled down. It was the London’s Streets Committee that recommended boundary dragons mark the City, and it was their Chairman who decided that the Coal Exchange dragons should serve as templates, in preference over the much fiercer Temple Bar dragon.
Temple Bar Dragon
This tall, gothic, freestanding dragon, which looms over the Temple Bar Memorial on Fleet Street before the Royal Courts of Justice, is also a boundary marker. Temple Bar is the most celebrated gateway to the City. The City – the Square Mile – is a political (and social) entity unto itself, and it is at Temple Bar that traditionally the ruling monarch must be met and welcomed by the City’s Lord Mayor. (The original 17th century Temple Bar gateway is now marvellously restored and installed between St Paul’s cathedral and Paternoster Square.) Dramatic photographs of Temple Bar Dragon can be produced against the Royal Courts of Justice towers, or simply against a deep blue sky. On a bright day capture it in silhouette (see sidebar); if overcast in pointy detail.
A couple of dozen steps east on Fleet Street, notice a pair of dragons to the right of the entrance of St Dunstan’s in the West church, carved into a stone panel. Again, real (Victorian) gothic beasts.
Where Fleet Street meets Chancery Lane, up on the curved facade beautifully carved in red Corsehill stone, are a remarkable pair of creatures sometimes referred to as ‘dragons’ or ‘griffins’, but are surely winged lions. These beasts have neither scales nor feathers. From the black ironwork bracket between them used to hang three golden balls, marking this renaissance-inspired building as one of the most fashionable pawn shops in existence.
Holborn Viaduct Dragons
The Holborn Viaduct is a veritable dragon's lair. When walking across the bridge large pairs of tongue-waggling silver dragon heads appear above the parapets. (Clamber over the security blocks to get a closer look.) These dragons rise from giant coats-of-arms of the City of London mounted centrally on each side of the viaduct. Between the dragons are some imposing jousting helmets mounted with dragon wings. At the foot of each lampost along the viaduct sits a red dragon picked out with gold, and large Winged Lions guard either end. Tall, freestanding female figures line the parapet, emblematic of Arts, Manufactures, Agriculture and Commerce.
On three of the four corners of the Viaduct stone steps drop down to Farringdon Road below – former bed of the River Fleet. Here you are faced with an architecturally rich expanse of ironwork, and a medium telephoto lens will produce images filled with dragons in roundels and other decorative relief on the viaduct’s brightly painted spandrels.
The building of Holborn Viaduct began in 1867 and it was opened with much fanfare in November 1869 by Queen Victoria. Its functional purpose was to ease entry to the City by spanning the ‘Fleet Ditch’, and to provide a ‘slip road’ to the Smithfield food markets just to the NE. Clearly, though, it was also a celebration of the Victorian modernising spirit and satisfied an urge to playfully imbue engineering with the arts.
The Viaduct was conceived as a piece with the step-buildings surrounding it . The niche statuary and ornamentation overlooking the viaduct is remarkable. Look at the muscular stone Atlantes supporting on their backs the balcony on the building to the southwest. If you find architectural or record-type photography attractive, then the parapets of the Holborn Viaduct are a photographer’s paradise.
Dragon Photo Tips
London dragons are best photographed in overcast but bright conditions. Bright diffuse light gives the image depth and contrast – modelling a dragon nicely by bringing out his scales, wings and claws in relief – while retaining detail in the shadow areas, which helps to bring out the expression in his face.
Direct sunlight really brings out colour, but can be tricky to shoot – bright light tends to make dragons appear contrasty to the camera. If you find your dragons exhibit patches of dark shadow over their eyes, jawline or the curve of their belly, use a little fill-flash, (or force flash on smartphone cameras).
To photograph a dragon in silhouette a bright sunny day is best and you must be able to control (or lock) your exposure. Take an exposure reading off some bright surrounding buildings or the sky (half-press your shutter to lock the exposure), re-compose your dragon photograph and take your photo.
Smithfield Market is the largest ‘dead meat’ market in the country and is another Victorian celebration in stone and polychrome ironwork. Remarkably, the striking purples, greens and blues of the market’s cast-iron skeleton and decoration are the same colours visitors would have seen when it was opened in 1868. The market is two city blocks long and walking around the 10 acre site reveals a range of dragons.
Marvel at those crouched and ready to spring from the spandrels above either end of the Grand Avenue which bisects the buildings. Contemplate the massive dragons of Portland stone squatting below the market’s octagonal corner towers. A pair of prancing dragons display themselves in the playfully sculpted City coat-of-arms over the eastern entrance.
There has been a market on this site for over 1000 years. In the Middle Ages it was renowned for its horse market. Cattle were still being driven through the streets of London to Smithfield well into the 19th century – until the practice was banned due to drunken drovers playing silly buggers and stampeding cattle into houses and shops, (originating the phrase “bull in a china shop”). After slaughter, blood literally ran in the streets around here. But its bloody reputation didn’t end there. The adjacent open space (‘Smithfield’ = ‘Smooth Field’) was a convenient venue for tournaments, jousting and rugged sporting events. Smithfield was also a place of public execution: hundreds of supposed rebels and heretics were variously burnt, boiled and roasted alive here over a span of 400 years. The pitch became fashionable for dueling in the early 17th century.
Even today vegetarians might want to give Smithfield a pass before about 10am, to avoid the carcasses and slabs of meat lying about and being stacked into refrigerated vans.
The Guildhall is headquarters of the Corporation of London – the centre of civic government for the City. Wander about Guildhall Yard and drink in the beautifully eclectic mixture of architecture, both ancient and modern (mostly thanks to the Blitz). The hall itself is 15th century, with an entrance added in 1788 expressing Gothic and Hindu styles. A pair of white dragons appear at the roofline sporting magnificently swept wings and curly-cue tails. Before the heavy, cantilevered modern building (1975) to the west you will see displayed an equally modern set of dragons displaying themselves within a City of London coat-of-arms.
Bank Underground Station
Bank underground station has a myriad of entrances. Entering four of these caverns reveals some remarkable wide-eyed, spitting mad dragons standing on their hind legs holding City pennons. Their muscular appendages and glistening talons are meant for business. Beware. A red cross is worked into their wings and a mixture of interior and exterior lighting gives their bulging chests an eerie gleam. These stunning silvery-bronze and enamel panels are by sculptor Gerald Laing.
Leadenhall Market is another enchanting tribute to the Victorian joy in combining iron engineering with aesthetic whimsey. Unexpectedly tucked away off Gracechurch Street, the atmosphere within this tall, narrow space is dim and dusty. An occasional beam of sunlight manages to pass through the clutch of surrounding buildings and the arcade’s glass canopy to illuminate a floral wall motif or patch of cobblestones. Iron columns line the passages, rising to colourful brackets hiding in the upper shadows. Old meat and game hooks line some alleys, gloomily redundant now that the market stalls house designer shops, wine and cigar merchants and olive oil boutiques.
... as Pevsner puts it, “dragons cheekily squeeze between capital and entablature”. If you look over the open outside entrances of the passages, you will see that dragons are cheeky enough to live there as well.
A square dome rises from an octogon above the crossing of the two market passages. Iron columns rise here with, as Pevsner puts it, “dragons cheekily squeezed between capital and entablature”. If you look over the open outside entrances of the passages, you will see that dragons are cheeky enough to live there as well. There is an atmospheric cloak drawn over Leadenhall Market that makes it irresistable to photographers and other visitors. But the subdued lighting and high detail makes photography here very difficult. Dragons cling to the high shadows. Some careful use of flash and/or a tripod with a medium-long telephoto lens might begin to tame these beasts and produce some interesting photographs.
The Dragon Safari ends with some sightings at Monument – glimpses of the oldest dragons in the City. Monument is an imposing Roman Doric column topped by a golden flaming urn, built by Christopher Wren in 1671-6 to commemorate the Great Fire of London. The Great Fire burnt nearly 400 acres within the City walls and 63 acres outside (around 4/5ths of the City). Over 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 44 livery halls were destroyed. A Blue Plaque nearby marks where the fire began at a bakery in Pudding Lane.
Four old dragons – pretty weathered and startled from sleep – cling to the corners of the pedestal. Timing and light is critical in photographing these ancient beasts: early in the morning with nice sunlight rising over your shoulder; or much later in the day when some light can get down the architectural corridor to the west. On the west side of the pedestal is a large allegorical frieze (representing the city in ruins and being rebuilt with the help of Charles II). Look for the dragon lower left. This is the City Dragon attempting to preserve the fire-ruined city by supporting it on his back.
Monument is not far from London Bridge, which, until 1750, was the only place you could cross the River Thames in London. And it is on the south end of London Bridge that a fine specimen of the Boundary Dragon can be seen and photographed. Which appropriately takes us back to where we began.
Of course, the Dragon Safari may be exhausting, but it is not exhaustive. There are more dragons out there. If you are still not satiated, wander onto the Millennium Bridge and gaze towards the City of London School ramparts overlooking the Thames, or look up to the enormous golden weathervane atop St Mary-le-Bow church on Cheapside (famous also for its ‘Bow Bells’). Go to the heart of the City and inspect the lamposts of the Royal Exchange. Or marvel at the modern sculpture of St George tilting at a three-tongued, serpentine dragon (spewing water!) on Dorset Rise. Its creator, Michael Sandle, has said that he originally intended to produce an 'ironical sculpture with the dragon winning ...’. I like that. I think all London dragons should be winners.
Good luck photographing the elusive beast and happy dragon hunting!
Text and photographs copyright © 2021 by Jim Batty. All rights reserved.
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A version of this article with images appeared in Le Cool's A Weird and Wonderful Guide to London (2008).