Saturday, March 12, 2011

Urban Legends

There is a London Underground station by the name of Elephant and Castle. Click on the below underground map to enlarge several times and follow the red arrow. As you climb up out of the underground, the above sight will greet you. The actual reason for the name [of that section of London] is interesting enough and is probably fodder for another post, but it isn't the subject of THIS post.

In the grassy center of the roundabout at this interchange, there is a shiny aluminum building which is quite modern-looking, though it is pretty old already. This is the subject of many urban legends: What is it? What's inside it? Legends include:

1. Something nuclear
2. The home of Aphex Twin
3. Something even more sinister

In point of fact, it is a memorial. It is a memorial to a much earlier resident of the area by the name of Michael Faraday. If you are an electrical engineer, you know who Michael Faraday was. If not, let me just tell you that the unit of electrical capacitance is called a Farad. To be brief, Michael pioneered electromagnetic induction; he invented the electric motor, or at least the concept and principle. He studied the effects of electromagnetism on light waves. As a chemist, he discovered benzene. He is also responsible for the Bunsen Burner. Actually, he did a lot of things. A REALLY lot of things. Albert Einstein had a picture of Faraday on his wall, along with Isaac Newton. So Michael was a big deal. Below is a picture of him when he was old.

Anyway, the memorial building doesn't contain a nuclear device, and no one - I don't think - lives in there. So what IS inside? A big transformer. For the London underground.

Michael would have thought that was pretty cool, I think.

Incidentally, the building was originally designed to be made out of glass. But... well, you know. Some things look better on paper than in real practical life.


  1. Without looking at any sources to corroborate my assertions, I will go ahead and throw in my vaguely remembered bit of possibly spurious etymology for the Elephant and Castle.
    Firstly, the area was known as that long before the underground was devised, long indeed before Faraday.
    The story I heard, long ago, far away, or read in some obscure tourist booklet or.... truth is, I have no idea where this comes from.
    There was an inn in the area, built on the site of an older inn, itself probably buit on the site of an earlier hostelry. It was known, in later years as the Elephant and Castle, but its name was a corruption of an earlier one. The earlier hostelry* was known as "The Infanta of Castile".
    The Infanta of Castile was the Princess of Castile. Eleanor of Castile was married to Henry I, but that was way back, 1300s? early 1400s?
    I kinda doubt it was her, so far back, but maybe. I could imagine the way in which a mumbled "infanta...castile" might be misheard as elephant...castle, and gradually taken over. After all, by shakespeare's time, people were entranced by stories of the oliphaunt, a great grey animal of the east, his skin wrinkled and thick, so strong princes would build a castle upon his back and ride to war on the terrible beast.
    Whether or not there's any truth in my derivation, I like it enough to choose it over anything more mundane.

    *Hostelry. Hotel.Hosteller, Hotellier.
    Ostler, a keeper of horses ("'osses)as a hostelry.
    Hostel Hospital, both from the same route.
    Knights Hospitallers of the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
    I'm not sure if they parked your horse for you and returned it fuelled and gleaming when you checked out.
    Catherine of Aragon? She'd have been an Infanta, but not of Castille, so it wouldn't be her. Knights Castille was an ivory coloured soap my mother used to buy. It carried a picture of an elephant, on top of a castle.

  2. Michael Faraday is remembered every year by the Royal Institution's Faraday Lectures, around christmastime. They are usually televised, and feature eminent scientist giving lectures on aspects of science to an audience of young people.
    Faraday instigated them when he was president of the institution, noting that his scientific mind had itself been stimulated by hearing Sir Humphry Davy lecture when Faraday was a boy.

  3. The building is really strange. It's hard to believe it's as old as it is - it doesn't look 50+. It's also hard to get an idea of its size.

    I read that the massive redevelopment of the area may mean it has to be moved because it's a listed building. However the development is already about 10 years behind schedule and I'd like to bet it's been put on hold now. I suppose it depends on what stage it's reached.

  4. Great post. I recently read the Infanta version of the name's originis too. Not beyond the realms of possibility.

  5. @Soubriquet - Not spurious, not to me. I love to listen to you tell the story of things. You have never mentioned any grandchildren, but they would have certainly have loved to learn from your stories. I hope you never stop. :) Questions to follow...

  6. Grandchildren? Dear lord. I was going to make a follow up comment about Knight's Castile soap, but I shan't in case it brings a judgement on my age.

  7. Of course these days one could conceivably be a grandparent at 28 or even less. Even so....

  8. God. Can't say NOTHIN' around here anymore. :(

    Mailboxes can't be grandparents, Sheila. :)

    (Can they?)

  9. Mail drops. Whatever you call them.

  10. Letterboxes. I expect they could be grandparents if they put their minds to it.

  11. No they couldn't. That's absurd.

  12. @A. - Yes, they will have to move the building intact. I say leave it. But they probably won't listen to me.

  13. @Expat Mum- The name origin is intriguing. I think I will research it. Or simply make something up. :)

    btw, I got a call from a bill collector asking if I knew where you lived. I didn't.

  14. We have Castile soup. Didn't know it was invented by Eleanor, though. I think it is for hard water. You can make it, Google says. Somebody probably makes it. The dictionary says it has olive oil and sodium hydroxide and chicken parts in it. Well, not chicken parts. I just added that on my own. You can use it, though. Isn't sodium hydroxide simply lye? Why the hell don't they just say lye soap?

    Would I lye?

  15. Our castile soup is called Kirk's, though. Do you suppose it used to be Knight's, but got corrupted over years of mumbling? Just a thought.

  16. Well, it IS absurd. More absurd than a pink elephant with a rook on its back. More absurd than a swagperson offing itself by jumping into a billiard ball. Or smoking Billy's bong. Or boiling Billy's bong, for that matter. More absurd than posting a public notice about waltzing rabbits having no wheels. As if. Just stoppit. I wasn't born yesterday. I didn't just fall off the watermelon cart. I know about mailboxes. I know a LOT about mailboxes, truth be told.

  17. And don't think you can stick links in your comments just because you've learned a little html, missy. Fat chance I'll follow that one!


  18. Do you know what a femail is in Australian? I thought not.

  19. The box in Sheila's avatar is neither a mail-box nor a letter-box, it's a pillar-box.
    More specifically, it's a Penfold pillar-box.
    Hexagonal. With acanthus-bud finial at the apex. How do I know this? Ohhhh. I just do.

    Funny that you think it's a mailbox. Surely, given the slotted, rather than protuberant nature, it would be a femail-box?

    Grandchildren? Good Grief!!!!!
    Absolutely not. No children, either, or at least, none that I know of. One day, I'm sure, some teenager will knock on my door, clutching a much crumpled old photograph... "Were you in Padstow, Cornwall, in the summer of 1972?
    Do you remember meeting Arabella, a very classy, upper class girl, who'd just left Roedean school?
    Hm. And you and she became good 'friends' for the next two weeks?
    And she took this photo of you, on a sailing-boat?
    And she never answered your letters? Well... I'm your grand-daughter, Penelope Fortescue-Soubriquet....

    Arabella? I'm sure I'd have remembered an Arabella.

    I'm not grown-up enough yet to have children.

  20. Castile SOAP, I meant. The chicken goes in the SOUP. Disclaimer: Please don't put sodium hydroxide in soup.

  21. Crivvens jings and help ma boab I have learned something. (I say that as if I can trust anything scrawled here) I have known of that edifice since I first saw it in the 'Children's Paper' around 1960, long before I was born. I took it to be a disgusting piece of modern sculpture and walking around that run down murky area I kept my opinion! The area is a dump, that thing is a big busy roundabout and the area full of gun running crackheads (influenced by yankees!).
    Faraday was indeed important as a scientist, but that is a boring subject so I will not comment in this item.

  22. Not to be difficult, but I don't believe Henry I was married to any Infanta of Castile, because he happens to be an ancestor and was married to a descendant of the Anglo-Saxon kings (which I know because that's how I get back to Alfred the Great). I think he married a second time, but not to a Spanish chick. He did have beaucoup de bastards with apparently anything that wiggled, though.

    Edward I (aka Longshanks), however, married an Eleanor of Castile (yep, another ancestor) who was an infanta most likely, so that's probably who Soubriquet meant. Edward might have been a Scot-hating bastard but he actually seemed attached to his first wirfe, so she was probably better off except for dying and stuff.

    I could talk about Faraday, of course, but people would start throwing tomatoes at me.

  23. Beaucoup de bastards? Really? And it is so unusual for royalty to do that sort of thing, n'est-ce pas? Well, at least it explains how you can trace your lineage back to him, eh?


    Don't be dissing Scot haters and hatees. It will come back to haunt you. :)

    Talk about Faraday. I like him. I'll still throw tomatoes if you like.

  24. Well, in Henry I's time, court was still using French. And Henry I had a notable number of acknowledged bastards, which given the number of Kings will illegitimate children, might give you insight into how many there were (like twenty or so).

    I can't say it would bother me to be traced back through those illegitimate lines (hell, I probably can), but, since I'm related to his first wife, I must have come through someone legitimate (and I did, his daughter Matilda and her son [Henry II] and grandson [John of the Magna Carta fame]). I fall out of the royal line with Edward I's daughter Elizabeth and never wander back in.

    I actually hated electricity and magnetism in college, but I gotta respect Faraday's love of experimentation. What fun!

  25. "More specifically, it's a Penfold pillar-box."

    More specifically, it's in Gloucester dockyard. If we're going to be pedantic about it, it's also a post-box for outgoing post. If I'd said post-box in the first instance, it would have caused confusion for those who think posts are found in blogs or fences.



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