Vic Keegan’s Lost London 20: pineapples

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 20: pineapples

Pineapples, ever since Christopher Columbus came across them in Guadeloupe in 1493, have been a symbol of hospitality and wealth. Nobles were prepared to pay the equivalent of £5,000 apiece for them to impress guests at their dinner tables. This might help to explain why they have become hidden symbols of London as a welcoming city – well, until recently . 

Once you spot one you start seeing them everywhere. The first I came across were on the top of the obelisks at either end of Lambeth Bridge. I thought they were a one-off tribute to John Tradescant and his son of the same name17th century gardeners and botanists often credited with introducing pineapples to England. They are buried a few yards away in St Mary’s churchyard, now home to the Garden Museum (which has reportedly maintained that they aren’t pineapples at all, but pine cones).

But look around in Central London and find you are seldom far from a stone one. A few hundred yards from Lambeth Bridge, in Smith Square, the church of St John the Evangelist sports a number of them on its spires. If you look up at the two towers on the western side of St Paul’s, you won’t see a cross or a statue but a pineapple. There is also something that looks a bit like a pineapple on top of the dome itself. (Pineapple fanatics point out that Norman Foster’s iconic office block overlooking St Paul’s actually looks more like a pineapple than a gherkin. They have been campaigning for a change of name).

Christopher Wren seems to have been very partial to them, as he also put them on his (war-bombed) Christ Church in Newgate Street (photo below) where they are currently adorning the ground like discarded sculptures – perhaps a reminder that London is becoming a less welcoming place to strangers than it once was.

One of my favourites is in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church. Architect Sir John Soane had one plonked on top of the tomb he designed for himself and which became the inspiration for Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic – though pineapple-free – red telephone box.

Pineapples were often sculpted on to railings as a welcoming sign. There are literally dozens of them in the roads around Devonshire Street north of Broadcasting House, some painted gold, some silver and some black. Others are in Soho Square, the old Greater London Council building, Great Russell Street (see photo at top), Royal Hospital Road, Whitehall, Mayfair, the Inns of Court, Queen’s Gate Lodge, Westminster Abbey’s garden, and even at the top of the National Gallery. For yet more London pineapples see Maggie Jones.

Vic Keegan is a former leader writer for the Guardian. Lost London numbers 1-19 can be read here. Vic’s latest book of London poems can be purchased here. It would make a lovely Christmas gift. As would a pineapple.

Categories: Lost London

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