Day 51 (part 1) – Trafalgar Square – Northumberland Avenue – Whitehall

So, technically this should probably be Day 51 and Day 52 (part1) as I had to have two cracks at it. First time out I only got as far as covering the few missing streets east of Charing Cross station when I realised I’d lost my wallet somewhere en route. I retraced my steps a couple of times to no avail and then it started to pour with rain so I gave it up as a bad job and went to see Black Panther at the cinema instead. When I resumed several weeks later the weather couldn’t have been more different; hottest day of the year in fact. Less than ideal for fighting my way through the wilting hordes of tourists loitering in Trafalgar Square and wandering up and down Whitehall.

Day 51 Route

That ill-fated first foray kicked off at Embankment Tube from where we weaved through the Victoria Embankment Gardens to the York Watergate which we originally encountered quite a few posts back. As a reminder, this was built in 1626 by Inigo Jones for George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and marks the original northern bank of the Thames prior to the construction of the Embankment. On the other side we follow Watergate Walk east to York Buildings then turn north up to John Adam Street. At no.16 a blue plaque identifies this as a one-time residence of the Georgian artist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756 – 1827).

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After a quick visit to the dead-end that is Durham House Street we head west on John Adam Street before cutting through Buckingham Arcade up to the Strand. Keep left and then turn left down Villiers Street just for a few paces before turning left again down York Place and allowing Buckingham Street to take us back down to the Watergate. This time we cross back over Villiers Street and follow Embankment Place west beneath the railway. At the end of the tunnel we emerge onto Northumberland Avenue and swing north before forking right into Craven Street by the Playhouse Theatre. It’s been a while since we had a West End theatre on our route and this one is a bit of an outlier stuck down here by the river. It opened for business in 1907, reconstructed from the ashes of the Avenue Theatre of 1882 which suffered extensive damage when part of the roof of Charing Cross Station collapsed on it in 1905. The interior was being remodelled at the time and sadly six workmen lost their lives. The Playhouse was used by the BBC as a studio from 1951 until the mid-Seventies when it fell into dereliction and was threatened with demolition before being rescued in the late 80’s.

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No.25 Craven Street has a blue plaque commemorating the Moby Dick writer Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). Inspired by the five years he spent as a seafarer, working on merchant ships and as an ordinary seaman in the US Navy, Moby Dick was published in 1851. In the UK it originally came out under the title The Whale in three separate volumes.

It was at this point that things went pear-shaped as described above and three weeks went past before I picked up where I left off.

Another one-time literary resident of Craven Street was the German poet, Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856) who lived here in 1827 having left Germany to avoid the fallout from his latest work which contained a satire on German censorship.

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Next we head back under the railway through the Arches, first passing between the two halves of the Ship and Shovell pub. As I heard some chap ahead of me explain to his partner, this is the only pub in London divided in this way. The pub takes its name from the brilliantly-monickered 17th century admiral, Sir Cloudesley Shovell (so not a sanitising misprint).

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The Arches is also home to the iconic gay nightclub, Heaven, which opened in 1979 replacing a roller-disco called Global Village. The club has also played host to many live performances over the years including the first London gig by New Order in 1981.  Goth pioneers, Bauhaus were filmed here in 1982 performing their classic Belo Legosi’s Dead, footage of which was used in the Catherine Deneuve / David Bowie film The Hunger.

At the other end of the Arches we turn northward back up to Charing Cross Station. Charing Cross was opened by the South Eastern Railway in 1864. After the aforementioned roof collapse of 1905 it was extensively rebuilt, and at the same time the tube lines were constructed. The Charing Cross monument which stands in front of the station is an 1865 replica of one of the 12 Eleanor Crosses built by Edward I to mark the funeral route of his wife Eleanor of Castile who died in 1290. The original Charing Cross was demolished on the orders of Cromwell’s Parliament in 1647. By the 21st century the replica itself needed serious renovation work which was completed during 2009/10.

To the west of the station we turn south down Craven Street again then take a right along Corner House Street into Northumberland Street. Continuing south takes us past the Sherlock Holmes pub, which houses a collection of memorabilia relating to the eponymous detective that originally formed an exhibit of the 1951 Festival of Britain.  Whitbread, then owners of what was then called the Northumberland Arms, acquired the collection in 1957 and refurbished and renamed the pub to be its permanent home.

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We nip down Craven Passage to make a final visit to Craven Street, the section which contains at no.36 the 1730 built house where Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) lived from 1757 to 1775. During this time Franklin’s main occupation was mediating unrest between Britain and America, but he also served as Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies and pursued his love of science (exploring bifocal spectacles, the energy-saving Franklin stove, inoculation, air baths and cures for the common cold).

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Having made the return trip along Craven Passage we head up the eastern side of Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square. No.18/21 is now the Citadines Hotel but it was built in 1934 as the headquarters of the Royal Commonwealth Society, “a meeting place for gentlemen interested in colonial and Indian affairs”. The building is unremarkable except for the pair of nude male statues supporting the balcony above the entrance and the keystone over the door which features a pair of mythical merlions, half lion half fish creatures that crop up in Etruscan and Indian art as well as Western heraldry. IMG_20180419_145803

On the corner with the Strand stands the Grand Buildings, a 1990’s redevelopment of the 1879 Grand Hotel which is adorned with carvings of endangered animals and human faces by sculptor Barry Baldwin.

And so we come to Trafalgar Square, created in the 1840’s and named in commemoration of victory against the French and Spanish in the naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. By this time the National Gallery, which we covered way back in Day 33, was already in situ on the north side. When its architect, William Wilkins, died in 1840 responsibility for the layout of the square was handed to Charles Barry (1795 – 1860). The final designs included a terraced area in front of the National Gallery, four sculptural plinths and two ornamental fountains at an estimated budget of £11,000. When construction work  began the earth removed was used to level Green Park. The hero of Trafalgar was of course Lord Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805) and a memorial in his honour was planned as a separate project. A competition was held and won by the architect William Railton, who proposed a 218ft Corinthinan column topped by a statue of Nelson and guarded by four sculpted lions. The design was approved, but received widespread objections from the public. Construction still went ahead but with the height reduced to 145ft. The column was completed and the statue raised in November 1843. The four lions were only installed at the base in 1867 having been designed by Sir Edwin Landseer in collaboration with Baron Marochetti (a French sculptor ironically). The two plinths on the south side of the square are occupied by statues of General Sir Charles James Napier (1782 – 1853) and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock (1795 – 1857) both of whose reputations rest on their service during various campaigns in India. On that basis  the opprobrium that Ken Livingstone received when, in 2000, he suggested they be replaced by more familiar figures seems more than harsh.

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An equestrian statue of George IV stands on the plinth in the north-eastern corner while the fourth plinth in the north-west corner, which was originally reserved for a similar equestrian statue of William IV, was left empty right up until the end of the last century. Since 1998 it has been used to show specially commissioned works of art. By coincidence the latest such work, and the 12th in the series, was unveiled on the day of my aborted first excursion, 28 March 2018. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist by Michael Rakowitz is a recreation of the statue of a Lamassu, a deity with a human head and the body of a winged bull, that guarded the ancient city of Nineveh (in modern day Iraq) and was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Rakowitz’s sculpture is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans and is a welcome return to form following David Shrigley’s little admired giant erect thumb.

As you can probably tell the photos above were taken on that earlier date.

Across the road on the west side stands the Canadian High Commission which, on the latter date. was subject to additional security on account of President Trudeau’s attendance for the meeting of the Heads of Commonwealth. What came to be known as Canada House was built between 1824 and 1827 to designs by Sir Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum. The Canadians acquired the building in 1923. In 1993 their government of the time closed it as a cost-cutting measure but the succeeding government reversed that decision four years later and then got the Queen to officially re-open the building.

On the other side of Canada House in the apex of Pall Mall East and Cockspur Street is an equestrian statue of George III. The so-called “Mad King” presumably wasn’t deemed suitable for a starring role in the Square itself.

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On the other side of Cockspur Street, the Embassies of Brazil and Kazakhstan stand side by side, the former somewhat more imposing than the latter.

There’s a former Embassy at 21-24 Cockspur Street as well. Built at the time of the First World War with sculptural adornments by Louis Roselieb (later Roslyn) it became Norway House after the war. The name remains even though the Norwegians decamped to Belgrave Square in 1949.

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 Warwick House Street is another road to nowhere…

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….as is Cockspur Court which leads off from Spring Gardens by the side of the HQ of the British Council and the offices of NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence though why they don’t rename it the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to fit the acronym heaven knows).

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Anyway in front of this lovely building is a cut-through down onto the Mall right by Admiralty Arch. The Arch was commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his mother Queen Victoria. It was designed by Aston Webb and completed in 1912. The sculptural figures, Navigation and Gunnery, at the end of the two wings are the work of Thomas Brock. The building originally served as official residence for the First Sea Lord and later housed various government offices. In 2011 as part of the Cameron government’s austerity programme it was put up for sale and acquired (for a reported £75m) by a Spanish real estate developer who (well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs !) are currently converting it into a Luxury Hotel and Private Members’ club.

Turning left underneath the Arch we circle round the equestrian statue of Charles I which stands on its own separate island to the south of Trafalgar Square and head back down the west side of Northumberland Avenue.

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About half way down is the Nigerian High Commission which was under siege from marchers demonstrating for an independent Biafra. While familiar with the horrors of the Biafran War (1967 – 1970) I am ashamed to say I was unaware that the struggle for secession by the tiny home state of the Igbo people continues to this day.

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We continue to the end of Northumberland Avenue then turn right through Whitehall Gardens which are laid out in front of what is now the Royal Horseguards Hotel but was built as a block of luxury residential apartments, modelled in the style of a French chateau, in 1884 by the Liberal MP and property developer Jabez Balfour. The building’s construction was the centrepiece of an elaborate pyramid scheme fraud by Balfour, through the Liberator Building Society which he controlled. In 1892 the Society collapsed, leaving thousands of investors penniless.

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At the southern end of the gardens we turn west on Horse Guards Avenue then swing right into Whitehall Court which takes from the memorial to the Brigade of Gurkhas to the memorial to the Royal Tank Regiment on the junction with Whitehall Place.

We turn left up Whitehall Place the right into Scotland Place which leads out into Great Scotland Yard where the rear (and what became the public) entrance to the original headquarters of the Met Police is to be found. The Met was formed in 1829 with the passing of Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act and took over 4 Whitehall Place, formerly a private house, as its base of operations. The commemorative blue plaque is sited at this front entrance. The Met expanded into several adjoining properties during the 19th century and then in 1890 moved to a new location on the Victoria Embankment (more of which later).

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Proceeding west (m’lud) on Great Scotland Street takes us onto Whitehall itself. Whitehall is of course synonymous with the upper echelons of the UK Civil Service and the first of many government departments residing here is the Department for International Trade, where I imagine they have their work quite cut out at the moment. Beyond the DIT and covering the entire block between Whitehall Place and Horse Guards Avenue is the Old War Office Building. This massive 1906 neo-Baroque edifice took five years to build at a then whopping cost of £1.2m. Its approximately 1,000 rooms spread across seven miles linked by 2.5 miles of corridors became the new home for the Imperial General Staff. The building was a focal point for military planning throughout the major conflicts of the 20th century, housing numerous secretaries of state, including Winston Churchill. When the War Office as an institution was abolished in 1964 the building continued to be used by the Ministry of Defence up until 2013 when it was announced that it would be put up for sale on the open market. It was acquired by the Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for more than £350m and I guess I really don’t need to spell out what they intend to do with it. You have to wonder though whether once the whole of central London has been turned into luxury hotels anyone will bother coming to patronise those hotels.

Next stop heading south down Whitehall is Banqueting House which Charles I appointed Inigo Jones to design and was completed in 1622. The USP of the Banqueting House is its carved and gilded ceiling containing 9 paintings by Rubens that were installed in 1636. Unfortunately the building was closed to visitors when I got there so you’ll have to visit the link above to see the ceiling in all its glory.

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Behind and extending beyond the Banqueting House lies the monolithic and more than a touch 1984-ish Ministry of Defence building. This covers the site where once stood the Palace of Whitehall, main residence of English Monarchs from 1530 to 1698 when most of the structures other than the Banqueting House were destroyed by fire. Subsequently it was occupied by Georgian townhouses a number of which were taken over as government offices. The decision to construct a new large-scale government building was taken as far back as 1909 but the outbreak of WW1 put the plans on hold. A new Neoclassical design of architect Vincent Harris was agreed in 1933 but work didn’t start until five years later and was halted again almost immediately by the onset of WW2. Construction recommenced after the war and in 1951 the Board of Trade moved into the completed northern end. It was another eight years before the Air Ministry occupied the southern end. When the MOD as we know it today was created in 1964 it took over the entire building. The northern portico entrance to the building, on Horse Guards Avenue, is flanked by two large statues, Earth and Water, each weighing 40 tonnes, by the sculptor Sir Charles Wheeler (1892 – 1974) who was also responsible for some of the fountain figures in Trafalgar Square. During the 1950s, building staff nicknamed the statues “Mr and Mrs Parkinson”, after Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the Board of Trade civil servant who devised Parkinson’s Law which states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. More recent MOD staff refer to the statues as the “two fat ladies”.

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The southern entrance is on Richmond Terrace which is flanked on its other side by the Department of Health which occupies Richmond House the façade and wings of which date back to 1822.

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There are several more memorials in the section of Victoria Embankment Gardens behind the MOD including another statue of General Charles Gordon (1822 – 1885). Gordon’s heroic but ultimately doomed defence of Khartoum against the Muslim revolt of 1884 seized the Victorian popular imagination and his death, after nearly a year withstanding the siege, just two days before relief forces arrived led to an “unprecedented wave of public grief”.

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We’ll wrap things up for this time on the corner of Richmond Terrace and Victoria Embankment where you’ll find New Scotland Yard (or re-New Scotland Yard as it should probably be called). After leaving 4 Whitehall Place in 1890 the Met moved to a new building at this location on the Victoria Embankment which became known as New Scotland Yard. In 1906 and 1940 respectively two further buildings were added but by the Sixties even that wasn’t room enough for the burgeoning force and a new New Scotland Yard was built at 10 Broadway in Victoria opening in 1967. Then in 2014 (as we covered in Day 48) the Broadway building was sold to the Abu Dhabi Financial Group and two years later the Met returned to the Victoria Embankment moving into a redeveloped Curtis Green Building (the third building of the original New Scotland Yard). The new New Scotland Yard building was to have been opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 23 March 2017, but that same day it was announced that the Royal opening would be postponed, due to the preceding day’s terrorist attack at Westminster.

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