Day 62 – Tower Bridge – Queen’s Walk – Hay’s Wharf

Well it’s taken nearly four years, which is about three and a half more than originally planned, but after 62 days and god knows how many miles every street covered by the central section of the London A-Z has finally been walked. Of course, give it a few more years and no-one will have a clue what that means as they’ll only ever have used Google maps to get around but, just as a reminder, this is roughly the area we’re talking about :

Covered so far May 2016

or to put it another way :

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And (having just counted them up) that’s roughly 2,028 streets, roads, lanes, walks, passages, avenues, mews(es) and rents altogether. Though I probably shouldn’t count Downing Street as it wasn’t actually possible to set foot there.

Anyway back to today’s valedictory lap which is mercifully short – just across Tower Bridge and west along the river to London Bridge.

Day 63 Route

Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894 and is a combined bascule (the bit that raises and lowers – from the French for “see-saw”) and suspension bridge. It has a total length of 244m and the two towers are 65m high. Over 50 designs had been submitted for the new river crossing and the successful proposal for a bascule bridge was a collaboration between Horace Jones, the City Architect, and engineer, John Wolfe Barry. The incorporation of twin towers with connecting walkways was intended to allow pedestrians to be able to continue to cross the river when the bridge was raised. However, in 1910 the walkways were closed due to lack of use – the general public preferred to wait for the bascules to close rather than clamber up the two hundred-odd stairs and (allegedly) run a gauntlet of pickpockets and prostitutes once they got to the top. Only in 1982 with the creation of the Tower Bridge exhibition were the Walkways re-opened and covered over. Two massive piers were sunk into the river bed to support the construction and over 11,000 tons of steel provided the framework for the Towers and Walkways. This framework was clad in Cornish granite and Portland stone to protect the underlying steelwork and to give the Bridge a more pleasing appearance.

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Compared to many London attractions entry to the Tower Bridge exhibition is relatively reasonably priced at just under a tenner. This gets you up to the walkways, 42m above the river, and also includes access to the engine rooms. I chose to climb up the 200-plus steps inside the north tower rather than take the lift. Those that go for the latter option miss out on half the exhibition (including the “dad-dancing diver – you’ll see what I mean). Each walkway now includes a short glass-floored section which is not great for those that lack a head for heights. If these had only been configured “à la bascule” then the world would be able to rid itself of a bevy of annoying teenagers on regular basis.

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To get to the Engine Rooms, which are situated underneath the southern end of the bridge, you follow a blue line from the base of the south tower. The bascules are operated by hydraulics, originally using steam to power the enormous pumping engines. The energy created was stored in six massive accumulators so that, as soon as power was required to lift the bridge, it was always readily available. The accumulators fed the driving engines, which drove the bascules up and down. Despite the complexity of the system, the bascules only took about a minute to raise to their maximum angle of 86 degrees. Today, the bascules are still operated by hydraulic power, but since 1976 they have been driven by oil and electricity rather than steam. The original pumping engines, accumulators and boilers are now exhibits within the Engine Rooms.

We descend from the west side Tower Bridge Road down onto Queen’s Walk and then turn left immediately and follow Duchess Walk past a line of upscale eateries to Queen Elizabeth Street. On the triangular island bordered by this, Tooley Street and TBR stands a statue of Samuel Bourne Bevington (1832 – 1907) who was Bermondsey’s first mayor and came from a Quaker family who made their fortune in the local leather trade.  The sculptor was Sydney March (1876 – 1968) who was something of a go-to guy at the start of the 20th century if you wanted a monument to a major figure of Empire or a WW1 memorial. Beyond this statue (and you can only just see the plinth in the photo below) is a bust of the far more significant figure of Ernest Bevin (1881 – 1951) who was co-founder of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and served as Foreign Secretary in the 1945-51 Labour Government.
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At the junction of Queen Elizabeth Street and Tooley Street sits the building that was built in 1893 as a new permanent home for St Olaves’ Grammar School. The school was founded in the late 16th century following a legacy of £8 a year granted in the will of Southwark brewer, Henry Leeke. The building on QE Street was designed by Edward William Mountford, the architect of the Old Bailey. The school upped and decamped to suburban Orpington in 1968 and the building was acquired for use as an annexe by South London College. That tenure lasted until 2004 after which the listed building lay idle for ten years until it was bought by the Lalit Group as the latest addition to their chain of luxury boutique hotels, opening in 2017.

We turn right past the west side of the hotel down Potters Fields which runs into its eponymous park where a lunchtime session of Bikram yoga is in full swing.

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On the north side of the park, heading back towards Tower Bridge is London’s newest major theatre, the Bridge, founded by former National Theatre luminaries, Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, and opened in 2017.  Diagonally opposite across the park stands City Hall the headquarters of the Greater London Authority (GLA) a combination of the Mayor of London’s office and the London Assembly. The building was designed by Norman Foster and opened for business in 2002, two years after the creation of the GLA. The unusual shape of the building was supposedly intended to minimise surface area and thus improve energy efficiency but the exclusive use of glass for the exterior has more than offset any benefit this confers. In a singular display of unity, former Mayors, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, have both likened the form of the building to a particular element of the male anatomy; the former dubbing it “the Glass Testicle” and the latter “the Glass Gonad”.

City Hall forms part of a larger riverside development, called More London, with the usual mix of offices, shops and restaurants, which covers the area once filled with wharves and warehouses forming part of the so-called Upper Pool of London. Adjacent to City Hall is a sunken amphitheatre called The Scoop which hosts open-air music performances and film screenings during the summer months (and more lunchtime yoga as you can see below).

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In order to arrive at The Scoop we cross Potters Fields Park back to Tooley Street and return via Weaver’s Lane and More London Riverside. En route we pass through a herbaceous garden, of forty different perennial species, designed by the man responsible for the highline garden in New York, Piet Oudolf.

The thoroughfare known as More London Riverside continues beyond The Scoop, veering away from the river in between new HQ’s for accountancy firms Ernst & Young and PWC and lawyers, Norton Rose.

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On arriving at More London Place we head back down to river along Morgan’s Lane, which joins Queen’s Walk by the mooring of HMS Belfast. Although I have been aboard HMS Belfast before that was about 45 years ago I reckon so I was sorely tempted to repeat the experience but time was against me so I spurned the opportunity.

Built by Messrs Harland & Wolff in 1936, HMS Belfast was launched by Anne Chamberlain, wife of the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, on St Patrick’s Day in 1938. A year later she was commissioned into the Royal Navy under the command of Captain G A Scott (the ship that is, not Mrs Chamberlain). The Belfast was immediately called into service patrolling northern waters in an effort to impose a maritime blockade on Germany. However, disaster struck after only two months at sea when she hit a magnetic mine. There were few casualties but the damage to her hull was so severe she was out of action for three years. On rejoining the fleet in 1942 the Belfast played a key role in protecting arctic convoys en route to the USSR. She then went on to spend five weeks supporting the 1944 D-Day landings. She retired from service in 1963 and a few years later a trust was formed under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum to preserve her. After a successful campaign HMS Belfast was opened to the public in 1971, the last remaining vessel of her type – one of the largest and most powerful light cruisers ever built.

Bang in front of HMS Belfast on the riverfront, and taking up valuable real estate that could be otherwise utilised for even more bars and restaurants, is the enduring loveliness that is Southwark Crown Court. Opened in 1983 its 15 courtrooms make it the fourth largest centre for criminal sentencing in the country. It specialises in serious fraud cases. High profile cases in 2019 include the founder of Extinction Rebellion and another activist being cleared of all charges relating to protests in which they entered Kings College London and spray painted “Divest from oil and gas” on the walls and Julian Assange being convicted for breaching bail conditions by taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy. (Who says judges are out of touch ?).
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The front entrance to the court building is away from the river on English Grounds which is off Battle Bridge Lane. Surrounded by the latter, Counter Street and Hay’s Lane is Hay’s Galleria. In 1651 merchant, Alexander Hay took over the lease of a brewhouse beside London Bridge which included a small wharf. By 1710 his family company owned most of the warehouses along the river between London Bridge and the future southern end of Tower Bridge and the expanded wharf officially became known as Hay’s Wharf. By 1838 the company had fallen under the control of John Humphrey Jnr, an Alderman of the City of London. He commissioned architect William Cubitt to design and build a new wharf with an enclosed dock which work was completed in 1857. Unfortunately, just four years later, the Great Fire of Southwark destroyed the warehouses surrounding the new wharf. The buildings that form Hay’s Galleria are some of those arose from the ashes of that fire. Within a few years Hay’s Wharf was handling nearly 80% of the dry produce coming into the capital earning it the soubriquet of “London’s Larder”. The area suffered terrible bombing during WW2 but the Hay’s Wharf company recovered and by 1960, was handling 2m tons of foodstuffs and had 11 cold and cool air stores. However, over the course of the following decade, the explosion in the use of container ships led to the shipping industry moving out to the deep water ports of Tilbury and Felixstowe. Quite rapidly the London docks began to close and in 1969 The Hay’s Wharf Company ceased operations. In the 1980’s the site was acquired for redevelopment by St Martin’s Property Corporation, the real estate arm of the State of Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund. Hay’s Wharf, renamed Hay’s Galleria, was filled in and paved over and a glass barrel vault installed to join the two warehouse buildings at roof level to create an atrium like area with shops and stalls on ground level with offices in the upper levels. The adjoining wharf to the east, Wilson’s Wharf, was levelled to make way for the Crown Courts and the wharf buildings to the west, Chamberlain’s Wharf together with St Olaf House, were taken over by London Bridge Hospital (see below).

On leaving Hay’s Galleria we continue west along the river as far as London Bridge, passing the aforementioned eponymous hospital. On ascending up to bridge level we turn south and take the walkway that curves round to London Bridge Station then take the stairway down from Duke Street Hill to Tooley Street emerging opposite another part of London Bridge Hospital, a private hospital opened in 1986. St Olaf House, which houses the hospital’s Consulting rooms and Cardiology Department, was built as the Headquarters for Hay’s Wharf in 1931. This outstanding example of an Art Deco building was designed by the famous architect, H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, and is one of his best known works. It is a listed building, with its well-known river facade and its Doulton faience panels by Frank Dobson, showing dock life and the unloading of goods – ‘Capital, Labour and Commerce’.

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The building on Tooley Street is somewhat less impressive and so perhaps not the most fitting way to close this project. But then again this has not just been about venerable and grandiose old buildings and the ports of call for the open-top bus tours. It’s been about poking into every corner of the heart of this great city and circulating round each and every one of its arteries from the grandest boulevard to the grimiest cul-de-sac. In that spirit therefore, please salute these former shipping offices which first saw the light of day in 1860.
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And so it’s goodbye from me…..for now.

 

 

Day 61 – London Bridge – Hanseatic Walk – Tower of London

I guess I should begin this post with an apology for raising false expectations because this won’t in fact be the last of these as predicted in the previous post. By the time I’d spent several hours at the Tower of London discretion became the better part of valour and I decided to leave the planned home stretch across Tower Bridge and back along the river to London Bridge for another time. Today’s excursion is therefore restricted to a short but interest-packed stroll across London Bridge from south to north, along the Hanseatic Walk to Southwark Bridge and then back east beside the river to the Tower of London.

Day 61 Route

The current, undeniably prosaic, London Bridge is a box girder affair that was completed in 1973, replacing a 19th century stone arch bridge that (as we all know) was dismantled block by block and shipped over Arizona. Though commonly-believed (and repeated by the Yeoman warders at the Tower) the story that the purchaser, Missourian oil millionaire Robert P. McCulloch, thought he was actually buying Tower Bridge is entirely apocryphal. There has been a bridge on this site since Roman times and up until 1729 (when Putney Bridge was constructed) it was the only crossing downstream of Kingston. Several wooden bridges were built and destroyed (either by the elements or enemy forces) during the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods before Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge on which work began in 1176. It was finally completed 33 years later in the reign of King John. John tried to recoup the cost of building and maintenance by licensing out building plots on the bridge which eventually led to there being around 200 buildings in situ by the time the Tudors came to power. With the buildings came the threat of fire which materialised several times including in 1381 (Peasant’s Revolt), 1450 (Jack Cade’s Rebellion) and 1633 (which was actually fortuitous since it created a natural fire-break at the northern end which halted the spread of the Great Fire three decades later). The southern gatehouse of Henry’s bridge was notoriously used to display the severed heads of deemed traitors such as William Wallace, Jack Cade, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. The practice only stopped following the restoration of Charles II. Houses continued to be built on the bridge up until the middle of the 18th century by which time is was finally recognized that the medieval bridge was no longer fit for purpose. It wasn’t until 1831 however that this vision was realised with the opening of the John Rennie designed five stone-arch replacement – and we’ve already revealed the ultimate fate of that one.

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Looking East from London Bridge
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Looking north from London Bridge

At the northern end of London Bridge we drop down onto the riverside to the west and the Hanseatic Walk named after the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe that dominated maritime trade in the Baltic and North Sea from the 13th to the middle of the 15th century and continued to exist for several centuries after that. The main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London was known as The Steelyard and was situated on the north side of the Thames where one end of the Southwark Railway Bridge now stands. Its remains where uncovered by archaeologists during maintenance work on Cannon Street Station in 1988. In 2005 a Commemorative Plaque was installed at this western end of the Hanseatic Walk by the British- German Association.

Appropriately, Steelyard Passage runs under the rail-line out of Cannon Street and joins the next stretch of the Thames Path that takes us as far as Southwark Bridge. Here we climb up the steps onto Queens Street Place which has a number of richly ornamental facades on its west side. (At this point I should acknowledge again the Ornamental Passions blog which has been an invaluable source of information on architectural sculpture and statuary). First up, on the riverside, is the horrendous neo-neo-classical Vintner’s Place built at the behest of the Vintner’s Company (another of the 12 original Livery Companies). The one saving grace of this building is that it preserved the portico of its predecessor, a 1927 art deco office block called Vintry House. This portico incorporates one of London’s most brazen pieces of sculpture, a full-frontal nude Bacchante (priestess of Bacchus) flanked by a pair of goats and with a cape made from bunches of grapes. The creator of this was one Herbert Palliser and the model was Leopoldine Avico, one of three sisters who posed for numerous sculptors and painters during the early decades of the 20th century.

Next door Thames House was built in 1911 for Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, which made a Bovril-like goo from boiled up cows at a huge plant in Fray Bentos in Uruguay and later developed the Oxo cube. (Until I looked this up I had no idea there was an actual place called Fray Bentos). The sculptures on the two wings of the façade are the work of Richard Darbe who also dabbled in ivory and ceramic figurines for Royal Doulton.

Finally on the corner with Upper Thames Street is Five Kings House, which was originally the northern end of Thames House but was divided off in 1990. The figures above the entrance were created by George Duncan MacDougald. The male figure appears to represent the god Mercury but it’s not clear who the female figure is meant to be.

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After turning right onto Upper Thames Street we cross between this and the riverfront three times, Bell Wharf Lane, Cousin Lane and All Hallows Lane respectively, to return to the western end of the Hanseatic Walk. As we head back east we pass through Walbrook Wharf which is still an actual operating wharf, acting as a waste transfer station where refuse from central London is loaded onto barges to be shipped downstream to the Belvedere Incinerator which lies halfway between the Woolwich and Dartford crossings. When waste is being transferred onto the barges the riverside walk is closed to pedestrians. This point on the river, known as Dowgate, is also the mouth of the River Walbrook one of London’s lost rivers which now runs completely underground and feeds the sewer system.

There are two more links between Upper Thames Street and the riverside walk before we get back to London Bridge; Angel Lane and Swan Lane. Adjacent to the bridge, still on the west side, is the hall of the Fishmongers’ Company coming in at a mighty 4th place in the Livery Companies’ Order of Precedence which, as we have seen several times before, means that it got its original charter from Edward I (circa 1272). The Company enjoyed a monopoly on the sale of fish in the capital up until the 15th century. The original hall was the first of forty Livery Company halls to be consumed by the Great Fire. However thanks to the Hall’s riverside location, the Company’s most important documents and its iron money chest and silver, were safely transported away by boat. The present hall was the second built after the Great Fire enforced by the start of construction of the “New” London Bridge in 1828. Following substantial destruction during the Blitz the hall underwent major restoration which was completed in 1954. Until 1975 the Company enjoyed the use of a private wharf which excluded the public from access to the riverfront here. The statue in the garden is of “in memory of Mr. James Hulbert late citizen and Fishmonger of London deceased” and was moved here in 1978 having been first erected at St Peter’s Hospital Wandsworth in 1724.

On the east side of the northern end of London Bridge on Lower Thames Street stands the church of St Magnus the Martyr. I’ve visited an awful lot of churches since I started doing this and it’s taken until almost the very end of the mission to discover the two that are probably my favourites, starting with this one. The church was originally established in the early 12th century and it is now accepted that it is dedicated to an earl of Orkney named Magnus who, despite his reputation for piety and gentleness, was killed by one of his cousins in a power struggle around 1116 and was canonised some twenty years later. At various times through the church’s history however it has been contended that the dedication is actually in favour of the St Magnus who was persecuted by the Emperor Aurelian back in the 3rd century AD. The medieval church survived pretty much intact until it was one of the first buildings to be destroyed in the Great Fire, being mere yards from Pudding Lane. Rebuilding after the fire took place (naturally) under the direction of Christopher Wren and was completed in 1676. This new church emerged relatively unscathed from WW2 and what repair work was needed was concluded by 1951, the year after it was designated a Grade I listed building. Though not large, the interior of the church contains a number of interesting artefacts and decorations not least of which is a splendid scale model of Old London Bridge created by David T. Aggett  a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers. It also has an historic late 18th century fire engine (well more of a cart really) acquired by the parish in compliance with the Mischiefs by Fire Act of 1708 and the Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act of 1774. Despite the church’s C of E denomination its interior is very ornate thanks to a neo-baroque style restoration of 1924 which reflected the Anglo-Catholic nature of the congregation at the time. That heritage may also explain why the rector uses the title “Cardinal Rector”, making him the last remaining cleric in the Church of England to use the title Cardinal.

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On leaving the church we return to the Thames Path and head further east past the riverside facades of Old Billingsgate and Custom House both of which we looked at back in Day 45. The two buildings are separated by Old Billingsgate Walk and beyond the latter Water Lane takes you back up onto Lower Thames Street.

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Old Billingsgate facing the Thames

Looping round Petty Wales and Gloucester Court brings us to the second of those churches – The Church of All Hallows by the Tower. All Hallows (which means “all saints”) was founded by Erkenwald, Bishop of London in 675 AD (as a chapel of the great Abbey of Barking). The original Anglo-Saxon church was built on the site of an earlier Roman dwelling, part of the tessellated floor of which was uncovered during excavations in 1926. The only surviving part of the Anglo-Saxon church, its great arch, re-emerged even later as a consequence of WW2 bomb damage. In 1311 the church was used as the venue for a series of trials of members of the Knights Templar which had become a prescribed organisation across Europe following the issue of a papal bull by Pope Clement. Due to its proximity to the Tower, post-reformation the church found itself the recipient of several bodies which had been deprived of their well-known heads including Thomas More and John Fisher (both executed by Henry VIII) and Archbishop Laud (executed by the Puritan government after the fall of Charles I). In 1650 the ignition of seven barrels of gunpowder in a nearby shop led to an explosion that left the church tower in such a precarious state that it had to be rebuilt in 1659. It was particularly fortunate therefore that the due to the efforts of Admiral General William Penn in ordering the destruction of surrounding houses to create a fire-break the church survived the Great Fire intact. The Admiral’s son, also called William, was baptised in the church and went on to found the American Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. A century later John Quincy Adams, who was to become the 6th President of the USA, was married here. The church’s crypt museum contains as number of Roman and Saxon artefacts as well as the original registers recording the events described above. Bizarrely, it also houses a barrel which was used as the crow’s nest on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 125-ton Norwegian Steamer “Quest”. Departing England on the 24th September 1921 Quest set sail for Antarctica on what was to be Shackleton’s last expedition. The ship ventured south visiting Rio De Janeiro and then moving onwards to South Georgia where Shackleton died on the 5th January 1922 and is now buried. At this point I should give an honourable mention to the lady on the gift-shop desk who was extremely helpful and friendly.

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And so finally on to the Tower of London which we reach via a circular route of Byward Street, Lower Thames Street (again) and Three Quays Walk beside the river. Obviously, I could write reams and reams about the Tower if I had the time and inclination but for both our sakes’ I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. The original central fortress, now known as the White Tower, was built after 1070 by William the Conqueror as he sought to protect and consolidate his power. In the 13th century, Henry III and Edward I added a ring of smaller towers, enlarged the moat and created palatial royal lodgings inside these imposing defences.

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The Tower had a starring role to play in the Wars of The Roses. The Lancastrian King Henry VI was murdered here in 1471 and twelve years later the two young sons of his successor, the Yorkist Edward IV, were reputedly killed on the orders of their uncle Richard Duke of York (subsequently Richard III) who had had them installed in what became known as “the Bloody Tower” for their “safekeeping”. From the Tudor Age onward the Tower of London became the most important state prison in the country. Among those sent here never to return were Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. The last person to be executed at the Tower was a German WW2 spy, Josef Jacobs, who was on the wrong end of a firing squad in August 1941. Many of those imprisoned, but not always executed, were held in the Beauchamp Tower, named after Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who was imprisoned here at the end of the 14th century for rebelling against Richard II. (Beauchamp is my mother’s maiden name so I’d like to imagine a distant family connection there). Anyway, several of these prisoners whiled away the hours of incarceration by carving graffiti in the form of inscriptions, poems, family crests and mottoes into the walls.

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Of course what most of the three million visitors a year come for is a gawp at the Crown Jewels. The original 11th century Jewels were destroyed by the victorious Parliamentarians after the Civil War. Precious stones were prised out of the crowns and sold, while the gold frames were sent to the Tower Mint to be melted down and turned into coins stamped ‘Commonwealth of England’. The crowns, orb, sceptre and swords that form the bulk of the collection as seen today were created for the coronation of Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The most famous of the individual jewels were acquired much later however; the two Cullinan diamonds were cut from a stone discovered in South Africa in 1905 and the Koh-I-Nur diamond, which was unearthed in 15th century India, was presented to Queen Victoria in 1849. The Crown Jewels are housed in the Waterloo Barracks on the north side of the Tower complex. Although the queue to get in looks daunting it moves quite quickly; largely because once you get to the heart of the collection a moving walkway whisks you past the cabinets containing the principal regalia. No photos are allowed so you’ll need to click on the link above to see what you’re missing if you’ve never been to see for yourself.

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The two other things that everyone associates with the Tower are the Yeomen Warders “Beefeaters” and the Ravens. There are currently 37 of the former who all live in accommodation at the Tower (they have their own pub, The Keys, which visitors are excluded from) and have to be ex-forces with at least 22 years service behind them and having attained the rank of warrant officer. So at lot of them are former Sergeant Majors which means they have no trouble herding and making themselves heard by the visitors who join the hourly tours they run. Legend has it that both the Tower of London and the kingdom will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. Charles II took this seriously enough to insist that they be protected against the wishes of his astronomer, John Flamsteed, who complained the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower. Today there are seven Ravens kept at the Tower; to encourage them to remain they are fed handsomely, including a weekly boiled egg and the occasional rabbit, and their flight feathers are trimmed.

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And that’ll have to be that for this time. I’ll be back in a few weeks with the final instalment (honestly !).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 35 – Victoria Embankment – Aldwych – Somerset House

Not that many actual streets ticked off today but a reasonable distance covered and yet again a wealth of material to relay. It was also a fabulously bright (if cold) day as you will gather from the photographs. We start with a stroll through Victoria Embankment Gardens before doubling back and then dodging the joggers on the riverside promenade up to Waterloo Bridge. After that we head north to Aldwych and circle round to get back to Somerset House before ducking down onto the Embankment again and continuing eastward as far as Temple tube.

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The Victoria Embankment, as you might surmise from the name, is one of the great engineering feats of the Victorian era. The driving force behind this was the desire to improve the capital’s sanitation system by the creation of a new super sewer running west to east into which all other sewers would empty rather than into the Thames. This scheme gained the backing of Parliament when the dry summer of 1858 created what was known as “the Great Stink” with the raw sewage building up in the river making the atmosphere in the Houses of Parliament intolerable. Work began in 1864 and was completed in 1870.  Embankment walls were built close to the low-water mark and the area behind them filled in, making made space not only for the sewer but also for a road and for the new, partially underground, District Line. It also allowed for the creation of Victoria Embankment Gardens where our journey today begins.

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Prior to the construction of the Embankment this gateway on the topside of the gardens stood on the north bank of the river. Known as the York Watergate it was built in 1826 for our old friend George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham and, as we have reported previously, King James I’s “favourite”. Built as a point of access from Villiers’ garden to the river, the Watergate was created by Sir Balthazar Gerbier who modelled it on the Fontaine de Medicis at the Palais de Luxembourg.

First of several statues in the gardens is that of Robert “Rabbie” Burns (1759 -1796) to all intents and purposes the national poet of Scotland. This is the only statue of Burns in England whereas there are 16 in the USA and 9 in Canada. Oddly the Soviet Union was the first country to put him on a commemorative stamp (in 1956). There is also a crater on Mercury named after him.

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In the middle of the gardens stands this memorial to the Imperial Camel Corps which was comprised of battalions made up of British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian soldiers and formed part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in WWI. In total the brigade deployed around 4,800 camels which, fully loaded, could cross the desert at between three and six miles an hour. The corps was disbanded after the war.

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Continuing east through the gardens there are further memorials to : Sir Wilfred Lawson (1829 -1906) Liberal politician and temperance campaigner; Robert Raikes (1736 – 1811) philanthropist and founder of the Sunday school movement and Sir Arthur Sullivan (of popular duo Gilbert & Sullivan) who we have encountered before hereabouts. On the south side there is also Portland stone monument (listed grade II) designed by Edward Lutyens (1869-1944), erected to the memory of Major General Lord Cheylesmore, soldier, administrator, and philanthropist which incorporates a small water garden complete with Koi carp (and very popular with the local pigeons). On the north side in contrast there’s a rather odd little lilting hut whose function is not entirely clear. All in all the collection of memorials in the gardens is pretty random; though none the worse for that.

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Leaving the gardens and heading back west along the Embankment we pass the monument created by Blomfield and Victor Rousseau as an expression of thanks to the British nation from the people of Belgium for this country’s part in the liberation of Europe in 1944-5.

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Back at Embankment tube station we cross the road to the riverside walk. You have to feel a bit sorry for W.S Gilbert (the other half of Gilbert & Sullivan) since, whereas his musical partner gets a full bust job with a half-naked floozy draped across the plinth, all he gets is this somewhat unremarkable plaque on the wall by Hungerford Bridge.

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In 1878 Victoria Embankment became the first street in Britain to be permanently lit by electricity. The lampposts with their distinctive entwined fish (sturgeons apparently) on the bases were designed by George John Vulliamy.

Vuilliamy also designed the faux-Egyptian cast- bronze Sphinxes that flank the most famous landmark on this stretch of the north bank of the Thames, Cleopatra’s Needle. This hieroglyph covered obelisk was created in the Ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis around 1450 BC. It stands 21 metres tall and weighs 224 tons. So it was no mean feat to transport it over to England in 1877 from Alexandria (where Cleopatra had had it moved by the Romans in 12 BC). The sponsor of this enterprise, at a cost of £10,000, was the renowned anatomist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson. The Needle was housed inside a massive iron cylinder which was then converted into a kind of floating pontoon, named Cleopatra, so that it could be towed by ship, the Olga to be precise. Disaster struck when a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused the pontoon to list uncontrollably and the rescue boat sent across from the Olga capsized with the loss of its volunteer crew of six. Cleopatra was left “abandoned and sinking” but remarkably stayed afloat and was found four days later by Spanish trawlers and then towed into port by a Scottish steamer. Its journey was eventually completed in the wake of the paddle tug Anglia, under the command of one Captain David Glue.

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As you can imagine the tribulations of Cleo’s transportation were front page news at the time as you can see here daily-news-19-october-1877-cleopatras-needle.

The presence of cormorants along the river attests to the cleanliness of the water in the Thames these days and the concomitant increase in fish stocks.

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As we reach Waterloo Bridge there is yet another memorial, this time to the Victorian novelist and historian Walter Besant (1836 -1901). These days little more than a footnote in literary history, Besant’s work was extremely popular in his own lifetime. His novel, All Sorts and Conditions of Men, about the working-class inhabitants of London’s East End slums sold 250,000 copies and introduced a vogue for so-called “slum fiction” in the last decades of the Victorian era.

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Climb the steps up onto Lancaster Place and head up to Aldwych on the other side of the road from Somerset House.

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The Waldorf Hotel on Aldwych was established in 1908 by William Waldorf Astor of the fabulously wealthy and well-connected Astor Family who had arrived in England in the late 18th century from Walldorf in Germany (natch !) before heading west to America. At the time he had the Waldorf’s namesake in New York built in 1890 Astor was reputedly the richest man in America.

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Opposite the Waldorf, now part of the Hilton empire, stands India House; home to the Indian High Commission in London (or embassy if you prefer). Designed by Sir Herbert Baker the building was inaugurated in 1930 by King George V. The decorations on the outside of the building represent the various states of India, as they were under the Raj. The closest one in the picture below signifies Madras. Every time I go past here there seems to be some form of demonstration going on but I didn’t manage to ascertain what this one was about.

Duck round the corner down the steps into India Place where there is a bust of Nehru which was unveiled by John Major in 1991. That year also saw the fatal stabbing of 26 year old D.C Jim Morrison, just yards away, trying to arrest a thief while off duty. His killer has never been found.

India Place morphs into Montreal Place and emerges on the Strand opposite to north entrance to Somerset House.

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Turning east we almost immediately pass by the church of St Mary-le-Strand which now sits on a traffic island in the middle of the Strand (stranded you could say). This is another one of the churches built at the start of the 18th century under the “Commission for the building of fifty new churches”. The steeple was completed in September 1717, but the church was not consecrated for use until 1723. Bonnie Prince Charlie is alleged to have renounced his Roman Catholic faith here in favour of Anglicanism during a secret visit to London in 1750.

Beyond the church we turn left up Melbourne Place then left again to arrive at the front of Bush House The building, opened in 1925, was designed by the American architect Harvey Corbett and financed by an Anglo-American trading organisation headed by Irving T. Bush, hence the name. By the end of that decade Bush House had been declared the ‘most expensive building in the world’, having cost around $10 million. The BBC World Service (or the Empire Service as it was then), with which the building is indelibly associated, first moved some of its operations here in 1940 and had fully taken the place over by the late 1950’s. Given the nature and purpose of the World Service the inscription made above the main portico by the original owners, “to the friendship of English-speaking peoples” was always something of an embarrassment to the BBC. By 1972 more than 750 hours of programming a week in 40 languages from French to Somali were being broadcast from Bush House. In 2012 the BBC departed and World Service staff were transferred to new offices on the Broadcasting House site. The building has been taken over by King’s College as an extension to its Strand campus.

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Doubling back round the arc of Aldwych brings us to Australia House which is, yes you’ve guessed it, the home of the Australian High Commission – both the oldest Australian diplomatic mission and the longest continuously occupied foreign mission in London. Construction of the building began in 1913 but it was only fully completed just after the end of WWI (for obvious reasons). The two sculptural groups that flank the entrance are named The Awakening of Australia and The Prosperity of Australia and are the work of the Australian artist Harold Parker. The flashing chap on the roof is Phoebus driving the horses of the sun the creation of another Australian sculptor, Bertram Mackennal. The building’s luxuriant interior (merely glimpsed below) was used at the setting for Gringott’s Wizarding bank in the first Harry Potter film.

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Turning the corner back onto the Strand we pass what was the entrance to the now disused Aldwych tube station (originally called Strand station).  The station sat on a branch line of the Piccadilly Line and although there were various plans to extend this it remained just a single-stop shuttle from Holborn up until closure in 1994 (having only operated during peak hours for the 32 years previous to that). Due to its self-contained nature (and the fact it was closed most of the time) the station was always in high demand for film and TV productions. This has continued post-closure with Atonement, 28 Weeks Later, Mr Selfridge and Sherlock amongst the productions to have shot scenes here.

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Next block along is the rather unlovely main campus building of King’s College.

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And once past that we’re back at the northern entrance to Somerset House. This riverside site was once occupied by a palace built by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset in 1547 and lived in by Elizabeth the First during the five years prior to her coronation. When Anne of Denmark (wife of James I) moved in in 1603 it was renamed Denmark House in her honour. The palace survived the ravages of the Great Fire but after decades of neglect following the departure of its last royal resident, Catherine of Braganza, in 1693 it was demolished in 1775. Within a year work had started on a replacement designed by Sir William Chambers. The new Somerset House (initially just the North Wing) opened in 1779 with the Royal Academy of Arts as its first occupant. The South Wing was completed in 1786 and the East and West Wings two years after that. At which time the Navy Board and the Stamp Office moved in. 1836 saw the establishment of the General Register Office, responsible for the recording of births, deaths and marriages, with which Somerset House became synonymous. Then in 1849 the Inland Revenue was created from the merger of the Board of Taxes and the Board of Excise and took over Somerset House for the next 15o years or so. The Registry Office actually moved out as long ago as 1970 and HMRC finally left for good in 2011. In between times the Courtauld Gallery moved into the North Wing in 1989 and in 1997 the Somerset House Trust was established to preserve and develop Somerset House for public use. The Riverside Terrace was first opened to the public in 2000, the same year that saw the first installation of a temporary ice rink in the piazza that was once, ignominiously, relegated to the status of a car park for Inland Revenue employees.

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Arriving to find the dismantling of the ice rink in full flow I initially cursed my sense of timing (again) but on reflection the photographs are probably more interesting than they would otherwise have been. The (free) exhibition on in the South Wing – until 26 February 2017 – is the Eye of Modern Mali a retrospective of work by the late Malian photographer, Malick Sidibe, and is highly recommended. Superb accompanying music as well.

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View across the Thames from River Terrace

Leave Somerset House via the Riverside Terrace and head down the steps on the east side of Waterloo Bridge to return to the Embankment. At the intersection with Temple Place stands this sadly rather obscured memorial to the godfather of Civil Engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859).

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Veer left up Temple Place and then again into Surrey Street which features some splendid red-brick terrace houses dating form the late 1760’s.

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In the bottom right of the picture above you can see the entrance to Surrey Steps which leads down into Strand Lane which, according to the signage, is the site of a “Roman Bath”.

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The provenance of the bath appears to be a matter of debate but most sources believe it actually originated as the feeder cistern for a grotto-fountain built in the gardens of the first Somerset House for Anne of Denmark in 1612 (some time after the Romans left Britain I think it’s fair to say). Shortly after the construction of the Georgian terraces, the owner of no.33, a Mr James Smith , converted the derelict cistern into a spring-fed cold bath which he opened to the public. It was only in the 1830’s when the management of the bath was taken on by one Charles Scott that the spurious Roman connection began to be advertised. The National Trust took possession of the Bath in 1948 and opened it to the public in 1951 following restoration. Nowadays visitors are only by appointment, otherwise you just have to peer through the very murky basement window to get a view of the bath (that’s if the outside light switch is working).

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Back on Surrey Street is the old Norfolk Hotel which was patronised at different times by both the agents of the Special Operations Executive French Section and Joseph Conrad, author of The Secret Agent.

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At the top of Surrey Street we turn right then head south again down Arundel Street. The Arundel House which now stands at the end of the eastern side of the street is a 19th century Tudor revival-style building which is currently the HQ for the International Institute of Strategic Studies. It takes its name from the Arundel House which occupied this riverside site in the middle ages and was the townhouse of the Bishops of Bath & Wells.

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We’ve now arrived at Temple tube station and the small elevated garden which sits on top of it affords good views of the Thames down towards London Bridge and the back of Arundel Great Court a 1970’s carbuncle that is in the throes of a long-running demolition and re-development project. In front of the garden on Temple Place is one of the so-called Cabmen’s Shelters. These green huts dotted around central London were originally put up between 1875 and 1914 by an eponymous charity with the aim of providing drivers of hansom cabs with somewhere they could get refreshments (non-alcoholic) without having to leave their vehicles prey to theft. Because they were situated on public highways the huts were not allowed to be larger than a horse and cart. All of the remaining huts are Grade II listed.

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So after all that it’s one final scoot along the Embankment back to Waterloo Bridge and we’re done.

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