Day 69 – Pimlico

As some of you may recall from the Ealing comedy “Passport to Pimlico” this part of London likes to consider itself as something of a self-contained unit. There is some justification for this in that, not only are, its boundaries clearly delineated by Vauxhall Bridge Road, the mainline out of Victoria Station and the River Thames but it was first fully developed as part of the Grosvenor Estate after 1825. To partly reiterate what we covered last time out, Robert Grosvenor, First Marquess of Westminster, appointed Thomas Cubitt, master builder, to create a new district on land reclaimed using the soil excavated during the construction of St Katharine’s dock. Like Belgravia this was based on a grid of attractive terraces built in the Regency style but unlike its more fashionable neighbour to the north Pimlico largely drew its residents from the middle classes. From the end of the 19th century onwards the demographic profile of the two areas moved farther apart and parts of Pimlico came close to being designated as slums though this was mitigated by a number of new public housing projects. The 20th century then saw the creation of two large but contrasting developments facing the river, Dolphin Square and the Churchill Gardens Estate. The white stucco terraces are still around today of course, street after street of them (sigh). Some of them are still single occupancy townhouses, many others have been converted into flats and a number are now used as budget hotels. What is striking about the area (even though this is far from unique in London) is the cheek-by-jowl existence of multi-million pound private properties and social housing units.

Apologies for the lengthy preamble but it will, hopefully, save time later on.

Fittingly, Pimlico tube station is our starting point for today. We kick off by heading, via Drummond Gate, down to Bessborough Gardens a garden square developed in the 1980s in a pastiche of the Cubitt-style. The Queen Mother’s fountain in the gardens has a supposed dolphin motif though it’s actually a pair of entwined sturgeon (no relation).

To the west of Bessborough Gardens, reinforcing the point I made earlier, an upscale mid-1990’s development and the Peabody Trust’s Tachbrook estate sit side by side. Navigating around and between these involves Bessborough Place, Balvaird Place, Lindsay Square and Balniel Gate. After this circuit we return to the tube station and take Rampayne Street into Vauxhall Bridge Road. North for a bit then turn left into Moreton Street where we discover the Gothic revival marvel that is the Church of St James the Less. This now grade I listed C of E church was built in 1858–61 by George Edmund Street who was commissioned by the three daughters of the recently deceased Bishop of Gloucester, James Henry Monk. Constructed predominately in brick, its most prominent external feature is its free-standing Italian-style tower, while its interior incorporates design themes which Street observed in medieval Gothic buildings in continental Europe. When I arrived the building was closed but I rang the buzzer on the off-chance and a very simpatico lady allowed me to pop in for a look at the moody interior.

After visiting the church we turn north again up Tachbrook Street alongside the Lillington Gardens Estate to the east. On the other side are those familiar townhouses so the next shot is an attempt to illustrate the dichotomous nature of the area’s housing that I’ll keep harping on about (probably).

Beyond the estate we take Charlwood Street back onto VBR then resume northward as far as Warwick Way before rejoining Tachbrook Street for the section that contains the eponymous market.

A sequence of Charlwood Place, Churton Street, Churton Place and Denbigh Street help us back on to Warwick Way from where we make our way west to St George’s Drive and then Eccleston Square. Warwick Way is particularly blessed with those budget hotels I mentioned earlier.

Eccleston Square, like its counterparts in Belgravia was built by Thomas Cubitt in the 1830’s. Its communal private gardens have been grade II listed since 1987 and since Wimbledon was on the tennis courts were actually being used. Winston Churchill lived at no.33 (the St George’s Drive end) from 1909 – 1913. He moved there with Clementine a year after they married and their first two children were born there.

North of Eccleston Square, Hugh Street runs parallel and crosses over St George’s Drive to get to Cambridge Street and Alderney Street which offer more of the same. (See below but you’ve probably got the idea by now)

Heading west again, the last stretch of Warwick Way ends at the junction of Ebury Bridge and Sutherland Street. We turn left onto the latter then left again into Sutherland Row and work our way back to St George’s Drive via Cumberland Street, Cumberland Court, Winchester Street and Clarendon Street. Warwick Square is the final garden square in the parallel running sequence that began with Eaton Square. Like the others its gardens are private and Grade II listed along with the buildings. Many of the latter are now commercial rather than residential premises. Cubitt himself lived at no.66 while the square was being developed in the 1860’s. After a circuit of the square we travel via Gloucester Street and Moreton Place to the southern section of Moreton Street with its high class boutiques and eateries. Moreton Place and the adjacent Moreton Terrace are lined with these splendid red-flowering trees which I believe (having looked it up) are Crimson Australian Bottle Brush aka Callistemon citrinus splendens. I wonder if Arabella Lennox-Boyd had a hand in that.

After Moreton Terrace we duck in and out of St George’s Drive using stretches of Denbigh Street, Charlwood Street and Denbigh Place. At no.63 St George’s Drive is a blue plaque commemorating the one year (1896) residency of Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda ( 1863 – 1902). Vivekananda was a chief disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna and was instrumental in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world. He was a major force in the contemporary Hindu reform movements in India, and contributed to the development of nationalism in colonial India. In 1893 he represented India and Hinduism at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

At the southern end of Warwick Square, which we return to next, stands St Gabriel’s Church. St Gabriel’s is a middle-pointed building in decorated Gothic style. It was consecrated in 1853 having been funded by public subscription. The 160ft tower was hung with a peal of eight bells two years later.  In 1887 the tower was rebuilt after stonework fell off it, narrowly missing a member of the congregation.

On the other side of the church, on Cambridge Street, is the house (no.114) where the enfant terrible of the Victorian art world, Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898) lived for part of his short life. Beardsley’s six years’ of creative output began at the age of twenty following a stay in Paris. He specialised in black and white illustrations with leanings towards the Art Nouveau style that was in vogue at the time and his work depicted historical events and mythological scenes using grotesque and openly erotic imagery. Probably his most famous drawings were those he produced for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. With his unusual looks and flamboyant dress sense his public persona did nothing to dampen down the scandalised reaction to his work. In 1966, nearly seventy years after his death from tuberculosis at the age of 25 a private gallery in London was raided by the police for exhibiting copies of his prints and the owner charged under obscenity laws. The originals of those very same prints were contemporaneously being exhibited at the V&A.

From here repeat visits to Charlwood Street, Alderney Street, Winchester Street and Clarendon Street take us to the western limit of today’s journey and a stop for a quick half at the pub of the day, the White Ferry House on Sutherland Street. This dates back to 1856 and doubled as a hotel when first opened. The original Victorian interior panelling is still in situ which has no doubt contributed to the pub’s Grade II listing.

Next door to the pub is another launderette to add to the collection (in the correctly spelt section) and beyond it lies Peabody Avenue which runs through another of the eponymous trust’s estates.

Parallel to Peabody Avenue is Turpentine Lane which, as you can see above, tracks the rear of the Peabody Estate. At the southern end of this we’re in sight of the river on Lupus Street but immediately double back and wend our way around Westmoreland Terrace, Westmoreland Place, Sussex Street, Sutherland Street and Winchester Street. Hopefully by now you’ve got the picture when it comes to the naming of the streets in this part of town. Basically, it’s just Lord Grosvenor namechecking his Ducal chums. Like walking through a cast list of one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Anyway we’re back on Lupus Street now and the area suddenly has quite a different feel – which is actually a refreshing change. Lupus Street is home to the Pimlico Toy Library, a charity set up by Westminster Adult Education services in 1983 to support parents who wanted a safe environment for their children to play. It seems like a good idea so it’s perhaps surprising that other London boroughs don’t appear to have picked up on it.

Lupus Street runs to the north and west of the massive Churchill Gardens Estate which is where we head next. The estate was developed between 1946 and 1962 to a design by the architects Powell and Moya, replacing Victorian terraced houses which had been extensively damaged during the Blitz. Comprising 1,600 homes in 32 blocks, the estate is notable as the only housing project completed under the ambitious Abercrombie Plan to redevelop the capital on more “efficient” lines. A stroll through Glasgow Terrace, Churchill Gardens Road and Paxton Terrace brings us out onto Grosvenor Road and the river. As I enter the Estate an exuberant school jazz-band rendition of “It’s Not Unusual” blasts out from St Gabriel’s Church Hall.

The estate is also notable for its early and rare example of district heating in the UK, the Pimlico District Heating Undertaking. A glass-faced accumulator tower was built to store hot water that would otherwise have been a wasted by-product of Battersea Power Station on the opposite side of the Thames, providing heating and hot water throughout the estate. Churchill Gardens was designated a conservation area in 1990, and in 1998 six blocks (Chaucer House, Coleridge House, Shelley House, Keats House, Gilbert House and Sullivan House) as well as the accumulator tower were Grade II listed. Battersea Power Station is, of course, now in the final stages of a mammoth commercial and residential redevelopment (which no doubt we will get to eventually).

After a jaunt alongside the river we follow Claverton Street and Johnson’s Place back to Lupus Street and find another washeteria to add to the collection (the other section this time). Then a detour into Ranelagh Road uncovers a blue plaque at no.15 in honour of Douglas Macmillan (1884 – 1969). In 1912 Macmillan set up the Society for the Prevention and Relief of Cancer following the death of his father from the disease the year before. It wasn’t until 1930 that the charity, which now bears his name, took on its first full time employee but since then it has grown into one of the largest charities in the UK. Macmillan himself died of cancer at the age of 84.

Crossing over into Chichester Street affords access to the northern end of an estate of an entirely different tenor, Dolphin Square. Built between 1935 and 1937, Dolphin Square consists of 13 blocks (or “houses”), each named after a famous navigator or admiral, that together provide 1,310 high-end private flats. After reclamation of the land it was the site of Thomas Cubitt’s works while Pimlico was being developed. Following Cubitt’s death, The Royal Army Clothing Depot was built on the site and stood until 1933 when the leasehold reverted to the Duke of Westminster. The freehold was soon acquired by an American firm but when they ran into difficulties it was sold on to Richard Costain Ltd who engaged architect, S. Gordon Jeeves to draw up plans for housing development. The buildings he designed are neo-Georgian in style with external facings of brick and stone. The original cost of construction was around £2m with 200,000 tonnes of earth moved and 125,000 tons of concrete and 12 million bricks used on those external walls. The 3.5 acres (1.4 ha) of communal gardens were designed by Richard Sudell, president of the Institute of Landscape Architects, and since 2018 have been Grade II listed (unlike the buildings). When it opened the flats varied in size from one-bedroom suites to apartments with five bedrooms, a maid’s room and three bathrooms. Due to its proximity to the Palace of Westminster (and the HQs of MI5 and MI6) the square has, over the years, provided accommodation for many MPS, peers, civil servants and spooks. Harold Wilson, William Hague and David Steel are among the politicians who have lived here; as did Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies (though not at the same time). Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford left their apartment here for internment in 1940 during the Second World War. In 2014, the Met opened an inquiry into allegations that some of the flats had been used by a VIP paedophile ring run by a number of prominent MPs, with the case receiving significant media coverage. Within two years it emerged that the accuser, Carl Beech, had fabricated the story and in 2019 Beech was the one convicted (for false allegations).

Reaching the southern end of Dolphin Square we exit out onto Grosvenor Road again and after a left turn begin a circuit of St George’s Square. This is the southernmost and least grand of the garden squares laid out by Thomas Cubitt and the only one whose gardens are open to the public.

At the north end of the square stands St Saviour’s Anglo-Catholic church which, like St Gabriel’s, was designed by Thomas Cundy. It was consecrated in 1864 and, at the time, its 170ft spire was one of the tallest in London.  The founder of modern lawn tennis, Walter Clopton Wingfield, was a regular worshipper and the writer Sir Compton Mackenzie was married in the church.

Having completed a circuit of the square we cross over Grosvenor Road to the (small) riverside Pimlico Gardens. Here you’ll find a statue of the early nineteenth century politician William Huskisson (1770 – 1830) who, as we first recorded many moons ago, is now best known for being the first person to be killed in a railway accident, having been run over by Stephenson’s Rocket. The statue was created by John Gibson and was moved here in 1915 having originally been designed for the Royal Exchange. It’s not really clear why Huskisson is wearing a toga other than to make a tenuous connection between the House of Commons and the Roman senate.

To conclude we cross Grosvenor Road for a final time and let St George’s Mews and Aylesford Street take us back to Pimlico Tube Station. I’ll leave you with this – the origin of the name Pimlico is not properly known but H.G. Wells, in his novel The Dream, says that there was a wharf here where ships from America docked and that the word Pimlico came with the trade and was the last word left alive of the Algonquin Indian language (Pamlico). That’ll probably do.

Day 68 – Buckingham Palace Road – Ebury Street – Eaton Square

Back again at long last then. For this resumption we’re exploring the (extremely) upmarket and pretty verdant nexus of Belgravia and Pimlico. There are quite a few interesting former residents to check out and plenty of colourful springtime flora to brighten the route.

Starting point today is Victoria Railway Station from where we head south down Wilton Road. Turning left into Gillingham Street we encounter the first of today’s many blue plaques at no. 17, commemorating the writer Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924). Conrad was born in the Ukraine into a family of Polish land-owning nobility. After being sent to Marseilles as a 16 year-old to take up a career with the French Merchant Navy he enlisted with its British counterpart four years later. At this stage his largely self-taught knowledge of English was still very rudimentary. He began writing his first novel in 1889 but his two most well-known works, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, date from the turn of the century by which time he had been forced by ill-health to give up a life at sea. Orson Welles adapted the former for his first screenplay for RKO pictures in 1939 but ended up abandoning it in favour of Citizen Kane; forty years later it became the inspiration for Apocalypse Now. Lord Jim made it to the screen twice, in 1925 and 1965, the second time with Peter O’Toole in lead role.

We return to Wilton Road via Gillingham Row then continue south as far as Longmoore Street which feeds into Vauxhall Bridge Road to the east with the help of Upper Tachbrook Street. Returning west along Warwick Way then north up Guildhouse Street brings us back to Gillingham Street. We double-back up Wilton Road and swing into Bridge Place which runs to the east of the lines running out of Victoria Station. At the junction with Belgrave Road sits the London branch of HM Passport Office, Globe House. This was opened in 2002 and replaced the office on Petty France which had acted as the the London-based passport issuer for fifty years.

Turning right we cross Eccleston Bridge over the railway lines (though Google Maps seems to think this is an underpass).

On the other side is the southern access to Victoria Station reached via the Victoria Place shopping mall which was unsurprisingly quite deserted. It also possesses the most pointless pair of escalators I have seen in a long time (and people were actually using them !)

Beyond the mall we turn north up Buckingham Palace Road and head up to Grosvenor Gardens which runs either side of the eponymous triangular green space. At the southern corner of the gardens is Terminal House with its familiar 1930’s style Portland stone cladding. It was actually built between 1927 and 1930 to a design by architects Yates, Cook and Darbyshire with some assistance from Edwin Lutyens.

The gardens themselves are looking particularly resplendent in the Spring sunshine (far more so than I remember from my time working in the vicinity). They are dedicated to Marshall Ferdinand Foch (1851 – 1929) whose equestrian statue stands adjacent to Buckingham Palace Road. Foch served as Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War. It was Foch who on 11 November 1918 accepted the German request for an armistice. He was in favour of crippling settlement terms that would render Germany unable to pose any future threat to his native France but was overruled by the British and Americans. As the Treaty of Versailles was being signed on 28 June 1919, he declared: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” His words proved prophetic though, ironically, historians generally consider that the rise of the Nazis and the outbreak of WW2 were in large part attributable to the harshness of the treaty terms rather than their leniency.

Fittingly the mansion blocks on the two prongs of Grosvenor Gardens have a distinctly French appearance. Grosvenor Gardens House (in the background above) was built in 1868 in a French renaissance style by architect Thomas Cundy III and originally known as Belgrave Mansions. The parents of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother had a home there so she may have been born there in 1900, though this is not known definitively. Less uncertain is that David Niven was born there in 1910. In 1878 the proto-venture capitalist and philanthropist William Henry Blackmore killed himself in his study following a disastrous investment in a US railroad. And in 2017 the building featured in a £132-million High Court trial for damages brought against luxury property developers, Christian and Nick Candy (the latter married to Holly Valance) which was eventually resolved in their favour.

The artwork you can see in the slides, comprised of three brightly coloured, chimneyed mini dwellings is by sculptor and designer Richard Woods and entitled Small, Medium and Large. According to Woods the title references the commercial choices we are presented with on a daily basis. He also points out the sculpture’s flirtation with perspective. “It’s large enough that standing at one end of it distorts your point of view. The big house looks small and the small house looks big depending on your perspective.”

At the apex of the gardens we head briefly southward on Ebury Street before turning left back to Terminal House then continuing south by was of Phipp’s Mews and Eccleston Place. This brings us out onto leafy Eccleston Street where we take a right turn. As I pass a perambulatory trio of well-heeled ladies of one of them expostulates loudly “Now, can we talk about my bouquet !” I am unable to contextualise this in any way.

From here we head back up Ebury Street then west on Lower Belgrave Street which gets us to the top end of Chester Square. This is the smallest and least grand of the three residential garden squares created by the Grosvenor Family (since 1874 the possessors of the Dukedom of Westminster) in the mid nineteenth century. These things are relative though, a house here will still set you back north of £20m at the very least. Past and present residents include Margaret Thatcher, Roman Abramovich, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful and Nigella Lawson. No. 76 is the residence of the ambassador of Colombia.

At the end of the first of the triptych of gardens that comprise Chester Square we turn right along Belgrave Place to reach Eaton Square. Eaton Square is divided into six separate (private need I add) gardens being intersected laterally by Lyall Street in addition to Belgrave Place and right through middle by the A3217 which leads into Sloane Square. The gardens are all Grade II listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. Architect Thomas Cubitt was commissioned by the Grosvenors to oversee the design and building of the surrounding houses which are predominantly three-bay-wide porticoed buildings, joined in regular terraces in a classical style, with four or five main storeys, plus attic and basement and a mews house behind. The first block was laid out in 1827.

A circuit of the uppermost two gardens takes us past the Bolivian Embassy at no.106 which could be said to be punching above its weight (if you were being unkind).

First of several blue plaques is at no. 37 in the south middle section where Neville Chamberlain (1869 – 1940) resided from 1923 to 1935. Chamberlain is, of course, one of the most maligned British politicians of the 20th century on account of his futile and humiliating attempt to reach a peace agreement with Hitler. What history tends to forget that his signing of the Munich agreement in September 1938 and his homecoming declaration of “A Peace For Our Time” was strongly approved of by the British public at the time. What I hadn’t appreciated until I looked into his life was that he actually survived as PM until as late as May 1940 when the failure of a military campaign to get a defensive foothold in Norway led to his downfall. Also unbeknown to me was that he only lived for a further six months after his resignation before succumbing to bowel cancer.

A few doors down, no. 44 was briefly home to Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773 – 1859). Metternich was one of the most influential politicians of nineteenth century Europe, playing a significant part in Austria becoming a major political force on the continent in the first half of that century. As Foreign Minister he led the Austrian delegation at the 1815  Congress of Vienna which redrew the map of Europe following the (initial) defeat of Napoleon (after 6 months of negotiations it was signed nine days before the Battle of Waterloo). In 1821 Metternich was appointed Chancellor of State and devoted the next 27 years to trying to uphold the status quo. In 1848 however he became a casualty of the wave of revolutions that swept through Europe that year. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire this took the form of a series of nationalist revolts in several of the occupied territories. Metternich went into exile, initially in England, and spent four months in Eaton Square before decamping to Brighton and then to Brussels.

No. 80 on the north-western most section was where the American financier and philanthropist, George Peabody (1795 – 1869) died. We have encountered him many times before on this odyssey in relation to the various Peabody Trust housing estates which still to this day provide affordable housing for Londoners. Born into a poor family, Peabody started out in the dry goods business before moving into banking. He relocated to London in 1837 where he came the pre-eminent American banker in the then capital of world finance, co-founding the firm that eventually became J.P. Morgan. Peabody donated over $8m (equivalent to more than $160m today) to philanthropic causes, mostly during his lifetime.

Let’s have a quick break from the blue plaques to show a couple of shots of these extensive gardens, which on this glorious spring day were being enjoyed by less than half a dozen of the entitled residents across their six separate sections.

The final former resident to namecheck is Vivien Leigh (1913 – 1967) who had a flat at no. 54. Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in British-ruled India. Her initial acting successes came on the stage then in 1937 she got her screen breakthrough starring alongside Laurence Olivier in the historical drama Fire Over England. Their meeting created history of a different kind. In short order Leigh and Olivier moved in together though it wasn’t until early 1940 that their respective original spouses granted them divorces. Prior to that, of course, Vivien had won the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind in the face of the stiffest of competition. She was awarded the best actress Oscar, a feat she repeated with her performance in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. She had however already had struggles with her mental health by this time and those struggles worsened during the 1950’s. In 1960 she and Olivier divorced and then in 1967 the chronic tuberculosis, with which she had first been diagnosed on the 1940’s, resurfaced and took her life.

In a strange twist of fate, the same flat in Eaton Square was later occupied by the German-Actress Luise Rainer (1910 – 2014) who had been one of the other actresses in the running for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. Rainer moved to Hollywood in 1935 and despite only making eight films there over a four year period remarkably also won the Best Actress Oscar twice – for The Great Ziegfield (1935) and The Good Earth (1937). The only other actress to have won two Oscars by the age of 30 is Jodie Foster. However, the pressure which accompanied that early success led her to suddenly quit the film business in 1938. She died at no. 44 just 13 days shy of her 105th birthday. (Almost twice the age Vivien Leigh lived to).

Having completed the meanderings in and around Eaton Square we follow Elizabeth Street back to Chester Square. At the southern end stands St Michael’s Church which was built in 1844, contemporaneously with the square itself. The church was designed in the Decorated Gothic style by Thomas Cundy the younger. The War Memorial Chapel at the north east end of the church was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (the red telephone box man if you were paying attention many moons ago) and completed in 1920.

Having completed a circuit of the lower of the two Chester Square gardens we continue east on Elizabeth Street, home to several upmarket boutiques and eateries as well as Walden Chymist (sic), family-run since 1846. A good day for the statutorily required alfresco dining even if that’s not well represented buy the photo below.

Another stretch of Ebury Street next and the final blue plaque of the day. No. 109 is where Dame Edith Evans (1888 – 1976) lived up until the age of about 14. (A young Noel Coward lived next door at number 111 which his mother ran as a boarding-house). Edith is best known for her stage roles including her seminal performances as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Altogether now “A h-a-a-a-andbagggg !” She appeared in a handful of silent films during the First World War years but after the last of these in 1917 it was another thirty years before she ventured away from the stage again. In her later years she made eighteen screen outings, a rare example of an actress who enjoyed greater success beyond middle age than before it. Though she will always be associated with playing haughty, aristocratic women those weren’t the roles she especially wanted to be remembered for. When she first read through the role of Lady Bracknell with John Gielgud she commented, “I know those sort of women. They ring the bell and tell you to put a lump of coal on the fire.”

When we reach the intersection with Eccleston Street we turn right and then right again onto the continuation of Eccleston Place. Halfway down here is Eccleston Yards which Google describes as a trendy plaza and which afforded a better shot of some pre-lockdown easing al-fresco dining. Also on this section of Eccleston Place is one of the two branches of LondonCryo which specialises in various types of cryotherapy which apparently involves lowering the skin temperature to c. -110 degrees centigrade for about three minutes. So a quick dip in the sea at Bridlington would probably have the same effect.

We emerge back on to Elizabeth Street opposite Victoria Coach Station, somewhere I was not unfamiliar with in my much younger days. Technically the address is 164 Buckingham Palace Road though the arrival terminal is on Elizabeth Street. The station was opened in 1932 by London Coastal Coaches, a consortium of coach operators. The distinctive Art Deco style was the creation of architects Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. Initially it had space for 76 coaches plus a large booking hall, shops, buffet, restaurant, lounge, bar and administrative offices. Most coach services were suspended during WW2 and the building was requisitioned by the War Office to be returned with the resumption of coach travel in 1946. In 1970 the coach operators’ association which managed the station became a subsidiary of the National Bus Company and in 1988, ownership was transferred to London Transport (Transport for London from 2000 onward). In 2013, the freeholder of the site, Grosvenor Group (which as we’ve already seen owns pretty much everything round these parts), announced that it wished to redevelop the site and relocate the station elsewhere in London. However, a year later the building was Grade II listed by English Heritage so Transport for London will continue to use the site at least until 2023, when several leases expire.

On the opposite (east) side of Buckingham Palace Road the massive office and retail space known as The Hub, which includes one of Google’s London offices, is undergoing a major redevelopment scheduled for completion in 2023. We walk up the road and back down Colonnade Walk which is inside the development. Despite the air of desertion there are still people manning the reception desks in some of the offices.

So we’re just about done. It only remains to cross Elizabeth Bridge to reach the other side of The Hub and head up Bulleid Way, where London’s Green Line Coaches arrive and depart from, to close the circle back to Victoria Train Station.

Day 66 – Millbank – Vauxhall Bridge Road – Horseferry Road

Well it’s been a while, for obvious reasons, but I’m finally back pounding the pavements of the mighty capital albeit under the constraints of the “new normal”. In order to minimise use of public transport today’s walk isn’t contiguous with the previous outing back in March. Instead we’ve hopped off the train at Vauxhall and crossed the bridge of the same name to explore the area where the southern part of Westminster rubs up against Pimlico, home to Tate Britain, MI5, Channel 4 and the Royal Horticultural Society.

Vauxhall Bridge is looking a bit of a mess at the moment as it’s in the throes of three months’ of “critical maintenance” which will include addressing the corrosion and deterioration of the Edwardian structure’s metalwork and bearings. As such it’s closed to all vehicles other than southbound buses. In addition to this, just upstream from the bridge on the south side is one of the construction sites for the 25km long so-called “Super Sewer” which will finally prevent raw sewage flowing directly into the Thames when the 150 year old existing Victorian sewer system overflows. This is scheduled for completion in 2024. Let’s hope they manage to keep to the timetable better than Crossrail.

The present Vauxhall Bridge was opened in 1906 replacing the first iron bridge to be built across the Thames which was put in place a century earlier. The new bridge was originally intended to be built of concrete faced with granite in a neo-Gothic style. However when it was discovered that the clay of the riverbed at this point wouldn’t be able to support the weight of the concrete it was decided to impose a steel structure on the granite piers which had already been embedded. The bridge was built to a functional design by engineers, Sir Alexander Binnie and Maurice Fitzmaurice (yes I know). After something of an outcry from the architectural community,  Alfred Drury and Frederick Pomeroy were appointed to design four monumental bronze statues each to be sited above the piers. On the upstream piers are Pomeroy’s AgricultureArchitectureEngineering and Pottery, whilst on the downstream piers are Drury’s ScienceFine ArtsLocal Government and Education each of them weighing approximately two tons (just look closely). 

At the north end of the bridge we turn right on Millbank towards Tate Britain but as I’m slightly early for my booked visit we can knock off Ponsonby Terrace and Ponsonby Place on the way.

Jeté, a bronze sculpture of a dancer, cast by Enzo Plazotta in 1975 which stands outside no.48 Millbank.

Standing opposite Tate Britain on the west side of Atterbury Street is Chelsea College of Arts. The college started life in 1895 as one of the schools of South-Western Polytechnic (which actually was in Chelsea). In 1908 this merged with the Hammersmith School of Art to form the Chelsea School of Art.  The school was renamed Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1989 and then acquired its present name in 2013. It only took over the site here on Millbank in 2005, the buildings having originally been built to house the Royal Army Medical College in 1907. Prior to that, Millbank Prison had occupied the site of both the college and Tate Britain for around 80 years. Amongst its alumni Chelsea includes Anish Kapoor, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger.

As mentioned, I had pre-booked my visit to Tate Britain in accordance with the current requirements. I had decided to forego the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition and follow the designated route devoted to British Art from 1930 onward despite the fact that there aren’t that many Britons among my favourite artists of the 20th century. The selection of highlights below therefore eschews the obvious Bacon’s and Hockney’s in favour of some lesser-known lights.

Milk and Plain Chocolate (1933) by Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982). Nicholson’s second wife was the much more widely known sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. The Mondrian influence on his abstract work is clearly apparent here.

Morvah (1958) by Paul Feiler (1918 – 2013). German-born Feiler, he was sent to school in England in the thirties, was a member of the St Ives School of painters. Morvah is a village west of St Ives.

Family Group (1949) and King & Queen (1952-3) by Henry Moore. Immediately recognizable of course. Personally I much prefer Moore’s figurative work to the abstract stuff.

More Moores. Including the posthumous 2020 work “Masked Man” there on the right.

Inversions (1966) by Mary Martin (1907 – 1969). Not just picked in order to provide the reflection of the day.

As noted above, the institution first known as the National Gallery of British Art was built on part of the site of the Millbank Penitentiary, used as the departure point for sending convicts to Australia, which was demolished in 1890.
Sidney R.J. Smith was the chosen architect and his design with its grand porticoed entranceway and central dome resembling a temple remains the core of the building today. The statue of Britannia with a lion and a unicorn on top of the pediment at the Millbank entrance bluntly emphasised its function as a gallery of British art. The gallery opened its doors to the public in 1897, displaying 245 works in eight rooms from British artists dating back to 1790.

Since its original opening, the Millbank site has had seven major building extensions, doubling in size in its first 15 years. And by 1917 it had become responsible for the national collection of British art from 1500. The Tate Gallery name was officially adopted in 1932 and in 1955 it became wholly independent from the National Gallery.  A major extension in the north-east corner, designed by Richard Llewelyn-Davies opened in 1979 and in the same year, the gallery took over the adjacent disused military hospital, enabling the building of the new Clore Gallery, designed by Sir James Stirling and funded by the Clore Foundation. That opened in 1987 and went on to win a Royal Institute of British Architects award the following year.

On the right above is part of Steve McQueen‘s large-scale installation, Year 3. Every Year 3 class in London was invited to have its photograph taken by a team of specially trained Tate photographers. Participants included children from state primaries, independent schools, faith schools, special schools, pupil referral units and home-educated pupils.

Just beyond Tate Britain, heading downstream, is the Millbank Tower, which upon its construction in 1963 as the HQ for the Vickers engineering conglomerate, after which it was originally named, was the tallest building in the UK. It retained that pre-eminence only until the Post Office Tower opened the following year. It was designed by Ronald Ward and Partners and built by John Mowlem & Co. and unlike many of the high-rise buildings of that era has not only survived but attained Grade II listed status. Throughout its history, the Millbank Tower has been home to many high-profile political and other organisations. In the nineties the word Millbank became synonymous with the Labour Party which ran its 1997 General Election campaign from offices here and after the election relocated its HQ to the tower. After five years residence however, the £1 million per annum rent forced another move. The United Nations also had offices in the tower, but moved out in June 2003. Other public bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Audit Commission have continued to occupy the building. I had a brief temporary job here in the mid-1980’s with Whitehall Securities which was the holding company of Pearson plc, then the owner of Penguin Books and the FT.  The floor they leased in the tower basically just comprised the boardroom and the directors’ offices and dining room. My job was to assist the guy who organised the rota for the pool of drivers who ferried those directors to and from their homes and around the city. Different times eh ?           

30 Millbank which is part of the same sixties complex was used as campaign headquarters by the Conservative Party between 2006 and 2014 and more recently the Leave.EU and People’s Vote campaigns have had offices in the tower. In 2016, to the surprise of precisely no-one, a successful application was made to redevelop the complex as a luxury hotel and flats. Post-Covid I can’t but think that the developers might wish to renege on that option. Oh and that sculpture in the top right photo is “Momentum III” by Michael Spiller.

That’s enough of Millbank for now; we’ll make our escape via Thorney Street and then turn onto Page Street which takes us past the back of Burberry HQ to John Islip Street.

John Islip was Abbot of Westminster from 1500 until his death in 1532 and was buried in the chantry chapel he built at Westminster Abbey. We follow the street named after him all the way back to Vauxhall Bridge Road passing en route the rear of Tate Britain and the statue of John Everett Millais (1829 – 96). 

The statue was commissioned shortly after Millais’ death by a committee chaired by Edward, Prince of Wales and was created by Thomas Brock (1847 – 1922) who also designed the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. A leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Millais is today as well-known for his personal life, rescuing his wife Euphemia “Effie” Gray from her unconsummated first marriage to the critic (and Millais’ patron) John Ruskin, as he is for his art.

Once on Vauxhall Bridge Road (VBR) we swing right past the Embassy of Lithuania and the White Swan Pub (which I visited many times in the late Eighties) and loop round Causton Street and Ponsonby Place back to John Islip Street.

We take the first left, Cureton Street, then continue heading back north-east on Herrick Street, checking out St Oswulf Street and Bulinga Street before arriving at Marsham Street. This area between Tate Britain and Vincent Square is occupied by the Grade II listed red brick buildings of the Millbank Estate built between 1897 and 1902. The bricks were recycled from the demolished prison. The 17 buildings, comprising one of London’s earliest social housing schemes, are all named after painters; below are Rossetti and Ruskin Houses and Turner and Stubbs Houses. The estate has 562 flats and these days roughly half of them are private leases.

Marsham Street takes us back to John Islip Street where we continue on to another stretch of Page Street that links up with Erasmus Street which sends us back south east again. VBR is reached again via Cureton Street, Causton Street and Regency Street. At the junction of the latter two is our sole blue plaque of this outing.

Harry Mallin (1892 -1969) was a middleweight amateur boxer and officer with the Metropolitan Police. He won gold at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and successfully defended the title four years later in Paris ( a feat unmatched by a British boxer until Nicola Adams came along). In 1937, he achieved the distinction of being the first British television sports commentator, when he gave commentary on two boxing matches broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace.

Next we work our way north from VBR courtesy of Chapter Street, Douglas Street, Esterbrooke Street and Regency Street as far as Vincent Street. In between Vincent Street and Page Street stands the similarly Grade II Listed Grosvenor Housing Estate  designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944) and built between 1929 and 1935.  The estate comprises seven U-shaped blocks faced with grey bricks and white render in a checkerboard pattern. I think influence of that man Mondrian might be in play here as well (Mondrian was an almost exact contemporary of Lutyens – 1872-1944).

Having circumnavigated the estate via Herrick Street, Page Street and Regency Street we wend our way back to VBR by means of Hide Place, Douglas Street and Osbert Street then criss-cross between VBR and Vincent Square along Stanford Street, Bloomburg Street and Udall Street. On the corner of the latter and Vincent Square stands what was the Infants Hospital from 1907 to 1995 but is now of course luxury apartments.

Vincent Square, all 13 acres of it, is owned and principally used as playing fields by Westminster School. The square contains a cricket pavilion, four football pitches (cricket pitches in the summer), about 10 tennis courts, and the groundsman’s house. It was developed in the 18th century on land originally known as Tothill Fields, and was named after William Vincent, a former Dean of Westminster and headmaster of Westminster School. Prior to that its uses had included acting as a burial pit for victims of the Great Plague. In the south and west corners are a couple of concrete-based basketball courts/five-a-side football pitches. The day I passed by coincided with the return to school of the majority of London pupils and so there were about seventy or so year 7s from the local comprehensive crammed into these spaces for their first games lesson. If you’re looking for a visual representation of the British class structure you couldn’t do much better than that.

More upscale accommodation is available at Vincent House on the west side of the square. This elegant 1939 building offers serviced rooms with accompanying facilities including a bar with snooker table and piano.

We detour off to complete a triangle of Fynes Street, Regency Street and Rutherford Street and a loop round Maunsel Street, Horseferry Road and Elverton Street before returning to the north(-ish) side of the square where we find, Lindley Hall, the HQ of the Royal Horticultural Society which also incorporates the Lindley Library which is based upon the book collection of English botanist John Lindley, comprising many rare books dating from 1514. The Hall was built in 1904 to host botanic art exhibitions held by the RHS and nowadays hosts events such as London Fashion Week as well as weddings.

We follow the west side of the square and Hatherley Street  back to VBR for a final time. At the junction of the two is a terracotta plaque to the above-mentioned William Vincent.

Rochester Row lead us back in a north-easterly direction towards Horseferry Road with diversions en route to take in Walcott Street, Vane Street, Rochester Street and Greycoat Street.

On the way we call in at St Stephen’s Church which was built by Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), grand-daughter and heiress to the banker, Thomas Coutts. She intended it as a memorial to her father, Sir Francis Burdett, a former brilliant and radical Member of Parliament for Westminster. With the encouragement of her close friend, Charles Dickens, she chose to build it in a very poor area on the edge of the notorious Devil’s Acre on land donated by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey. The chosen architect was Benjamin Ferrey, a pupil of Pugin, and the foundation stone was laid in 1847.

On the building adjacent to the church on Rochester are several signs like the one to the left. “Ancient Lights” refers to the common law right to light which means that the owner of a building with windows that have received natural daylight for 20 years or more is entitled to forbid any construction or other obstruction that would deprive him or her of that illumination. 

Horseferry Road takes its name from the ferry which once used to cross the span of the Thames now occupied by Lambeth Bridge. These days it’s best known for being home to the original (and now London) headquarters of Channel 4 TV. It’s also the site of Westminster Coroner’s Court and the regimental headquarters of the London Scottish Regiment (where the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic took place). The Channel 4 building was opened on 6 July 1994 and was designed by Richard Rogers and Partners. It was the first major building they had designed since the Lloyd’s building (1978-1986).  The building, which consists of two four-storey office blocks connected to a central entrance block in an L shape, is finished in grey steel cladding, which is perforated by red-ochre steel struts. The precise colour of those struts was reputedly achieved by copying a sample of the paint used for the Golden Gate Bridge and provided by the City of San Francisco.

Having followed Horseferry Road down to the river all that remains is to walk back along Millbank to our starting point. One last important stop before we finish though is Thames House which occupies the block between Millbank and Thorney Street. Originally built in 1929-30 as offices for chemical giant, ICI, Thames House has since 1994 been the home of the UK Internal Security Service, more popularly known as MI5. The building was designed by Sir Frank Baines, of the Government’s Office of Works, in an ‘Imperial Neoclassical’ style.  High up on the frontage are statues of St George and Britannia sculpted by Charles Sargeant JaggerThe building has been Grade II listed since 1981. Reportedly there is an automated miniature monorail within the building which brings files up from the basement for the use of MI5 office staff.