CIRCLE: The Victoria Embankment
As traffic rattles along the Victoria Embankment, so the Circle line rumbles underneath. This artificial wedge of land was opened in 1870, reclaimed from the Thames, and curves through ninety degrees from Westminster to Blackfriars. Previously the closest street to the river had been the Strand (there's a clue in the name), now suddenly North London was fifty metres wider. That so much of the Embankment remains green space is thanks to newsagent magnate WH Smith. He fought a sterling battle in the Houses of Parliament to maintain public access to what had been the foreshore, defeating the Prime Minister's plan to build acres of offices instead. Hurrah for his stubborn diligence. And today my journey reaches the central section of this Victorian masterpiece, between Embankment and Temple stations.
Golden Jubilee Bridges: Barely ten years old, these twin walkways have revolutionised pedestrian access to South Bank. Mind the buskers and pause midway for a contented stare along the sweeping curl of the Embankment. Embankment station: The renaming of this station, and adjacent stations, is probably the most over-referenced fact on this blog, so I'll not delve into the story again. Above ground the architecture has classical pretensions, although this illusion is ruined somewhat if you look down at the building's drab roof from the footbridge. In case you've not heard, Bakerloo and Northern line trains won't be stopping here for most of 2014, starting on January 8th, so that four ancient escalators can be refurbished. Thankfully Charing Cross station is barely any distance away, and a swift walk down Villiers Street should sort it.
Victoria Embankment Gardens (west): This splendid recreational haven dates back to 1874, and tucks into the former riverbank at the embankment's widest point. The gardens are also firmly fenced, and a proper municipal parkkeeper-type goes round at dusk jangling keys and shooing everyone out. At the west end is a large bandstand, still used in the summer, beside a lush lawn usually overplanted with flowers. I would show you photos but the area's currently covered by a temporary hospitality village delivering corporate Christmas parties and the like, which won't be clearing off until next week. At more normal times go stand by the cafe, near a suspicious looking grating, and you can easily hear trains passing beneath into Embankment station. York River Gate: A wonderful relic of Stuart London, this Italianate stone gateway was once the Thames-side exit from the London home of the Archbishop of York. That's long gone, as have all the grand homes along this section of the riverbank, but the gate was deliberately retained as a reminder of the great transformation wrought by the Embankment. If you're ever showing visitors round town bring them here, and point out how the Thames now runs 150 yards away, and watch them gasp.
Victoria Embankment Gardens (central): As the gardens narrow to the east, so a central footpath bends through past a motley collection of memorials. A Coronation Oak, a statue of Robert Burns, a pond presented by a council leader called Alfred, a nod to the 7/7 Book of Remembrance, the bust of a blind Liberal statesman, that sort of thing. It's almost like whenever Westminster Council needs to commemorate something they bung it here. One large circular pool (dotted with sculpted storks) sits in front of a particularly massive memorial to Major General Lord Cheylesmore of the Grenadier Guards. Only if you exit the gardens does the Belgian War Memorial on the opposite side become apparent, and the scale makes sense. Adelphi: Once the site of a grand palace overlooking the Thames, London's first neo-classical building was erected here in the late 18th century. They knocked that down in the 1930s, the philistines, and built a splendid white Art Deco block in its place, so that's maybe good. And good luck trying to follow the maze of stairwells and hidden roadways underneath. Shell Mex House: Another 30s office monster, this replacing the Hotel Cecil, and with London's largest clockface beaming down from on high. Situated bang on a bend in the river, the views from the 10th floorbalcony areexceptional. Carting Lane: At the foot of this steep hill, formerly the riverbank, is the answer to a classic pub quiz question. Where is London's last remaining functional gas lamp? It's here, once powered by sewer gas, now a little more natural. The Savoy: You're probably more used to viewing this über-premierhotel from the front, on Savoy Court (that other classic pub quiz answer, the only street in London where traffic drives on the right). But many a top-level guest arrives here, beneath the glass canopy round the back (and the occasional member of staff nips out for a fag too, when the footman isn't looking). Savoy Street: Along with parallel Savoy Hill, this road is another convincing slice of evidence that the Thames once flowed here, at the foot of the slope.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Cleopatra's Needle: We have one, New York has one and Paris has one. They're genuine obelisks, floated by sea from Egypt, but none of them actually date from the time of Cleopatra. The hieroglyphics carved in the granite are from Ramesses II and are well over 3000 years old. Buried beneath London's needle is a time capsule from 1878, containing (amongst other things) a box of hairpins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a Bradshaw's Railway Guide and copies of 10 daily newspapers. Due to a Victorian oversight the two bronze sphinxes on either side are looking the wrong way, facing inwards rather than guarding the monument. Neither are originals, merely window dressing. Beneath each sphinx is a set of steep slippery steps leading into the Thames, or down to a muddy beach if it's low tide. When the Embankment was built it was envisaged that this would be an embarkation point for riverboat traffic, but passenger usage never really took off. Queen Mary: You're too late, she's sailed, to make way for this... Savoy Pier: Luxury pontoon with midriver events venue and departure point for private yacht charters, opens 2014. You won't be going. Waterloo Bridge: The second bridge on this site, opened during World War 2 and (it's said) constructed mainly by women. It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (see also Battersea Power Station) and features cantilevered concrete beams creating mock arches across the river. Watch out for the huge red doors underneaththe bridge which used to be the exit for trams departing the KingswayTram Subway. The twin staircases up from Embankment level often have an unfortunate air of urine about them, but the view from the bridge is about as good as London gets.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Somerset House: It's one of the 18th century's greatest neoclassical buildings, originally home to the Admiralty, later the Royal Academy, and now lots of arty fountainy icerink stuff. But take a fresh look at Somerset House the next time you pass along the Embankment. That run of stone arches along the pavement used to dip into the Thames, which lapped alongside. Meanwhile the low central archway - today's Embankment entrance - was flooded with water to allow barges to drop off passengers beneath the terrace. While most of the other grand buildings along the waterfront were demolished to make way for the Victoria Embankment, how fortunate we are that Sir Joseph Bazalgette spared Somerset House.
(and we'll stop there for today, just before we arrive at Temple station)