diamond geezer

 Wednesday, December 11, 2013

CIRCLE: The Victoria Embankment
The birth of the Circle line is intimately connected to the development of the capital's sewer system. London's appalling sanitation, which peaked with "The Great Stink", inspired Joseph Bazalgette to build the Victoria Embankment in the 1860s. He hid the Northern Low Level Sewer within, and there was room alongside for a tunnel to house the Metropolitan District Railway. The Embankment was constructed by narrowing the Thames, a much better idea than digging up the Strand to lay pipes and rail tracks below. Which means that when you ride the Circle line between Westminster and Blackfriars, you are in fact passing through what used to be the river. Time for a long slow walk along the Embankment, I think...

Palace of Westminster: You know all about this one. Plus the Circle line doesn't go underneath... the Embankment starts across the road.
Portcullis House: This is Parliament's office block, with space for MP's desks and committee rooms and some expensive fig trees. And the Circle line does indeed run underneath, and the Jubilee line too, in that sheer deep magnificent extension station.
New Scotland Yard: The building alongside Portcullis House is Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard, headquarters of the Metropolitan Police from 1902 to 1992. There never was an Old Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...

Boudicca: It's one of the busiest pedestrian junctions in town. Tourists throng and queue on towards Westminster Bridge as they make their way between Parliament Square and The South Bank, or wherever tourists go. On the corner is a kiosk selling five-pound-plus pancakes, because tourists don't realise they're being ripped off, and a man selling roasting chestnuts. Several red-coated tour bus guides lie in wait hoping to snap up punters, while a stall festooned with flags sells I Love London t-shirts and Union Jack jester hats, plus lots of other merchandise no self-respecting local would wear. Looking down over the furore is a statue of Queen Boadicea in her knife-wheeled chariot, carved by Lord Thomas Thornycroft, and placed here in 1902.
Steps: Steep steps lead down to one of Westminster station's many subway entrances. On the way watch out for a mysterious locked door in the side of the plinth, behind which a ladder leads down to a network of service tunnels. Beside the riverbank is a tall octagonal copper case, green in hue, containing an unseen tide gauge. Then best move along, because there's a public toilet along here which whiffs a bit.

Westminster Millennium Pier: This is the touristy one, with a multitude of competing services offering boat trips mostly downstream. Of interest is the step-free access gate, the only way on and off the pier if you're in a wheelchair, but officially part of London's flood defence... so if you see it closed during service hours, worry.
Lamps: Tall black globe lamps appear every 70 feet along the edge of the Victoria Embankment. They feature gorgeous entwined fishes and are part of the original decoration. They were also amongst the first lights in London, nay the world, to make the switch from gas to electricity.
Jogging civil servants: They're everywhere at lunchtime, nipping out of the office in their running gear for a pant up the Embankment and back. Mind the torrent doesn't knock you down.
Battle of Britain Memorial: Erected in 2005, this pair of low long memorials commemorates the sacrifice of The Few (from Sergeant H H Adair to Sergeant R C Young). Most impressive are the bronze high relief sculptured panels depicting the height of the Blitz.
RAF Memorial: Up next, on a similar theme but very different, is the RAF Memorial. This has been here since 1923, and stands tall and proud with a gold winged eagle on top. Per Ardua Ad Astra.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...

Whitehall Gardens: A long expanse of grass covers the area in front of the Ministry of Defence. Its stark stone fa├žade reveals little, and only a collection of particularly obscure martial memorials hint that this is the military end of Whitehall. The Chindit Memorial commemorate WW2 campaigns in Burma, then there's a statue of Hugh Trenchard who founded the Royal Air Force. The Fleet Air Arm is remembered via a slightly scary winged figure, then there's Lord Portal (honest) and General Gordon of Khartoum. But mostly grass.
Queen Mary's Steps: These are an amazing survivor of 17th century London. Sir Christopher Wren built a landing stage for Queen Mary II so that she could disembark from the Royal Barge below what had once been Whitehall Palace. Construction of the MoD building in 1939 uncovered the steps and part of the Tudor wall, and these can now be seen on public display behind a low fence. It's amazing to stand alongside, now 50 metres from the water's edge, and to realise that the Thames once lapped here. Few other sites along the Embankment reveal the scale of Bazalgette's engineering achievement quite like this.

Whitehall Gardens: These continue, a lot garden-ier, on the opposite side of Horse Guards Avenue. Three statues act as focal points amidst the palm trees and vegetation - one at each end and one in the centre. Statue number 1 is of William Tyndale, printing press pioneer, rather out of place in this combat-themed neighbourhood. There are bonus quiz points if you know why Sir Henry Bartle Frere and General Sir James Outram are famous (five points for the British colonial administrator, ten for the English general quashing rebellion in Indian). As many civil servants have spotted, this is a fine place to sit and eat lunch, or perhaps pass secret messages by hiding them under the benches.
Samuel Plimsoll: Facing away from the gardens towards the river is London's memorial to maritime saviour Samuel Plimsoll, erected by the ever grateful National Union of Seamen. That circle with a line through it is his Plimsoll line, and very definitely not the first appearance of the Underground's roundel.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...

Tattershall Castle: Here's the first of the boats moored up along the Embankment, this one named after a fortress in Lincolnshire. With its big slanting funnel, this paddle steamer used to ferry folk across the Humber Estuary, and is now a bar, restaurant and general entertainment venue.
RS Hispaniola: Ditto this boat, with slightly higher class dining, and a website that reveals nothing of the vessel's history, just that they sell lots of food and drink.
Joseph Bazalgette: And here he is, opposite the end of Northumberland Avenue beneath the Golden Jubilee Bridge, the great Engineer Of The London Main Drainage System himself. Sir Joseph is commemorated in a memorial that's not as large as you might expect, but still grand and ornate. At its heart is the bust of a bald man with a seriously brush-like moustache, looking simultaneously both gruff and kindly. The traffic that rumbles by, the trains that run beneath, and the passers-by not choking with cholera... every Londoner owes him an enormous debt.

(and let's pause here, at Hungerford Bridge, immediately before Embankment station)

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