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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