Who moved the Thames? York Water Gate at Embankment Gardens

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Marooned: The York Water Gate in Embankment Gardens

With Embankment tube station and Charing Cross train station a popular meeting place, many tourists and Londoners find themselves going back and forward between the two along Villiers Street. The one-way street is filled with chain restaurants, pubs, shops and the popular Gordon’s Wine Bar, the oldest wine bar in London dating from 1870.

However, how many times when you’ve walked up and down this short road have you ducked east into Embankment Gardens? Well if you’re like me, never… until this year. I have walked along Villiers Street hundreds of times in my lifetime because Embankment is my station of choice if I’m going to Covent Garden or Leicester Square, which are only a short walk away.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Locked up: The gate as the owners of York House would have seen it as they walked towards their boat on the river

The small gardens are a much nicer meeting place than bustling Embankment or Charing Cross stations – weather dependent of course – with benches dotted around flowerbeds and statues of famous past Britons. On my first stroll in the Embankment Gardens, my eye was immediately drawn to the Italianate arch marooned by concrete in the north. Upon closer inspection, I learned it was a water gate… but yet the Thames was 150 yards south.

Anyone who has taken a boat trip down the Thames may have noticed how wide it is in the Greenwich and Docklands area and may be forgiven for wondering why it’s so slender in between the West End and Southbank. Well, for hundreds (probably thousands) of years the Thames was a lot wider, in fact Embankment station would have been in the river… or at least on some soggy marshland. As it still remains today, The Strand was always a coveted address, famous for being home to Somerset House and The Savoy Hotel. From the 12th century onwards, grand mansions and houses stood on the south side of The Strand, with many having gates directly into the river so the residents could climb straight into their boats – the best way to travel in those days.

The York Water Gate in the Embankment Gardens is the only surviving piece of the York House estate, which was originally built in the 1200s for the Bishops of Norwich. Over the years, various archbishops and dukes resided at the lavish abode – including a certain George Villiers, whose name lives on in the aforementioned street. The Italianate-style water gate wasn’t built until around 1626 as a grand entrance for York House residents and visitors to enter and exit via the riverways.

Today, York House is long gone and the only water the York Water Gate sees these days is the rain. The building of the Thames Embankment in the 1860s and 1870s saw London reclaiming a lot of the river, with the building of the busy road we know today to relieve pressure on The Strand and to create a sewer system for the rapidly expanding city. As well as the roads and pavements, gardens were built on the reclaimed land – the main one being where the Water Gate stands today. So many of the grand mansions were razed to the ground, leaving the Water Gate as one of the few reminders of a very different landscape seen by those walking down The Strand a few hundred years ago.

So if you want somewhere to sit for lunch or perhaps somewhere a bit more pleasant than a noisy station to kill time while waiting for a tardy friend, step into the gardens and have a look for yourself.

The York Water Gate and The Adelphi as painted by Daniel Turner

The York Water Gate and The Adelphi as painted by Daniel Turner, approx. 1800
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


For a Metro Girl’s post on the Arthur Sullivan Memorial in Embankment Gardens, read Arthur Sullivan memorial in Embankment Gardens: A racy tribute to a legendary composer, or for the history of Charing Cross, read Civil war, centre of London and a memorial to a queen: The story behind Charing Cross, or to read about the history of the nearby ‘Dolphin’ lampposts on the Thames Embankments, read Seen a Dolphin in the Thames? Story behind the lamps on the Thames Embankment.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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About LondonMetroGirl

Media professional who was born, brought up and now works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, restaurant reviews and attractions, as well as the odd travel piece. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 4 October 2012, in Architecture, History, London and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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