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A rare chance to get up close to the painted ceiling at the Old Royal Naval College

Charlton House: A Jacobean treasure in south-east London

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Charlton House is London’s best preserved Jacobean building

While London today spreads across 40 square miles, it’s easy to forget many parts of the capital were countryside until the past few centuries. Today, many palatial ‘country’ estates and palaces exist within the London borders, such as Strawberry Hill House and Eltham Palace. One such place is Charlton House in south-east London, widely considered as the best preserved Jacobean building in the capital.

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The grand marble fireplace features sculptures of Venus and Vulcan

Charlton House was built from 1607-12 for Sir Adam Newton, Dean of Durham (d.1630), who was tutor to Henry, Princes Of Wales (1594-1612) – son of King James I (1566-1625).  It is believed Charlton House was designed by the architect John Thorpe (1560-1620) on the site of an older building. The site was conveniently located about two miles away from the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich so it would have been easy for the prince to travel between for lessons. However, the prince ended up dying of typhoid fever when he was just 18 just as the house was completed, leaving his younger brother, the future King Charles I (1600-1649) as the heir to the throne. Following the prince’s death, Newton continued to work for the royal court and resided in the house. He and his wife Kathleen are commemorated with marble monuments in St Luke’s Church just outside the grounds, which was built the same year as his death. Today, the house’s royal connection can be seen with the Prince of Wales feather above the east door to the hall and in further details in the Grand Salon.

Following Newton’s death, the house was passed on to his son Sir Henry Puckering Newton, before it was sold to Sir William Ducie in the mid 17th century, who made substantial improvements to the building. In 1680, the estate was bought by East India merchant Sir William Langhorne. He died without an heir in 1715 so the estate was passed to his nephew Sir John Conyers. The Maryon-Wilson family went on to own the house from 1767 to 1923. Under their ownership, the southern extension was built by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) in 1877. The original chimneys were replaced by mock Tudor ones in the late 19th century.

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The stunning long gallery runs the width of the house and features wood panelling

During World War I, the house was used as a hospital. A few years after, the house ceased to be used as a residential home when it was given to Greenwich Borough Council by the Maryon-Wilsons in 1925. Under the council’s management, a public library was established in the Victorian wing before it was closed in 1991 due to cost-cutting measures. In January 1945, the north-eastern wing of the building was destroyed by a V-2 bomb during World War II. Due to a shortage of building materials, the wrong colour bricks were used in the rebuilding, which can be clearly seen today.

Today the building is Grade-I listed. Made of red brick and white stone dressings, the house is set out in an E-plan layout. The original gateway to the estate is today marooned in the middle of the front lawn after the village green was enclosed by Charlton House’s owners, the Maryon-Wilson family in 1829. Meanwhile, in the back, the paved courtyard looks out over the Gardens, with some of the original estate forming Charlton Park behind. A part of a 19th century Ha-Ha remains today, while an ancient Mulberry tree in the front grounds is believed to date back to 1608. In the north-west corner of the grounds, overlooking the road, is a summer house or orangery, which was amazingly converted into public toilets in the 1930s. There is hope that the building will be restored in the future.

Charlton House is open today as a community centre, featuring a tea room, library, language school and a function venue for weddings, conferences and meetings. Although the whole of the building is not normally open to the public, I joined a tour of the building during Open House London. As well as learning about the history of the building, I got to see the stunning fireplaces, plasterwork ceilings and original oak staircase. The Grand Salon is particularly impressive with its marble fireplace flanked by sculptures of Venus and Vulcan, with the Stuart coat of arms and the initials JR (King James) in the west bay and the motto ‘Ich Dien’ (German for ‘I serve’) in the east bay.

  • Charlton House, Charlton Road, Charlton, SE7 8RE. Nearest station: Charlton (trains from Charing Cross and Cannon Street). For more information, visit the Charlton House website.
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The original oak staircase still exists in the building’s north east corner


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‘Roman’ bath at The Strand: What the Dickens is the history behind this old watering hole?

Down a small side street near the Aldwych campus of King’s College is an extraordinary piece of hidden London.

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The remains of the ‘Roman’ Bath in Strand Lane actually date back to the early 17th century

Known as the ‘Roman’ Bath on Strand Lane, the building is rarely open to the public. I visited a few months ago during Open House London and found the origins of the baths weren’t quite as romantic as they sounded. At one point there were two baths on the site – named ‘Essex’ and ‘Roman’ respectively, however it is the latter (which is also the oldest), that can be seen today.

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The doorway to the old ‘Essex Bath’ – built in the 18th century – is now blocked off, although the Dutch tiles can still be seen

Thanks to centuries of redevelopment, bombing and fires, there isn’t much left of Roman London today. Within the borders of old Londinium, we have some of the Roman wall at Tower Hill, the remains of the Amphitheatre at Guildhall and an old bathhouse at Lower Thames Street. While the bath at The Strand continues to be named ‘Roman’, it turns out it is significantly younger than two millennia.

Recent research by historians at nearby King’s College London has found the bath was originally constructed in 1612 as a feeder cistern for an elaborate fountain in the gardens of an earlier incarnation of Somerset House (prior to the current building, which dates back to 1796). At the time, the house was the residence for Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort of King James I of England (1566-1625). Following their deaths, it is believed the fountain was demolished around 1630 during extensive remodelling under the reign of their son King Charles I (1600-1649). This research by Professor Michael Trapp and Dr Kevin Hayward rejects an earlier theory the bath was a spring water reservoir for Arundel House, home to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl Of Arundel (1586-1646). Read the rest of this entry

41-42 Cloth Fair: City of London’s oldest house which has survived the Great Fire and the Blitz

The Great Fire of London ravaged the City of London in 1666, altering the cityscape forever. However, despite the blaze ending around Giltspur Street just 300 metres away, one Smithfield home dating to before the fire still survives today.

41 42 Cloth Fair © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

41-42 Cloth Fair is believed to be the oldest surviving home in the City of London

Located opposite St Bartholomew The Great Church is what is said to be the oldest house in the City of London. The name Cloth Fair stems back to the annual cloth fair held in August in the churchyard of St Bartholomew, which has stood on the site since 1123 when it was an Augustinian Priory. The fair was originally a trading place for merchants, but its popularity meant other attractions became popping up, including freak shows, music and other stalls. It later became known as the Bartholomew Fair and ran until 1855. It was only after the dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII (1491–1547) that the priory was reduced and houses were allowed to be built in the area. Located in what is known as the Farringdon Without ward of the City, 41-42 Cloth Fair is the only home on the road surviving from that period. The building dates back to the late Tudor/Jacobean period, having been constructed between 1597 and 1614.

When the building of 41-42 Cloth Fair was completed in 1614, it was part of a scheme of 11 houses with a courtyard in the middle called ‘the Square in Launders Green’, named so because it was on the site of the priory’s laundry. Amazingly, the houses managed to survive the Great Fire when it struck 52 years later. Records show they were unscathed due to being enclosed with the large priory walls. The decades and centuries went by and the buildings remained – if a little ravaged by time – until the early 20th century. In 1929, 41-42 Cloth Fair was earmarked for demolition by the Corporation of London as part of its slum clearance programme on the grounds of public health. Fortunately it was saved when it was bought for £3,000 freehold, before being restored by Paul Paget (1901-1985) and John Seely (the 2nd Lord Mottistone) in 1930, who used the building as their home and an office for their architectural practice until 1978. It obviously survived The Blitz and was converted into offices in 1979 after it was sold by Paget and Seely. Over the 80s and early 90s it was rather neglected, but fortunately bought in 1995 and extensively renovated to the home you see today, with the co-operation of English Heritage, Royal Commission of Historic Monuments and the City of London Corporation.

The ground floor exterior is probably the most changed today and looks pretty modern. However, if you look up at the first and second floors, the rectangular timber bays with led glass windows and their pediment crowns are evidence of its history. Today the address is a Grade II-listed four-bedroom home with roof terrace worth several million pounds. In 2000, the building was honoured with the City Heritage Award for being an asset to the local area. Among the famous people to have visited the house include Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). There are rumours that skeletons are buried in foundations of the building, which could be plausible given its location so close to the church.

Meanwhile, when you’re in the area check out 43 Cloth Fair next door – a Georgian house which was formerly home to Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), a writer and broadcaster who was a significant figure in the heritage movement and fought  to save many historical buildings from demolition. A blue plaque notes the former resident and today you can rent the house for a holiday let from the Landmark Trust. Also, around the corner on West Smithfield is St Bartolomew’s Gatehouse, another survivor from the Tudor period.

  • 41-42 Cloth Fair, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest station: Barbican or St PaulsPlease note this is a private residence and not open to the public.

To read about the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse around the corner, click here

Or to find out about the nearby Golden Boy Of Pye Corner, to commemorate the end of the Great Fire, click here.

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

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A hidden garden in the City: The ruins of St Dunstan-in-the-East

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Ruins: One of the Gothic-style windows on the north wall on the remains of St-Dunstan-in-the-East

The City Of London is a bustling, noisy place, especially on weekdays. For hundreds of years, the City’s churches have always been a place of solitude for those seeking quiet and today that is no different. However, not all churches consist of four walls and a ceiling thanks to the damage ravaged by the Nazis during World War II. Located just north of Lower Thames Street is a hidden garden in the ruins of a former church.  Although the steeple and tower and some of the walls now remain, the roof and interiors are long gone, having been replaced by a peaceful garden.

St Dunstan-in-the-East is located in the south-east corner of the City of London, a short walk from the Tower of London. The original St Dunstan church was originally built in 1100, but like many in the City, was damaged in the Great Fire Of London in 1666. Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) was given the responsibility of repairing and renovating the church. The building was patched up between 1668 and 1671 with Wren adding a needle spire during 1696 and 1701. Inside, the church contained carvings by Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), whose work also features in St Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.

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With the roof gone, what remains of the wall encloses a public garden

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Wren’s needle spire and clock tower managed to survive the World War II bombings

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The grand Gothic doorways remain intact, but are covered in vines

In 1817, the church was in a sorry state so it was rebuilt in a perpendicular style to a design by architect David Laing (1774-1856), who designed the New Custom House and was a former apprentice of Sir John Soane. Laing was assisted by architect William Tite (1798–1873), who went on to design the Royal Exchange, West Norwood Cemetery and various train stations, including Vauxhall, Barnes, Chiswick and Kew Bridge. The heavy weight of the roof of the nave had been pushing the walls out seven inches, so it was decided the whole structure – bar Wren’s tower – should be rebuilt. The new design was built with Portland Stone, cost £36,000 and spanned 115 feet by 65 feet. The makeover was revealed to the congregation on January 1821 and could accommodate up to 600-700 parishioners. (For a photo of the church interior, click here or exterior in 1910, click here.)

However, Laing’s redesign was not to last either, with the Nazi bombing campaign of World War II wreaking havoc on St Dunstan’s 120 years later. On 10 May 1941, the bomb destroyed the nave and roof and blew out the stained glass windows. In 1960, St Dunstan was linked with All Hallows by the Tower. The City of London Corporation decided not to rebuild and instead turn the ruins into a public garden, which opened in 1971. The tower’s eight bells were transferred to the Sterling Winery in California’s Napa Valley.

Today, the garden contain lots of plants, trees, a fountain and benches, while the tower is home to a wellbeing foundation. Occasional religious services are held in the open air in the garden, such as Palm Sunday, organised by All Hallows.

  • St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Dunstan’s Hill, off Lower Thames Street, City of London, EC3R 8DX. Nearest stations: Tower Hill or Monument.
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The eastern wall (right) of the church has been largely destroyed, while the south wall managed to stay standing


For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…

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Missing – One church: The lonely bell tower of St Alban

St Alban church tower © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

Marooned: The church tower of St Alban stands in on a traffic island in the middle of Wood Street

World War II caused a lot of damage and destruction to Sir Christopher Wren‘s churches in the City of London. Some were completely destroyed by bombs, while some damage was repairable. In some cases, the main church buildings were beyond repair, while their towers were able to be saved. One such church tower now stands alone, stranded on a traffic island with cars and taxis weaving along tarmac roads in the very spot where the congregation used to sit and pray.

St Alban church tower stands on a traffic island on Wood Street, separating the north and southbound traffic. The road starts north of Cheapside and crosses London Wall. A church has stood on the site since at least 930AD, with some arguing it dates back to the 8th century, during the time of Offa, King Of Mercia (757-796AD). The Anglo-Saxon ruler was believed to have had a palace on the site which included a chapel. Offa founded a monastery and abbey dedicated to Saint Alban (the first English martyr, who died in the 3rd or 4th century) in what later became St Albans, Hertfordshire. Offa also dedicated several churches in the City to the martyr, hence the theory the church went back this far. However, later parish records date the church to 930AD. During King John’s (1166-1216) reign, the church was called St Alban Wuderstrate. Records in the 16th century show the Medieval church included five bells.

St Alban tower © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

The tower was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in a late Perpendicular Gothic style

By 1633, the church was in a pretty bad state. Architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), landowner/politician Sir Henry Spiller and others inspected the building and found it was beyond repair so it was demolished with a new one constructed on the site a year later. After designing the first 17th century St Alban, Jones went on to repair and remodel St Paul’s Cathedral. However, Jones’s replacement of St Alban’s Church didn’t stand long thanks to the Great Fire Of London in 1666, which destroyed great swathes of the City.

St Alban church London

A sketch of St Alban church in 1839 from the The Churches of London by George Godwin
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

St Alban became one of the many churches rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire. Construction was completed in 1685 and was fashioned in a late Perpendicular Gothic style at a cost of £3,165. The new building featured piers shaped as clustered columns separating the structure into naves and aisles. At the north end of the church was a bell tower, which stood tall at 92 foot (28 metres) and included two bells. In the 19th century, the church was restored by another acclaimed architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878). Sir George was famous for building St Pancras station and the Albert Memorial and had a fondness for a neo-Gothic style, which would have suited Wren’s original design. Scott added an apse (a semi-circular recess) to the structure during his restoration.

However, around 274 years after the Great Fire Of London destroyed the City of London, this time it was the Nazi bombing campaign. St Alban was hit by a bomb on 29 December 1940, which left the building burnt out and partially destroyed, with only the tower intact. The main church building was eventually demolished in 1955, but it was decided the tower should remain after being designated a Grade II-listed building in January 1950. Today, the bells have long since been removed and the tower was converted into a private building in the mid 1980s.

Other existing Wren church towers in London missing the main church building included Christ Church Greyfriars, St Dunstan-In-The-East, All Hallows Staining, St Augustine Watling Street, St Mary Somerset and St Olave Old Jewry.

  • St Alban church tower stands on Wood Street, EC2. Nearest stations: Moorgate, Barbican or St Paul’s.

For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…

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Neo-classicism, masques and an execution site: The history and beauty of Banqueting House

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Inigo Jones’s Banqueting Hall and Ruben’s canvasses are accessible to the public

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The Southern End of Rubens’s ceiling depicts the ‘Peaceful Reign of James I’

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The chandeliers are now lit by electricity rather than candles

Like many Londoners, I have walked or rode a bus past Banqueting House more times than I could count. I must confess I didn’t know much about it until I decided to visit during Open House London and was totally stunned by the beauty and history of the building. However, unlike many of the buildings open during the September weekend, Banqueting House is open to the public all year round (the only difference was Open House was free). Located halfway down Whitehall, at the junction with Horse Guards Avenue, it is just across the road from Horse Guards Parade.

Banqueting House is the only surviving building of the old Palace of Whitehall, which was mostly destroyed by fire in the late 17th century. A previous banqueting house on the same site was destroyed by a fire (yes, another one) in January 1619 when over-zealous workmen cleaning up after a New Year’s celebration decided to burn the rubbish inside the building (not exactly the most worldly of men I would say…). King James I of England (1566-1625) immediately ordered it to be rebuilt and commissioned architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) to design one. Jones had spent a lot of time studying the architecture of Italy and was a leading figure bringing the fashion for neo-classicism to London. His designs helped architecture move away from the largely timber-framed and Jacobean English Renaissance style in favour of simpler designs influenced by the classical world. The building was eventually finished in 1622 at a cost of £15,618 – a considerably large sum in Stuart England.

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Takes your breath away: This is the splendour which awaits when you enter through the main door

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The grand façade of Banqueting House – where Charles I met his maker outside

The building comprises of three floors – of which two are accessible on your visit. The ground floor was for store rooms and cellars, while the first floor and second floor encompassed the actual Banqueting Hall – with a gallery on the second floor where the less fortunate would watch the king and his chums having a raucous good time at their banquets, masques and royal receptions. Although built by King James I, it was really his son Charles I (1600-1649) who transformed the space into what we see today thanks to his commission of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens to create the ceiling canvasses around 1629-1630. The canvasses were painted by Rubens at his studio in Antwerp and were unveiled at Banqueting House in March 1636. Today, his canvasses remain the only of his ceiling paintings still in-situ. The central image is The Apotheosis of James I, which celebrates the Stuart belief of kings as an absolute monarchy and their God-like status. The two other main canvasses show the Union of the Crowns (England and Scotland) and Peaceful Reign of James I.

For two decades, the Banqueting Hall played host to many celebrations under Rubens’ masterpiece. However, as we all know,  the fun all stopped during the English civil war and subsequent revolution, when Oliver Cromwell took charge. King Charles I was executed on a temporary wooden scaffolding outside the windows of his beloved Banqueting House,  the scene of many happy evenings in his past. His last words on 30 January 1649 were ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be’.

Following the restoration, the Banqueting Hall was again used for royal parties, but this began to decline in the late 17th century. Throughout the 18th century, it was mostly used as a chapel to replace the Tudor one destroyed in the Palace of Whitehall fire in 1698. Throughout the 19th century, the building was being used as a place for entertainment once more as it hosted concerts, before being given as a museum to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) by Queen Victoria in 1893. It is now a Grade I-listed building and managed by the Historic Royal Palaces charity so the public can visit this important piece of history and architecture.

  • Banqueting House, Whitehall, SW1A 2ER. Nearest stations: Westminster , Charing Cross or Embankment. Tickets: £5 or £4 concessions, Under 16s: Free. For more information, visit the Banqueting House website.
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Centrepiece: The Apotheosis of James I


For other blog posts on Open House London, read:

To read about the story behind nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here.

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Temple Bar: The only surviving gateway into the City of London

Temple Bar © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar arch stands at the south entrance to Paternoster Square in the City of London

Temple Bar © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Always open: The 1.2 ton gates were opened to the public on 10 November 2004

Like many ancient cities, London was surrounded by a wall, with visitors and returning residents gaining entrance through a variety of gates. There have been numerous gates – or archways – into the City of London over the past two millenia, but today, only one remains. Temple Bar is currently located just north of St Paul’s Cathedral – half a mile east from where it originally stood on Fleet Street until the late 19th century. While the current structure is a 17th century design by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), it replaced a previous wooden structure and before that a chain and posts. Many of London’s gates – Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Newgate (which no longer exist) – date back to Roman times. However, Temple Bar dates back to the Middle Ages when the City of London authority erected a passageway to control traffic between the juxtaposing cities of London and Westminster. The name Temple refers to the area south of Fleet Street known for its law courts – which now features Temple underground station on the Circle and District line. The Bar at Temple was first mentioned in 1293, which historians believe was a simply a chain between two posts. However, over the years, many different structures were erected on the site. In the late Middle Ages, a timber arch stood on the spot and amazingly avoided being destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Temple Bar King Charles © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Stuart Royals: Statues of King Charles I (1600-1649) and his son Charles II (1630-1685) are on the south facing part of the arch

Temple Bar London 1878

Temple Bar on its original Fleet Street site in 1878 – the year it was dismantled and taken to Herts
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Following the Great Fire, the City was due a big makeover – building by necessity and also an attempt to build a more flowing, ordered space – 17th century town planning. The wooden Temple Bar was falling into disrepair so Wren was given the task of building a new gate, along with all the other structures he was designing and overseeing in the City. King Charles II (1630-1685) commissioned Wren to create the new Temple Bar. Made from Portland Stone, it took three years to build and was completed in 1672. The gate features a wide arch for road traffic and two smaller arches for pedestrians to pass through. In alcoves on each side of the Temple were statues of Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II, James I (1566-1625) and Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), which were carved by John Bushnell (d.1701). In the 18th century, the heads of traitors were put on spikes above the roof of the arch to serve as a warning to those thinking about breaking the City’s laws.

Despite the respect of such a historic monument, the City of London Corporation wanted to widen the road and it was decided to dismantle it carefully stone-by-stone in January 1878. After its 2,700 stones were put in storage, two years later the arch was bought by brewer Henry Meux, to be reconstructed in his Hertfordshire estate Theobalds Park.

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Horace Jones’ Temple Bar marker today outside the Royal Courts of Justice

So for 123 years, Temple Bar stood in a clearing in a wood in Hertfordshire. Despite its Grade I-listing, it deteriorated and suffered vandalism over the years. The arch was bought by the Temple Bar Trust (founded by Sir Hugh Wontner in 1976) in 1984 with the hope of restoring it and bringing it back to the Square Mile. Finally, on 10 November 2004, the bright, shiny Temple Bar was completed and open to the public, now situated at the entrance to Paternoster Square by St Paul’s Cathedral. The gates of the arch, weighing just over 1.2 tons each, were opened by the Lord Mayor at the time and the 14 stonemasons who had worked on the rebuilding Temple Bar. Meanwhile, on its previous site where Fleet Street meets The Strand (in the City of Westminster) outside the Royal Courts of Justice, there now stands a marker – a neo Renaissance pedestal by Horace Jones featuring Charles Bell Birch’s sculpture of a dragon – the symbol for the City of London. The pedestal, which was unveiled in 1880) features likenesses of Queen Victoria and Edward VIII (the then-Prince of Wales), who were the last royals to pass through Wren’s gate.

  • Temple Bar is located at Paternoster Square, just north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Nearest stations: St Paul’s or City Thameslink.

For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…

For the history of the Temple area of London – where the bar originally stood – read about Middle Temple Hall.

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

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Who moved the Thames? York Water Gate at Embankment Gardens

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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.

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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, click here.

 To find out the history of Charing Cross, click here.

Discover the story of the nearby ‘Dolphin’ lampposts on the Thames Embankments, click here.

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

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St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street – where the tiered wedding cake began!

The name St Bride’s for a church off Fleet Street could not be more apt, because it plays an important role in today’s wedding culture.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

While the name of St Bride comes from St Bridgit or St Bride of Kildare – a druidic slave and daughter of an Irish prince, who was born in 453. She gave away so many of her father’s possessions, he eventually allowed her to follow her religious calling. She is marked by a feast day, when it is customary to donate to the poor and a cake is baked for her travels.

The current St Bride’s was built by Sir Christopher Wren (1633-1723) in 1672, one of the first he designed as the City of London was rebuilt following the Great Fire Of London. It is thought to be the seventh church to stand on the site since the 6th century, with the Great Fire potentially destroying one dating back to the 15th century. The previous church was where the famous diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was baptised in 1633 and was mentioned in his diary entries concerning the great fire. Although the main church was open for worship from 1674, the tower and steeple weren’t complete until 1703.

The steeple, consisting of four tiers, each diminishing in size the higher they are, was originally 234ft high, but lost 8ft in 1764 due to a lightning strike. After St Paul’s Cathedral, St Bride’s was Wren’s tallest church and was prominent on the London’s then-skyline.

St Brides Cake 5050 © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012 and Ashley Jane Cakes

St Bride’s steeple is said to have inspired the design for the modern wedding cake (right photo – © Ashley Jane Cakes)

At weddings, it is commonplace to expect a tiered cake as the centrepiece of the reception, with everyone grabbing their cameras or iPhones to capture the iconic cutting of the cake by the bride and groom.

The dessert at weddings were originally a stack of cakes, then a bride’s pie, before the bride and groom had their own separate cakes. Just like the traditional colour of a bride’s wedding dress, the white icing was meant to symbolise purity.

However, it was pastry chef William Rich (1755-1812), who lived on Ludgate Hill in late 18th century London, who was said to be responsible for the tiered wedding cake we know today. Living a stone’s throw from St Bride’s, he found inspiration for making a cake for his own marriage to Susannah Prichard by looking at the tiered steeple.

Amazingly, the steeple survived World War II, despite the actual church being fire bombed by the Luftwaffe on 29 December 1940 (the same night Wren’s Christ Church Greyfriars was bombed – with only the steeple surviving again). By now, the church had been embraced by the journalists and editors of Fleet Street, who financially contributed to the church’s rebuilding in the Fifties, with the building being Grade I listed in 1950. Despite the damage, the bombing did uncover the 6th century foundations of an earlier Saxon church on the site, which can be visited on tours.

  • St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, EC4Y 8AU. Nearest stations: Blackfriars or City Thameslink. St Bride’s Church is open for worship and visits. Please check their website for more information.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Still dominating the skyline: The view of St Bride’s from Ludgate Hill on a
stunning September evening


For other posts on Sir Christopher Wren’s life and buildings read…

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

Many thanks to the talented proprietor of Ashley Jane Cakes – a caterer located in Lancs – for allowing me to use a photograph of one of her wedding cake designs.

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