The story behind London’s Art Deco riverside structure and the buildings which came before.
Shell Mex House
Most of us would agree that the Elizabeth Tower (known more popularly by its nickname ‘Big Ben’ – actually the name of the bell), is one of the world’s most famous clocks. When it comes to iconic symbols of London, the Palace of Westminster’s time-keeper is up there with the Tower of London. While the clock faces of Big Ben are 23ft (7m) in diameter, there’s actually a bigger clock in the capital – just under a mile down river from Parliament.
Shell Mex House at No.80 Strand is a few years shy of its 90th birthday. Overlooking the River Thames and dwarfing the nearby Cleopatra’s Needle, the Art Deco structure is the latest in a series of interesting buildings to stand on the site over the centuries.
The Earls of Bedford at Russell Place
The land was first owned by the Bishop of Carlisle prior to the 16th century. It was around the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it came under the ownership of the famous landowning family, the Russells. John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485-1555), acquired some of the Carlisle estate in 1539, naming his home Russell Place (also known as Russell House and becoming later Bedford House). Eleven years later, the Earl took possession of more land in nearby Covent Garden. Following his death at Russell House in 1555, his home and land passed to his son, Francis, 2nd Earl of Bedford (1527-1585), who also died there. Francis’ grandson and heir to the peerage, Edward Russell, 3rd Earl of Bedford (1572-1627) built a second Bedford House on the north side of Strand in 1586, which remained the centre for the family’s estate until it was demolished in 1705-6.
It appears it was a case of musical chairs houses for the aristocratic families of Russell and Cecil. While the Russells moved the name Bedford House from south of the Strand to the north, the Cecils started north before expanding south. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598), originally lived in the 16th century Burghley House on the north side of the Strand, where the Strand Palace Hotel is today. It was renamed Exeter House in the early 17th century when William’s son Thomas Cecil (1542-1623) became the 1st Earl of Exeter. Meanwhile, Thomas’s younger brother Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), expanded the family land across the road, acquiring the site of the original Bedford House in 1599.
The rise and fall of Salisbury House: From a stately home to a den of iniquity
Robert Cecil built his southside mansion Salisbury House at the turn of the 17th century. He was famous for discovering the Gunpowder plot in 1605 and served in Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England’s government. His son, William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury (1591-1668) split the estate in two, living in Great Salisbury House and letting out Little Salisbury House to tenants. However, the estate started going down hill under the watch of his grandson James Cecil, 3rd Earl of Salisbury (1648-1683), who demolished Little Salisbury House for a new, narrow road named Salisbury Street in the early 1670s. He also built the Middle Exchange – a covered row of shops and stalls, which quickly garnered a reputation for prostitution and was nicknamed ‘Whores’ Nest’. By the 1690s, his son and heir, James Cecil, 4th Earl of Salisbury (1666-1694), started plans to tear down the Exchange and Great Salisbury House. After his premature death in 1694 and with his heir James Cecil, 5th Earl of Salisbury being only a toddler, his widow Frances (1670-1713) continued her late husband’s wishes. The Dowager Countess of Salisbury signed her consent on the government bill for the demolition in 1695. Under her watch, a new road named Cecil Street was built through the middle of the estate, with Frances signing leases for houses to be built upon it. Historian John Strype (1643-1737) described Cecil Street as “fair”, with “very good houses fit for persons of repute and be better ordered than Salisbury Street was”.
Less than a century later, Salisbury Street was rebuilt by prominent architect James Paine (1717-1787). He built his own home, along with 24 other houses. Famous for his Palladian designs, Paine’s business suffered in his later years as he refused to follow the fashion for neoclassical, popularised by the Adam brothers, who had built the nearby Adelphi Buildings.
Hotel Cecil: The story of Europe’s largest hotel
The advent of the railways was to transform the Strand from a residential area to a transport hub. When Charing Cross station was opened 350 metres away in 1864, it became a popular departure point for wealthy Brits travelling to the continent. As more hotels started cropping up in the late 19th century, the area became even more urbanised when the Victoria Embankment was built in the 1860s along with Joseph Bazalgette‘s (1819-1891) new sewage system, narrowing the River Thames in the process. The fate of Cecil and Salisbury Street was sealed (see a sketch of a Cecil Street dwelling in 1882). In 1888, then-Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830–1903), sold off the family’s land.
Hotel Cecil overlooking the Victorian Embankment. Circa late 19th cent/early 20th century. (Wikimedia Commons)
With such a prime location just a short walk from Charing Cross and with views over the river, the Salisbury estate was quickly snapped up by hoteliers. The Savoy Hotel had already been opened next door in 1889 by Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901). Cecil and Salisbury Street were consigned to the history books and demolished (see a photo of Salisbury Street prior to demolition). In their place, the Hotel Cecil was built in 1890-96 to a design by architects John Tavernor-Perry (1842-1915) and Frederick Henry Reed (1851-1909). The nine storey hotel was designed in a neo-classical style, made with 7,500 tons of steel. Politician Jabez Spencer Balfour (1843-1916), was an early investor, but fled to Argentina in 1892 and was later jailed for fraud. When the Cecil opened in 1896, it was the largest hotel in Europe and one of the largest in the world. In the 1920s, it boasted the largest banqueting space in London and could accommodate 600 diners in the Grand Hall, another 350 diners in the Victoria Hall and a further 200 diners in the Prince’s Hall. The Hotel Cecil soon became renowned in London for being a great dancing hotspot. (See Alamy’s archive of Hotel Cecil photos here).
During World War I, the hotel was requisitioned and became the first headquarters for the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1918-1919. During the 1920s, the Cecil regained its popularity as a leisure venue, with many jazz nights taking place in the hotel’s entertainment spaces. However, just 34 years after opening, the Hotel Cecil was closed in February 1930 and was largely demolished in just 16 weeks. The Strand-facing façade and arched entrance managed to survive and still remains today, with shops operating out of its ground floor.
Victoriana makes way for Modernism
In 1932, petroleum companies Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (BP) merged to become Shell-Mex and BP. They required new headquarters for their merged company and took over the Hotel Cecil land. Architect and artist Frances Milton Cashmore (1892-1971) from Ernest Joseph’s (1877-1960) firm Messrs. Joseph was contracted to design an Art Deco building. The results were a bold Modernist, Portland stone building, from 11 to 15 storeys high, with two basement levels. The river-facing façade’s upper storeys step inwards, and is crowned by a short tower with large clock face. The tower allowed the architect to circumvent the city’s height restrictions at the time, because the upper levels were for decoration, not for office space. Shell Mex and BP later extended upwards with a two-storey extension after height restrictions were relaxed following World War II. The building is 58 metres high, and has 49,000 square metres of floor space. When Shell Mex House officially opened on 25 January 1933 and, as was common at the time, not everyone was a fan of this Modernist architecture style.
The biggest clock face in the UK
The clock was a big talking point due to its sheer size. At 7.62 metres in diameter, it eclipsed Big Ben’s 7 metre clock faces. It was manufactured by Gillett & Johnson (est.1844) of Croydon. Either side of the clock is a pair of hieratic, marble figures by sculptor William Charles Holland King (1884-1973). The clock was nicknamed by Londoners as ‘Big Benzene’.
Ancient world meets modern: Shell Mex House dwarfs Cleopatra’s Needle
Just like the Hotel Cecil before it, Shell Mex House was acquisitioned during World War II and was used by the Ministry of Supply and the Petroleum Board, which controlled the rationing of petroleum. The building was damaged by a bomb in 1940, but soon repaired. Shell-Mex and BP regained use of the building in 1948, although the Minstry of Aviation continued operating out of a few floors until the mid 1970s. Shell-Mex and BP demerged in 1976, with the former retaining ownership of Shell Mex House until the 1990s. Shell Mex House was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1987.
Since Shell relinquished the building in the 1990s, it has traded ownership several times and been home to many big companies over the decades, including Pearson, Vodafone, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Aimia and Omnicom. Although it is familiar to many as Shell Mex House, its official name is now 80 Strand. In 2007, it was sold to US equity firm Westbrook Partners by Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz, David and Simon Reuben and Jack Dellal for £590 million. Today, the building is owned by the German Conley/Conle family, who purchased it for a reported £610 million in 2013. In March 2020, the owners were granted planning permission to refurbish the building, adding a new entrance pavilion. two-store conservatory in the courtyard and new roof terraces.
A late Georgian shopping arcade became a toy mecca for Victorian children until its demolition in 1902.
The Lowther Arcade (left) in 1901 – a year before its demolition (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
The West End has been a shopping destination for Londoners and tourists for over two centuries. Along with popular thoroughfares like Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street, there is also a selection of shopping arcades, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the elements. Today, two of the capital’s existing shopping arcades are over 200 years old. However, one Georgian shopping arcade barely survived into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. This post is a long-delayed addition to Metro Girl’s Shopping in Style series, which explores the history of London’s shopping arcades.
After the success of the capital’s first two shopping arcades – the Royal Opera and Burlington, plans were made for another arcade on Strand. Lowther Arcade was designed by architect Witherden Young and built by William Herbert in 1830 (see Young’s architectural plans). It was named after William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (1787-1872), who was Chief Commissioner of the Woods and Forests from 1828-1830. Lowther Arcade ran from the Strand to Adelaide Street and was 245 foot long, 20 foot wide and 30 foot high. The arcade featured 24 small shops, with two storeys above the shop level. The arcade was designed in a Greco-Italian style and was topped by a series of glass domes, flooding the aisle with light. Its classical design complemented the eastern end of Strand (No.s 430-449), which had been redeveloped by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) in 1830. Although shorter in length, Lowther Arcade was often referred to as the ‘twin’ of the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair. Just like the Burlington, the Lowther management also employed a Beadle to maintain order.
An 1883 illustration of the Lowther Arcade shops (From “London Town” by Felix Leigh, illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton on Wikimedia Commons)
After opening, Lowther Arcade quickly won over Londoners with its architecture and atmosphere. In his 1834 book National History and Views of London and Its Environs, Volumes 1-2, Charles Frederick Partington wrote: “The Lowther Arcade is decidedly the most elegant establishment of this description erected in the metropolis… When we compare the costly and elegant bijoutrie exhibited for sale, it will be found the dealers lose nothing by comparison with those celebrated in the Arabian Nights and other works of eastern fiction.”
At the north end of the arcade was the Adelaide Gallery, a forerunner to the Science Museum. Opened by American inventor Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), it didn’t prove that successful and was replaced by an amusement hall in the 1840s. It then became home to Signor Brigaldi’s Italian Marionettes in 1852, and during another period was used as a music hall. Read the rest of this entry →
Visit ‘No.10 Downing Street’ lookalike No.10 Adam Street
Now I don’t like to make assumptions about my readers, but I reckon I could make a fairly good guess that most of you haven’t visited No.10 Downing Street. Located behind iron gates and a wall of police, it’s one of the most heavily guarded addresses in the United Kingdom. It’s pretty unlikely that many of us will get close to the iconic address.
However, during a quiet side street off the Strand is a building that is a bit of a doppelgänger to the Prime Minister’s residence. Walking past No.10 Adam Street you could be forgiven for looking twice. The entrance to the Georgian building features a familiar black door. Both have the fan window above the door, white stucco frame and a brass door knob. While Downing Street has a black lion door knocker, Adam Street has a simple brass one.
No.10 Adam Street was designed by architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) – part of the Adam architectural dynasty. The surrounding area is known as Adelphi – named after the former Adelphi Terrace which was built between 1768-1792 and designed by Robert, James and William Adam. The Adelphi was London’s first neoclassical building and featured 11 large houses and a vaulted terrace with fine views over the Thames.
Although the Adelphi Terrace was demolished in the 1930s, the name lives on with the nearby Adelphi Theatre and the new Adelphi building, a striking Art Deco creation. The surrounding roads – Adam Street, John Adam Street and Robert Street – are named after the architects.
10 Adam Street, Westminster, WC2N 6AA. Nearest station: Charing Cross, Embankment or Temple.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Down a small side street near the Aldwych campus of King’s College is an extraordinary piece of hidden London.
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.
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 →
This street light down a Westminster side street is more important than you think.
The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp is located on Carting Lane
The lamp burns 24 hours a day
Once a mainstay of Victorian streets, gas lamps have gradually been replaced by electric lighting and are a very rare occurrence today. However down one quiet London street, there is what is believed to be the capital’s only remaining sewer gas lamp. Halfway down Carting Lane at the back of The Savoy hotel, is an example of a Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp. The design was patented by Joseph Edmund Webb of Birmingham in the late 19th century in a bid to safely remove sewer gases from the sewers below. These gases, when built up, were hazardous and smelt dreadful. These lamps were mainly placed on slopes and hills – where sewer gases were more likely to collect. Carting Lane is a slope leading down towards the Thames from the Strand, with the sewers taking waste from The Savoy. With this in mind, it’s no surprise to hear the road has been nicknamed ‘Farting Lane’. In the 18th century up until the 1860s, the thoroughfare was known as Dirty Lane. This unfortunate name came as the lane was a cut-through for horse and carts to the nearby Salisbury Wharf. However, while the lamps removed sewer gases, they weren’t actually powered by them. The flame is lit by traditional town gas, while drawing up sewer gases from below and burning off any impurities along with the mains gas.
Unfortunately the lamp was damaged by a lorry in more recent years, but has been fully restored by British Gas engineers and can now be seen running 24 hours a day.
The old lamppost can be found on Carting Lane (leading from The Strand to Savoy Place), Westminster, WC2R. Nearest stations: Charing Cross,Embankment or Temple.
The centrepiece of Kaspar’s is the ornate bar with icicle-style decorations
The Savoy is one of London’s most iconic hotels, synonymous with luxury and style. Having previously visiting the stunning Beaufort Bar in the hotel, I have long been eager to sample some food in one of the restaurants. Fortunately, for my recent birthday, my sister booked a table at Kaspar’s Seafood Bar and Grill in the hotel as a surprise.
The name of the restaurant stems back to the hotel’s iconic cat Kaspar. The cat’s origins started during a fateful meal back in 1898, when South African diamond magnate Woolf Joel hosted a meal for 14 people at The Savoy. After one guest dropped out at the last minute, another diner declared it was unlucky to eat at a table for 13 and death would fall upon the first person to leave. Joel wasn’t superstitious and dismissed the notion and was the first to leave, only to be shot dead weeks later in Johannesburg. In the following years, any time there was a table of 13 at The Savoy, an extra guest was arranged by management to make up the numbers to 14. With members of staff often joining diners at the table, this often proved unpopular so in 1926, architect Basil Ionides created an art deco sculpture of a cat named Kaspar. Since then, Kaspar has joined many a group of 13 diners at The Savoy, wearing a napkin around his neck. In 2013, The Savoy‘s River Room restaurant was re-imagined as Kaspar’s Seafood Bar and Grill.
My party of four dined at Kaspar’s on a Saturday evening in August. Unfortunately we were far from the river view, but had a nice table and booth situated in the north west corner so had an expansive view across the restaurant. Kaspar’s was decked out in stunning Art Deco interiors, with icicle-style sculptures surrounding the ornate bar, which has high stools should you prefer some informal dining. However, we were definitely being formal on this occasion.
Green pea soup with seafood dumping
One thing on the wine list which thrilled me was to see they had half-bottles and carafes alongside the typical glasses or bottles. I order carafes all the time when I go abroad, but I think London restaurants seriously need to step up and offer more carafes on their menus. We were a party of four, but we were split into two camps when it came to what wine we preferred. I wasn’t in the mood for drinking much so my sister and I shared a carafe of Anjou Rosé, Domaine des Cedres for £16.00, which was light and fruity and just what we needed.
Kaspar’s is located at the iconic Savoy Hotel
The food menu was pretty extensive and our patient waiter did have to return a few times as we took so long to decide. Eventually I plumped for the Green Pea Soup with Seafood Dumpling (£9) which was a lovely consistency. The dumpling was an unusual flavour combination with the soup, which worked well. My mother, rather controversially, opted for the Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Parfait served with Grilled Sourdough Bread and Cumberland sauce (£15), but said she loved it.
For my main, I was pretty torn for choice but finally settled on the Isle Of Sky Lobster, with the option to buy half or whole. I went for the former (£22), which was served with garlic butter and lemon so you will need to order sides, such as Buttered Spinach or Cornish New Potatoes. The lobster was soft and easy to get into and tasted gorgeous with lashings of melted butter on. I also tried my sister’s Seafood Linguine, a simple, but tasty dish which is apparently quite popular for Kaspar’s diners.
Tragically, we were all pretty full and didn’t have room for dessert but had a little sugar fix with complimentary raspberry and dark chocolate lollipops. Overall, the food and drink were brilliant – there was a wide range of dishes to appease all taste. The venue was sophisticated and the service was incredibly friendly and attentive. Can recommend as a nice venue to treat yourself, or perhaps a pre-theatre meal as its located right next to The Savoy Theatre.
Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill is located in The Savoy, Strand, Westminster, WC2R 0EU. Nearest stations: Embankment, Charing Cross or Temple. For more information, visit the Kaspar’s website.
Sweet treat: We just about found room for the chocolate and raspberry lollipops
For Metro Girl’s review of the Beaufort Bar in The Savoy,click here.
To find out about the monument to composer Arthur Sullivan in Embankment Gardens behind the hotel and his ties to The Savoy, click here.
For more of Metro Girl’s restaurant reviews,click here.
A look at Maggi Hambling’s sculpture by the Strand.
A Conversation With Oscar Wilde’ by Maggi Hambling
Take a seat: A Conversation With Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was one of the greatest poets and authors of the 19th century. Although born and raised an Irishman, he spent a lot of his life in London and, of course, many of his plays were first staged here, and continue to be staged in the capital over 100 years after his death.
Given his huge contribution to London’s West End with his masterpieces such as The Importance Of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, it is only fitting there should be a memorial to him in the city. Unbelievably, it took until 1998 for the great talent to finally be honoured in his former home.
‘A Conversation With Oscar Wilde’ by Maggi Hambling is a bit more interactive than most memorials. I have often walked past it to see people sitting on it eating their lunch, perhaps completely oblivious to what they are resting their posterior on… but they could also be having a quiet moment with Oscar. Unveiled by actor Stephen Fry on the 98th anniversary of his death on 30 November 1998, the piece consists of a granite block, which looks rather coffin-shaped, with the bronze head and shoulders of Oscar peering out. Oscar’s hand hold a cigarette, which has been replaced several times. Describing the piece, Hambling has said in the past: ‘The idea is that he is rising, talking, laughing, smoking from this sarcophagus and the passerby, should he or she choose to, can sit on the sarcophagus and have a conversation with him.’
At the tail end of the piece is a quote from his 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan (first performed at St James’s Theatre), which is probably one of his most memorable and apt quotes. ‘We are all – in the gutter – but some of us – are looking at – the stars.’ Look out for it next time you’re walking along the Strand.
A Conversation With Oscar Wilde is located on Adelaide Street, WC2N, just near the junction of the Strand and Duncannon Street. Nearest station: Charing Cross.
Find out about the huge monument in the forecourt of Charing Cross station.
A Victorian re-construction of the Eleanor Cross has stood outside Charing Cross station since 1865
The Victorian monument stands 70ft high
Charing Cross lends its name to one of London’s busiest overland stations, seeing over 37 million people passing through every year. However, a majority of those who pass through Charing Cross probably have no idea what the station is named after. In the forecourt of the 19th century station stands a Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross, of which the original stood on the edge of the hamlet of Charing from the 13th century.
After years of passing by the Eleanor Cross and admiring the ornate carvings, I decided to find out the history behind it. I had long heard of Charing Cross as being referred to as the centre of London and was interested to find out how this came about with the area being located west of the original City of London.
The original Eleanor Cross was erected on the junction of Whitehall with Trafalgar Square – where the statue of Charles I on a horse stands today. The cross was commissioned by King Edward I (1239-1307) in the 13th century as a memorial to his wife Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290). The Charing Cross was one of 12 erected to mark the nightly resting places her body stopped on its way from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey. The Cross was placed where the hamlet of Charing – believed to have come from the Anglo-Saxon word for bend – ‘cierring’ (referring to the nearby bend in the River Thames) met the Royal Mews of the Palace of Whitehall. Out of all 12 Eleanor Crosses, the one at Charing was the most expensive and was created by senior royal mason Richard of Crundale and sculptor Alexander of Abingdon.
The second level features likenesses of Eleanor of Castile, who died in 1290
For over 350 years, the Eleanor Cross stood at the top of Whitehall until the Civil War. In 1647 it was destroyed on the orders of Parliament, and nearly 30 years later, replaced by the equestrian statue of Charles I during the restoration. Since the late 19th century, Charing Cross has been seen as the centre of London and it’s from this point of Charles’s statue where distances from the capital are measured.
An equestrian statue of Charles I now stands on the site of the original Eleanor Cross
With the Industrial Revolution transforming the city, the name Charing Cross was to be used again to name the railway station being built on the site of the Hungerford Market – which had been there since the late 16th century. In the forecourt of the station and its adjoining Charing Cross Hotel, it was decided by the South Eastern Railway company that the Eleanor Cross should rise again.
Architect Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880), who had also designed the hotel and the Royal Opera House, designed the reconstruction. Built by Thomas Earp of Lambeth with Portland stone, Mansfield stone and Aberdeen granite, it was a much more elaborate and ornate design than the original. Standing at 70 feet (21 metres) high, it consists of three stages on an octagonal plan, topped by a spire and cross. The first stage features shields copied from the other Eleanor Crosses and bear the arms of England, Castile, Leon and Ponthieu. The next level features likenesses of Eleanor of Castile. It was finished in 1865 – a year after Charing Cross station opened.
Over the decades, the Eleanor Cross started to suffer a bit from the weather and general ageing. After being designated a Grade II listed monument in 1970, it was put on the English Heritage At Risk Register in 2008. During its restoration in 2009-2010, over 100 missing ornamental features were recreated, with existing ones being re-attached or secured. Let’s hope this Victorian piece of architecture survives as long the original Eleanor Cross, if not longer.
Both the monument and the Charing Cross Hotel over the station were designed by architect Edward Middleton Barry
To read about the history of nearby Great Scotland Yard, click here
A 17th century ‘waterside’ gate marooned away from the river.
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.
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 South Bank. 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, approx. 1800 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
For a Metro Girl’s post on the Arthur Sullivan Memorial in Embankment Gardens, click here.
Anyway who’s read my blog or followed my Twitter feed in the past few weeks can’t have missed the fact that I enjoyed the Olympic and Paralympic games very much indeed. In fact, some of my nearest and dearest would have gone so far as to say I was ‘obsessed’ with the games. While, I concede, I […]