The Victoria Embankment to be exact. Which is a dual carriageway along the side of the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge to Westminster Bridge. So what, I hear you ask, is so special about a piece of urban tarmacadam?
It reeks. Of history, of life, of a rip-roaring lesson in London’s sense of its worthy self. A bit smug, a little proud and somewhat bellicose. Three characteristics that have shaped the English persona.
From Boudicca the Ancient British warrior on her chariot at one end
to the struts on this bridge which is the site of a mafiosi killing (see my previous post – B is for Bridges). This sterile yet oddly engaging strip of nothing has it all.
But how come it’s there? If we take you back to the beginning of the 19th Century there wasn’t an embankment. The tidal Thames was contained to an extent by wharves and docks but a lot of the land ran down to the beaches and foreshores which are still evident today.
Three major projects changed that, however.
First, the building of the district underground railway line (as to which see below);
The second was the creation of an additional road to relieve traffic congestion on the Strand and Fleet street (the original Temple Bar gate, the grand ceremonial entrance to the City of London, was too narrow and removed to Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire in the 1870s to allow more carriages through but something had to be done by the 1850s- this wonderful structure only returned to the centre of London in the last five years and now stands adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral);
And the third and most importantly, was the piece of infrastructure that utterly transformed London in a way which even the advent of the internal combustion engine and its removal of London’s reliance on horse power (with a commensurate removal of tonnes of sh+t) did not.
I give you
As Britain and London in particular approached the middle of the 19th Century and stretched its empirical and aggrandising muscles it had a problem: an increasing population with an increasing need to deal with the by products of both personal and industrial expansion. For centuries this was the function of the Thames and the other watercourses. But adding raw sewage as well as the side impact of the industrial revolution to the water supply had dire affects, culminating in recurrent and significant outbreaks of cholera and similar diseases.
I’d like to say Parliament was concerned about the loss of life that led to the creation of an alternative disposal system. Sadly it seems more likely that the Great Stink of 1858, when the unusual heatwave created such a foetid stench that Parliament closed formed the proximate cause and the money was voted to find a solution.
The answer was a comprehensive sewerage disposal system that piped the effluent out to the East and held in at Abbey Mills. Only once the Thames was flowing out to sea, miles down river from the populated areas was the sewerage released and washed into the north sea. Not exactly hygienic by today’s standards but revolutionary for then.
And a major part of those massive pipes are contained in the Embankment. It is no exaggeration to say you stand on London’s saviour.
The man behind this extraordinary achievement is an engineer who should have been deified.
Sir Joseph Bazalgette
He is rightly remembered on the Embankment but, as the cars hurtle past few people stop or realise that he is here. They spend their time, let’s say, staring at the balcony at Buckingham Palace or through the security at 10 Downing Street. These are not what London is about. Only in its innovative disposal of faeces, do you see a perfect metaphor for the success of London. So piffle and poppycock to royals and upstart demagogue politicians. Pay fealty to this hero. Kiss his name.
Moving on, the Embankment, curving round the sharp meander of the Thames is fronted by some stunning buildings.
Somerset House, we have already mentioned in A is for The Aldwych and is former home to the Inland Revenue and now a splendid place for coffee and cake and the odd art exhibition.
The Adelphi, a 1930s glorious excess of art Deco apartments.
Shell Mex House, the former HQ of Royal Dutch Shell and during the War the tallest building in London. There is a balcony in front of its eye-catching clock where Churchill reputedly watched the Luftwaffe bomb the East End. When asked if it was wise to be on such a prominent building it is said he answered that since the Germans used it as the guide mark (it is clad in creamy Portland stone and shines in moonlight) that showed they had reached the Thames they were unlikely to bomb it.
And the Savoy Hotel, built by Richard D’Oyly-Carte from the money made producing Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, it is a fabulous place to meet – the American Bar is historically where lovers met for a clandestine rendezvous.
And yet, and yet as you wander this stretch you cannot help but notice the amount of bronze. Why? Who?
These statues sit in an array of pleasant if narrow gardens that give some respite from the traffic. They are all well maintained and they show off a certain quality that remains in evidence in the English, the British to this day. The educated, well spoken fighting man. Ah me, let’s move on and return to blood and guts and glory in a while, shall we?
As you approach Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, you encounter Cleopatra’s needle (the London Eye is on the South bank from here, rather emphasising the twisting nature of the river – where would East Enders be without that meander?), something I remember finding very exciting as a child when brought on a day trip to London. My father made up a story about a giant sewing, but what happened and why has now sadly gone from my memory. And so back we come to battles.
Ok, the Battle of Britain – the Few – was a magnificent example of hope winning out over rational common sense. These guys were brave, no doubt. By 1940 there wasn’t a Plan B. And this is the large and rather I thought depressing monument to that defence. But when you view this alongside the other similar bits of stone and bronzes you cannot ignore the fact that we have such an irresistibly violent history. Sadly this, like the others, is a representation of the, nearly always, male strengths in time of conflict – fortitude and valour.
Why not a few more scientists or inventors? Or women? Why must we always celebrate the existential threats and not the glorious positives?
These are a few more.
The Chindits – Burma.
The Korean War.
Gordon of Khartoum.
There are politicians too but frankly why give them airtime? What about trains? I like trains.
Underneath and behind all this runs the underground. Built in the 1850s with a cut and cover arrangement this is a splendid piece of engineering (though imagine the dirt form the steam trains used at that time) but at one point it caused me quite some grief. I was involved in a development of an office building, nearer Blackfriars. We advised the client of the proximity of the underground tunnel and he confirmed the contractor was well aware of the need to keep away. Which was fine until one of his crew dropped a jack hammer into the excavated ground and it disappeared. The workman went to retrieve it and was as surprised as the train driver he found peering back at him to realise he had pierced the tunnel wall, so close to the surface is the tunnel at this point. I recall some vexed and rather sarcastic, and well deserved correspondence with London Transport over that.
Oh and while I’m not big on religion, is it any surprise when you note the above fixation with shiny buttons and khaki that this chap just gets a plaque and not a statue?
So let’s relax shall we?
You can keep to the green spaces for most of the way if you want but you will miss some of the riverside gems if you do. Or like me you can zigzag across the road though please keep a weathered eye out or, like me, you’ll have a taxi driver call you an “£$%^&* little $%^&*( smart-+_)() geezer. He was probably correct if anatomically optimistic.
Eventually you reach this place. I suppose it must be famous?
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