E is for the Embankment #atozchallenge


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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.

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From Boudicca the Ancient British warrior on her chariot at one end

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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);

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The restored Temple Bar Gate

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.

The_silent_highwayman great stink

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Adelphi, a 1930s glorious excess of art Deco apartments.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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2016-03-16 15.26.47Ok, 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.

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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.

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The Chindits – Burma.

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The Korean War.

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Gordon of Khartoum.

There are politicians too but frankly why give them airtime? What about trains? I like trains.

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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?

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So let’s relax shall we?

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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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This is part of the 2016 A to Z Blogging challenge. Please click here to find your way to other participants.

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About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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48 Responses to E is for the Embankment #atozchallenge

  1. Dreally enjoyed that tour. Wouldn’t mind a flat in the Adelphi block. Love art deco. Some lovely history included here Geoff. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The size of London terrifies me now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, the thorny question of sewage. At one time it was said that you didn’t swim in the Thames, you merely went through the motions.

    Keith Channing A-Zing from http://keithkreates.com

    Liked by 1 person

  4. akarras823 says:

    What a great tour! You really know your history and city.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ritu says:

    Another education! Thank you Geoffles!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. esthernewton says:

    Very insightful yet again and super photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. stardustchaz says:

    This was really interesting, I’ve never paid much attention to London, or really to the bits of London that aren’t ‘famous’ so this was fun to read!


  8. Lata Sunil says:

    I loved this post.. and very beautiful pictures.. Thank you for the walk through Embankment.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Liam says:

    My wife and I walked through London following the route of Mrs. Dalloway from Virginia Woolf’s novel. The one thing we couldn’t find was the statue of Gordon of Khartoum. No one else knew where it was either. Apparently we were looking in the wrong place on the Embankment.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. jan says:

    That’s the part of London we stayed in and we missed so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Geoff. I enjoyed these pictures. Not to mention the idea of politicians (no matter how long ago) who couldn’t stand what was doubtless their own stench! 😀 Mega hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Yes the irony is not lost and one might wish for a similar heap to be placed in troughing distance of the current crop. Hugs to the power N where N is humongous.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. eschudel says:

    Wonderful posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Keiley Blair says:

    Another fantastic photo set! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. You said it so well – it was something I noticed when I was there. The prolific attention given to war and war heroes. They are everywhere. One is pushed to find any mention of the suffragettes, the emancipators, the do-gooders, the game changers [like your sewers man whom I’ve never heard of]. Why is this? [That’s really a rhetorical question] I don’t like it Geoff! And the buildings and parks are so lovely!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Me too. I accept some were truly heroic and any soldier dying is a cause to mourn but really. All this? Everywhere? Haven’t we stamped across the globe enough. I hope it stops, going forward.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Allie P. says:

    Now I want to stop work on my teleportation machine and redirect efforts on a time machine instead so that I can go back to my last UK visit and ask you to be my tour guide. Of course to get there from here, I likely still will need a functional teleporation machine as I get along oh so well with airline travel. I guess that means it is back to work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. noelleg44 says:

    Great tour of a path of history in one of our favorite cities.We’ve pooped up from the tube and walked parts of this every time we visit.


  17. merrildsmith says:

    Thank you for another fascinating tour and history lesson!


  18. davidprosser says:

    An excellent reminder of places I should have visited when I lived in Hackney rather than as a tourist years later.


  19. Anabel Marsh says:

    So agree about the statues. We have many to men but only three (soon to be four I hope) to women in Glasgow, and one is Queen Victoria who gets everywhere. There is a crowdfunder I believe to have a statue to Sylvia Pankhurst in the East End and I know of a couple of campaigns in other cities as well as ours for Mary Barbour, but generally it’s still all the war heroes.


  20. Excellent, informative, post and photos


  21. Judy Martin says:

    A wonderful tour Geoff, and a marvellous history lesson 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I love this. So rich. The photos of the London Eye, the underground, and that shot from the Thames are making me smile. And cry a little…I miss London. Speaking of sewage (let’s pretend we were), I just finished a great historical fiction about cholera in London. This comment is getting sort of weird. But that image of death on the water is a brilliant portrayal.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Love the Embankment, love the Savoy, love Embankment underground station. A great tour, Geoff. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. BeckyB says:

    Brilliant post . . . .and with you on statues. There is so much more we could celebrate and commemorate.
    Your post also reminds me I’m planning my own AtoZ for next years challenge and really must get on with taking more photos otherwise in April I will be struggling!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Pingback: Flushed and Fabulous – a homage to sewage | TanGental

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