Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Victoria Embankment. London

London’s Victoria Embankment stretches along the north side of the River Thames from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, a distance of about one and a quarter miles. It is a broad street that carries two lanes of traffic in each direction, with pavements on both sides. There are features of interest on both the river and landward sides of the road, so care must be taken when crossing from one to the other.

The Victoria Embankment is a feat of Victorian engineering that was originally built with a very utilitarian purpose, namely to form a conduit for London’s largest sewer, which was being built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette. At the same time, accommodation was made for the underground Metropolitan Railway (now the District and Circle Lines) under the “cut and cover” method. There are four stations along the route, Westminster and Blackfriars at the two ends and Embankment and Temple spaced evenly between them.

If starting the walk from Westminster Bridge, you will have the Palace of Westminster, with the Big Ben clock tower, right behind you. Immediately on the right is Westminster Millennium Pier, from which riverbus services operate to other piers along the Thames, as do pleasure cruises run by several commercial operators.

There is an excellent view from here across the river to County Hall (which now houses a number of attractions including the Sea Life London Aquarium) and the London Eye observation wheel.

Also here is the Battle of Britain monument, unveiled in 2005, that depicts in a series of friezes the lives of airmen and others during the Royal Air Force’s defence of the country in 1940. A few yards further along is the older (1923) RAF Memorial, this being a stone plinth surmounted by a huge golden eagle.

There are more than 40 statues and memorials along the Victoria Embankment, either facing the street itself or in the gardens that line the landward side of much of its length. Not all of these are to military personnel, as they include the poet Robert Burns, engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and religious reformer William Tyndale.

On the landward side, at the Westminster end of the Embankment, are the backs of government buildings that front on to Whitehall, most notably the white stone edifice of the Ministry of Defence.

There are several ships moored permanently along the Victoria Embankment, and the first to be encountered is the Tattershall Castle, a paddle steamer that was once a ferry across the River Humber at Hull. It now operates as a party and meetings venue that is also open as a public bar and restaurant.

After passing under the noisy Hungerford Bridge that carries commuter trains across the river into Charing Cross Station (there is a walkway that will take you across the river to the south bank), the main Embankment Gardens are on the left and Embankment Pier on the right.

Not far along is the oldest item you will see on this walk, namely Cleopatra’s Needle. It has nothing to do with Cleopatra, being more than a thousand years older than the tragic Egyptian queen. It is an obelisk that was made for Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC and brought to London in 1878, being the twin of the obelisk in Central Park, New York. It now stands beside the Thames, and is flanked by two bronze sphinxes (Victorian replicas). You can see evidence of damage to the plinth of the obelisk caused by a Zeppelin raid during World War I.

The view across the river is of the Royal Festival Hall and the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, behind which is the Hayward Gallery.

Just before Waterloo Bridge is another floating bar and restaurant, the twin-funnelled Queen Mary that was built in 1993 to carry mail and passengers along the west coast of Scotland (and should not be confused with the former Cunard liner of the same name!).

Beyond Waterloo Bridge, on the landward side, is the rear of Somerset House, which can be entered from the Embankment. Built on the site of a Tudor palace, the present building dates from the late 18th century and is a splendid example of neo-classical architecture. It is a major Arts venue, housing the Courtauld Gallery and many other tenants who stage exhibitions and events throughout the year. At the heart of Somerset House is the Fountain Court, which becomes a public ice rink during the winter months.

Another floating restaurant is “The Yacht”, which was formerly the St Katherine, built in 1927, and which was armed and saw action during World War II.

Not far away is HQS Wellington, an ex-Navy sloop, which as HMS Wellington saw service protecting convoys during World War II. The ship operates as a floating classroom and is open to the general public only on special occasions.

Further along is HMS President, a corvette built in 1918 and designed to look like a merchant ship so that it would attract the attention of German U-boats. She saw little service, being built when the war was nearly over, and has been moored up for the last 80 years. The ship operates as a meetings and events venue, although the bar is open on most days.

On the other side of the road are the gardens of the Middle and Inner Temples, two of the four Inns of Court at which barristers are trained. The gardens and some of the buildings may be visited, but the entrance is on the other side from the Embankment.

Incidentally, just before reaching the Temple you will have entered the City of London, as opposed to Westminster. The border is marked by two impressive painted griffons, standing on stone plinths on either side of the road.

Blackfriars Bridge marks the end of the Victoria Embankment. You might want to take the Underground back to where you started or, now that you are in the City, carry on exploring. After all, St Paul’s Cathedral is only a short walk away!

© John Welford

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