Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

victoria-embankment-gardens-1(Friday 16 September 2016)

A day of blustery showers: an autumn taste. I enter the gardens at the narrowest end, away from the sound of traffic splishing along the Embankment, and follow hurrying figures along the curving puddled path. Mature planes, catalpa and metasequoia, yews 031aand laurels, luxuriant plants, exotic shrubs and banana palms line the way and provide backdrops for an array of statues and memorials, including one to Sir Arthur Sullivan by Sir William Goscombe John, put up in 1903, with semi- naked muse draping herself seductively in grief (he ignores her, but looks across to the Savoy Hotel, which was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas). Further along, I try out the brass button of the drinking fountain, memorial to Henry Fawcett (political reformer and campaigner for women’s suffrage), work of sculptor Mary Grant in 1886. It still works after all these years and spurts a forceful jet of water from its dolphin spout which sprays over me and a shocked tourist couple, who jump back, already damp from the rain! Then there’s the grand white Portland stone monument to Lord Cheylesmore (Army major- general and chairman of London County Council who, in 1925, was the first member of the aristocracy to be killed in a car accident), designed by Edwin Lutyens, behind a circular ornamental pond. It’s back to back with the Belgian War Memorial, which faces out to the Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle.
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031bThis garden was one of several created after the completion of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, along the northwestern bank of this mile long, dog leg bend of the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. The Embankment was built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, as described in my blog post about Whitehall Gardens (only a stones throw south of here), back in May. A hugely ambitious project to tame the Thames and assert London’s authority over nature (an embankment and road had originally been proposed 2 centuries earlier by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666). This string of gardens forms the decorative icing on this massive practical and utilitarian cake. Take a slice through and you have the Circle and District line, running just below (not tunnelled, but cut down from the surface and then covered over). At a ventilation opening on the east edge of the gardens, you can feel and hear the rumble and screech of trains below, pulling in to Embankment station. And under the road, there’s the cavernous Low Level Sewer, a major conduit which flushes much of central London’s effluent away to be treated to the east of the City.
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A few spattering drops then the heavens open again and I make a dash for the cafe. A mug of tea bought, then I set up in the dry under the cafe canopy, looking across through a varied pattern of partially autumnal foliage, along with limes, tree fern and fig tree, towards the pink granite of Cleopatra’s Needle, stabbing up towards a slaty sky. Glimpses of the river, slipping silvery under Waterloo bridge. Snatches of chatter and drifts of tobacco smoke from occupants of other tables. A bedraggled looking blackbird scrabbles among the soggy fag ends beneath a dripping viburnum.
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031dThe rain eases and I wander between lawns and brightly planted beds of rudbeckia and banana palms. The garden layout was designed by landscape designer, Alexander McKenzie in 1870 and is little changed. Curving rows of empty blue deckchairs are a patient audience to a closed up bandstand. I sit for a while. A couple are taking selfies, posing with a plastic white knight from the giant chess game. I watch some surveyors in hi-vis jackets battling with a mis-behaving theodolite. And a little girl in a yellow raincoat is chasing her father around the lawn. She’s parked her very shiny matching yellow ‘ride-on’ Mini Cooper expertly by the path edge.
I make my way out and wander through the heaving Embankment station and up the steps to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I follow the raised walk away from the river, towards Charing Cross and find a covered balcony that overhangs Villiers Street. From here my sketchbook is protected from raindrops and I have a pigeon’s eye view down towards the garden entrances: between scalloped walls and railings, with plane trees forming a welcoming party. I can watch the crowds, scurrying to and from Embankment station; transitory snippets of hundreds of lives. A rumble of thunder rolls and echoes down the street. And then a sudden raucous screech of female laughter from the trattoria opposite. When I glance round I notice a blue plaque which announces that Rudyard Kipling lived there from 1889 -91, where he wrote his novel The Light That Failed, which references this area.
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That building also houses Gordons Wine Bar, established in 1890: easily the oldest wine bar in London with, what looks like, its original drab brown Victorian frontage. Before the Embankment was built, it had been a warehouse on the river’s edge, where sacks of seed 031cand grain would have been winched directly from river barges. It sits on the corner with Watergate Walk, where you can follow the path along to the York House Water Gate. This impressive arched gateway was built in 1626, designed by Sir Balthazar Gerbier as the river access for York House, the residence of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Originally lapped by the grey Thames waters, it’s now landlocked, looking out onto the potted palms, flowerbeds and lawns of Victoria Embankment Gardens.
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Drawing done, I close my sketchbook. My eye is caught by a gleam of evening sun, which streaks into the Pink Pansy flower stall at the bottom of the street, between the gardens and the station entrance, shimmering down into the wet pavement.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Victoria Embankment Gardens, Villiers St, London WC2N 6PB
Google earth view here

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13 thoughts on “Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

  1. Lovely as ever. Impressed with all the horticultural references and expect to see you on Gardeners World soon.
    I’m sure all these will be in a book so we can all dip into it. Look forward to it and the next one. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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