On the north side of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge are the Victoria Embankment Gardens, one of London's many leafy green spaces. With a café, bandstand, green gym, kids play park, fish pond and grassy places to just sit, it still manages to pack in a wealth of monuments and statues - even for London this area is particularly monument heavy.
Free to visit and with plenty for all ages to do, it is a lovely place to chill out while absorbing some culture in the sunshine.
Illustration by Clem Ali
It was Christopher Wren who first suggested a river embankment after the Great Fire of 1666, although due to political infighting and the protests of river users, work didn't begin until 1864. It was created to house a main sewer, to stop sewage flowing directly into the River Thames, as well as to ease traffic congestion and improve the look of the river. In total, about 22 acres of marshy land were reclaimed from the river. The grand buildings and town houses which had once been waterfront properties now found themselves without any river access at all.
The only remaining victim of this land reclamation is the York Watergate, a Grade I listed gate which once gave the Duke of Buckingham a parking place for his boat. It now sits well over 100 metres away from the river in a corner of the Embankment Gardens, looking rather sorry for itself.
The gateway was built in 1626 by George Stone, the master craftsman for the Duke, and was the watergate to his home, York House, which was later demolished in 1675. Nearly 400 years old, it is one of the few remaining parts of London built in the Italianate style of Charles I. It must have had some amazing visitors in its prime as the Duke flew high in society for many years and was the lover of James I, before being assassinated in 1628 due to his political machinations.
The gate was due to be demolished when the embankment was built, but somehow it managed to survive and now sits fenced off, isolated amongst the modern buildings which surround it, looking rather pockmarked and the worse for wear.
Robert Burns Statue
Unveiled in 1884 and commissioned by fellow countryman John Gordon Crawford, the statue shows Burns sitting on a broken plough with a quill pen in one hand and a scroll at his feet with the rather nonsensical words:
'O Sweet to stray, and pensive ponder, A heart-felt sang',
words from his poem To William Simpson Of Ochiltree, written in 1785.
An inscription on the side reads:
"The Poetic Genius of my Country found me at the Plough – and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue; I tuned my wild, artless notes as she inspired."
The statue was unveiled by Lord Rosebery, who pointed out that Burns had never actually visited London (probably much to the relief of the women of the city) , which was just as well as 'if in the comparatively quiet atmosphere of Edinburgh Burns was liable to be seduced and overbalanced, they might feel that in the smoke and wealth and din of this imperial city he might have been lost and submerged altogether' before referencing his premature death at the age of 37, joining other such notables as Byron and Raphael, clearly a Victorian forerunner of the 27 Club. (From the Belfast News-Letter - Monday 28 July 1884).
The statue did come in for some justifiable mockery at the time, in this poem from English poet John Gray, written at the time of the unveiling:
The asphalt burns. The garrulous sparrows perch on metal Burns. Sing! Sing! they say, and flutter with their wings. He does not sing, he only wonders why he is sitting there. The sparrows sing.
The Cheylesmore Memorial
This Grade II listed memorial was designed by Lutyens and commemorates British Army officer Herbert Eaton, the 3rd Baron Cheylesmore. He was chairman of London County Council, Chairman of the National Rifle Association, Commandant of a school of Musketry during World War I and a peer. His only real distinction seems to be that he was the first ever peer to die in a car accident, at the age of 77 in 1925.
Still, the memorial is a nice one made from Portland Stone and the pond and water troughs are filled with koi carp and a fountain, making it a pleasant place to hang out on a hot summer's day.
Robert Raikes Statue
Robert Raikes is no longer a familiar name, but he was a philanthropist and the first person to promote Sunday Schools, against some strong opposition.
His aim was to educate the masses, to keep them out of prisons and set them on the right path, and his schools are seen as the forerunner of the modern British education system.
From his one school in 1780, which he financed himself, his movement had expanded to teaching 25% of the population less than 100 years later. This statue was erected on the 100 year anniversary of his first school by payments from teachers and scholars of the Sunday School Union.
Henry Fawcett Fountain
This memorial fountain was installed in 1886 and was erected in his memory 'by his grateful countrywomen'. Fawcett had been an early advocate of women's rights, and was married to Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a prominent campaigner for women's suffrage. Henry Fawcett was an MP who pushed for women to have the right to vote, as well as for them to have the right for an equal education and employment.
Henry had been blinded in a shooting accident when he was visiting his parents in Salisbury, yet continued his work until the day he died, becoming Postmaster General and introducing many of the postal systems we use to this day.
You can read more about his life and walk the Henry Fawcett Trail in his native Salisbury >>
Imperial Camel Corps Statue
Sculpted by a member of the Camel Corps, this small bronze statue shows a man riding a camel, and lists the names of all the 346 men who died while serving in the Camel Corps. The Imperial Camel Corps Brigade was formed of British, Australian and New Zealand troops and at its peak had over 4,000 camels. Formed in 1916, the Brigade saw action in Sinai and Palestine, but was disbanded in 1918.
To the Glorious and Immortal
Memory of the Officers, N.C.O.s and Men
of the Imperial Camel Corps – British,
Australian, New Zealand, Indian – who fell in action or died of wounds
and disease in Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine, 1916, 1917, 1918
The camels were notoriously difficult in terms of temperament and comfort, but had unique survival skills for desert life and could access places and distances that vehicles and horses could not.
To My Camel You’re an ugly smellful creature; You’re a blot upon the plain; I have seen Mohamed beat you, And it gave me little pain.
You’re spiteful and you’re lazy, You’d send a white man crazy, But I reckon you’re a daisy When the Turks come out again.
Your head is most unsightly, And so is your humpy back; I hear you roaring nightly, When you’re loading for the track. You’re bow-legged and you’re bandy, But in this desert sandy It’s as well to have you handy: You’re a mighty useful hack.
You shake me something cruel When you try to do a trot; I’ve got to take my gruel, But you make it very hot: I’ve somehow got a notion That your humpty-dumpty motion Is worse than on the ocean, It’s a nasty way you’ve got.
It’s a sun-scorched land, the East is. So we need you when we trek. My old prad a better beast is, But he’d soon become a wreck. You thirst a week unblinking, And when I see you drinking, You always get me thinking: Lord, I wish I had your neck.
Major Oliver Hogue, Imperial Camel Corps - died 1919 and buried in Brookwood Cemetary
Arthur Sullivan Statue
This completely over the top statue to Arthur Sullivan, one half of Gilbert and Sullivan, is Grade II listed and as well as having the traditional bust of the deceased, also has a sculpture of a scantily-clad personification of a female grief, mourning at his feet, as well as a small sculpture of the tools of the trade from his career - a musical score, a theatre mask and a mandolin.
He was one of the country's most accomplished composers of the late 19th century, producing 24 operas, 11 orchestral pieces, ten choral works and oratorios, two ballets, over 80 songs and 70 hymns, his most famous hymn being Onward Christian Soldiers.
He never married but had a reputation as 'one for the ladies', so perhaps the semi-naked woman mourning his loss has some relevance. It has been described as the most erotic statue in London, the lady clearly so overcome with grief that her clothes simply fell off. The statue is just a stone's throw from the Savoy Theatre, where many of his most famous operettas were performed.
Why, O nymph, O why display
Your beauty in such disarray? Is it decent, is it just, To so conventional a bust?
Anonymous, inspired by the statue
Michael Faraday Statue
This statue to 19th century Physicist Michael Faraday stands just outside the park, in front of the Institute of Engineering and Technology. The statue is a relatively recent one erected in 1988, a bronze copy of an 1874 marble original which is held in the Royal Institution.
The building behind was built in 1886, originally an exam hall for physicians and surgeons, but its more interesting use was as a home to the BBC, who were based here from 1923 - 1932. What is even more interesting is that it was just behind here that Bob Dylan recorded his famous video Subterranean Homesick Blues - the one where he holds up the cards, in a non-descript alleyway behind the Savoy (find it at what3words: party.given.theme)
Just along from the Institute is a back entrance to the Savoy, not as glamourous as the main entrance but still far superior to that of many other hotels.
A little further along, you will find -
The Gas Sewer Lamp
This is the last remaining gas sewer destructor lamp in Westminster, its purpose being to burn off biogas coming from the sewer below, as well as provide a street light.
After The Great Stink of 1858, when a hot summer meant that the raw sewage being pumped into the Thames caused unbelievably awful smells as well as outbreaks of cholera, the decision was taken to build sewers to process the raw waste. Three embankments were built (of which this embankment is one) to house sewage treatment plants. Sir Joseph Bazalgette was the civil engineer behind the scheme, his systems are still in operation today and they put an end to the outbreaks of cholera - it is thought he saved thousands of lives.
Vent pipes were built into the sewers, tall enough so that any unpleasant smells were released above the heads of the passers-by and were designed to prevent the build up of methane underground in the sewers, which could have built up so much that it could cause huge explosions. The constant flame was to burn off the methane as well as provide illumination.
The gas destructor lamps have all slowly disappeared from London as plumbing systems have changed, so this solitary one remains, still with its original lantern.
Just opposite the lamp, you will find a plaque on the side of a rather dingy wall, proudly stating how the Savoy Theatre was the first public building in the world to be lit throughout by electricity. It is quite remarkable that in this unobtrusive and rather bland back corner of London are these two incredible testaments to Victorian engineering and science.
Sir Wilfred Lawson
The statue to Sir Wilfred Lawson (1829 - 1906) does not show him to be the most interesting or cheerful looking man, with his frown and thick beard, yet he was said to be a great wit, humourist and orator.
He was considered a true radical and was in continuous opposition to the trends and political feelings of the time, but many believe that he was simply a man ahead of his times.
Some of his beliefs have become mainstream thought, such as Irish Home Rule, a Channel Tunnel, Free Trade and Women's Suffrage.
These days he tends to be associated with the temperance movement, which is an opinion of his that I doubt will ever become conventionally accepted thought.
The Belgian Gratitude Memorial
The memorial stands on the outer wall of Victoria Park, facing Cleopatra's Needle. Made of Portland stone, it was gifted by Belgium to the UK as a thank you for sheltering thousands of refugees during World War I. The central bronze sculpture was by a Belgian who had taken refuge in London himself during the war.
Whilst the memorial was still being worked on in 1920, intruders entered the site and damaged the plaster models of the two figures of Justice and Honour and some of the surrounding shields with a hammer. A combination of that and the traffic pollution has left it looking rather worn and slightly abstract.
The memorial stands on the outer wall of Victoria Park, facing Cleopatra's Needle.
Other attractions in Victoria Embankment
It's not all monuments and statues in the park, there is also a very good Green Gym, a bandstand, the Embankment Café, a kids play area and a fishpond as well as places to sit and relax or watch the world go by. Cleopatra's Needle is on the banks of the Thames just opposite, which has lovely views over the river.