Paddington is well-known for its railway station, but perhaps not so well known for its canal, but things are changing.
The easiest access to the canal basin is from the far end of the station next to the Hammersmith & City (H&C) underground, but until the Waterside Regeneration project got under way there would have been no access here at all.
It was different back in the19thc though when the area would have been a hive of activity, a time when goods were transported around the country through a large network of canals. Paddington provided an ideal location for a canal terminus for several reasons, but principally because the area was flat and had easy road connections into central London.
Paddington Basin was opened in 1801 at the end of the ‘Paddington Arm’ of the Grand Union Canal, whose main line still runs for 138 miles between Birmingham and London (Brentford). There are several arms that lead off from the main line including this one which stretches for 13½ miles between Bulls Bridge at Hayes and Paddington Basin.
The coming of the railways also eventually meant the decline of the canals. Goods could be transported more cheaply by rail than by barge, but what happened to the canal system also happened to the rail network when it became cheaper to transport goods by road rather than rail, and by the 1980s Paddington was left with a desolate wasteland of a redundant canal and an obsolete goods yard.
Travelling by train from Devon to London invariably means arriving at Paddington, and so I thought it was about time I put on my anorak and take a closer look at the history and working operations of this iconic station.
It was originally designed by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the London terminus for his Great Western Railway (GWR) from Bristol, and although the line was opened in 1838 it wasn’t until 1854 that Brunel’s station actually came into use.
Inspired by the design of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, and with the help of Matthew Digby Wyatt, he created a station that had four platforms protected by a glass roof. This roof had three spans and was supported by wrought iron arches and cast-iron pillars.
Although the original station has been enlarged since, principally by the adding of a fourth span, Brunel would still recognise his creation if he was to come back tomorrow.
In 1863 the station’s status as a major transport hub was given an extra boost when the Metropolitan Railway started running the world’s first underground railway between Paddington and Farringdon using a cut and cover system, and if you want to see how it was done there are some old pictures near to the Hammersmith & City (H&C) underground station.
Marble Arch lies at the junction of Oxford St, Bayswater Rd, Park Lane, and the Edgware Road, and it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that the landmark once stood on an island in the middle of traffic mayhem. Thankfully, somebody had the sense to landscape the area around the monument to give it a bit more dignity, but it wasn’t meant to be here in the first place.
It was originally built for King George IV who inherited Buckingham Palace from his father George III in 1820. In 1827 his extravagant tastes led him to commission John Nash to add the arch as a state entrance, but within three years his own life had come to an end.
The monument was faced with Carrara marble and based on the Constantine Arch in Rome, but an equestrian statue of George IV was never added because the King’s successor, William IV, refused to stump up the rest of the cash to finish off his predecessor’s self-indulgence.
After the death of William IV in 1837 the crown passed to Queen Victoria who became the first monarch to actually live in Buckingham Palace, but she found it too small and began a programme of enlarging it. The plans included removing the arch, and in 1847 it was decided to relocate it to Hyde Park.
The transfer was completed in 1851 and the arch was used as a ceremonial gateway into the north-east corner of the park at Cumberland Gate – and a police station until 1968!
I’m going to have to tread carefully writing this article because Temple is at the heart of the UK’s legal system, and as I know next to nothing about how it works, I don’t want to end up with a solicitor’s letter on the doormat.
I think I’m on safe ground though by saying that the area gets its name from the 12th century Temple Church built by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters.
Temple, or The Temple, as it’s sometimes called, covers an area roughly between the Strand/Fleet Street to the Victoria Embankment, and Surrey Street to Blackfriars. This means that some of the area lies within the City of Westminster and some of it within the City of London.
The Strand meets Fleet Street near to the Royal Courts of Justice and the Westminster/City of London boundary. This boundary was traditionally marked by Temple Bar, an invisible barrier to begin with, but then a ceremonial gateway where the monarch halted before being welcomed into the City by the Lord Mayor of London. The gateway, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was removed in 1878 and currently stands at Paternoster Square near St Paul’s Cathedral; The boundary is now marked by a large plinth with a dragon – a symbol of the City of London.
I’ve often been past this church but it’s never been open, and so when I heard the bells chiming out one Sunday morning I thought that I’d take the opportunity to have a quick look around before the service started.
The bells were ringing out “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements” – although St Clement Eastcheap also has a claim to be the church referred to in the well known nursery rhyme.
The first church here did have a connection to Denmark, when Danish settlers married English women in the 9th century and dedicated their church to St Clement.
It was re-built twice before the Great Fire of London, but although the church was spared, it had fallen into a poor state of repair and Sir Christopher Wren was asked to re-design it. It was built between 1680 and 1682 with a spire being added in 1719 by James Gibb.
Originally part of the Roman road to Silchester, the Strand has always been one of London’s most important roads as it connects the City of Westminster with the City of London, and as its name suggests, originally ran alongside the Thames, but nowadays runs slightly inland for about ¾ mile between Charing Cross and Temple Bar.
Between the 12th and 17th centuries some of the most influential people in London owned mansions along the southern side of the road with gardens that swept down to the riverside, but apart from the re-designed Somerset House, they have all but disappeared.
As the aristocracy left for the West End, the Strand became a popular hangout for people who preferred a pint, a coffee, or even a cup of tea and at no. 216 you can still visit Twinings which has been here since 1706. These days it’s more like a small museum, and somewhere to sample their different blends. The samples are free, but the idea of course is that you’ll be tempted to buy one or two of them before you leave.
During the 19th century Joseph Bazalgette’s plans to improve London’s sewage system led to the demolition of many of the fine houses that were still left along the Strand. The river was narrowed, the shoreline raised, and a road built to form an Embankment.
Not only did the engineering works improve the health of Londoners, it also improved transport links between Westminster and the City. Apart from the road, an underground railway line was constructed underneath it, all of which helped to relieve congestion along the Strand.
A Wander through Victoria Embankment's Main Garden
Following the completion of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Victoria Embankment in 1870, a series of gardens were designed to enhance the appearance of this stretch of the riverside between Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges.
There are in fact four separate gardens, the main one being imaginatively called the ‘Main Garden’.
As you enter the Villiers St entrance next to Embankment underground station you’ll have a bandstand to your left which has a programme of events throughout the summer, and a grassy area which gets taken over by office workers during their lunch breaks.
You may well be tempted to head straight for the footpath that leads past the magnificent mixed borders through the garden, but if you would like to know where the bank of the Thames used to be before the Embankment was created then head up to the north-west corner and check out the York House Water Gate.
This gate was built in 1626 as an entrance to the Thames for the Duke of Buckingham but now stands a hundred metres away from the river, but still in its original position.
Nearby is Gordon’s Wine Bar which I can highly recommend, but if you’re anything like me, is probably best left until later.
This Ancient Egyptian obelisk is one of three that were re-erected during the 19th century. One can be found in Central Park, New York City, and the other in the Place de la Concorde, Paris.
The London and New York obelisks are a pair that were originally erected in the ancient city of Heliopolis, and the one in Paris was also one of a pair from Luxor where its twin still remains.
The London and New York ‘Needles’ were erected for Thutmose III around 1450 BC and remained in Heliopolis (now swallowed up by the city of Cairo) until the Romans carted them off to Alexandria. It couldn’t have been no mean feat as they each weigh over 200 tons.
Research seems to suggest that the obelisks didn’t arrive in Cleopatra’s home city until some 15 years after she committed suicide, but I suppose Cleopatra’s Needle has a better ring to it than Thutmose III’s Needle.
So how come one of these 21 metre high monuments ended up on London’s Embankment?
If you’ve read my article about how the Victoria Embankment came about, you may like to know a bit more about some of the points of interest that can be seen along here.
The Embankment runs for about a mile and a half between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge on the north side of the river and I’m going to describe the route starting from the Westminster end.
If you start out underneath the statue of Boudicca and stay on the same side of the road, then the river and Westminster Pier will be on your right. Boats depart regularly from Westminster Pier to Greenwich, but unless you intend doing the boat trip, your eyes will be more focused on what’s on the other side of the river. It’s impossible to miss the London Eye or even the former County Hall, but don’t forget to look out for what’s on the Westminster side as well.
New Scotland Yard is across the road, as is Whitehall Gardens, the first of a series of gardens that stretch along the embankment and collectively known as the Victoria Embankment Gardens.
Back on the riverside, there’s a unique memorial to the Battle of Britain, with another memorial to the RAF a bit further along. It should be remembered that Whitehall, including the Ministry of Defence opposite, backs on to the embankment, which is why the area has so many statues of past military figures and memorials to different parts of the armed forces.
It’s strange isn’t it, that although London’s practice of discharging raw sewage into the Thames caused cholera epidemics which cost thousands of lives, it was only when MPs kicked up a stink about the smell that something was actually done about it.
The job of sorting the whole problem out was given to a Victorian engineer by the name of Joseph Bazalgette.
His scheme involved an extensive network of underground sewage pipes that took the effluent from Central London out into the Thames Estuary.
The project involved several locations including the mile and a half section of riverside between Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges, the most challenging of them all.
After buying up and demolishing many expensive riverside properties, work started on the Victoria Embankment project in 1865.
Not only did Joseph Bazalgette deal with the sewage problem, he also narrowed the river to make it more controllable, built a new road to ease congestion along the Strand (which linked Westminster to the City of London), and even allowed for the construction of a line for the Metropolitan and District Railway beneath the road.