Category Archives: Westminster

Paddington Basin and Little Venice

The Horse Bridge at Little Venice

Paddington Basin and Little Venice

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.

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Paddington Station

Brunel's Original Paddington Station

Paddington Station

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.

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Marble Arch and the Tyburn Tree

Marble Arch

Marble Arch and the Tyburn Tree

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!

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Temple

Middle Temple Hall and Garden

Temple

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.

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St Clement Danes Church

St Clement Danes Church

 

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.

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The Strand

The Royal Courts of Justice

Let's all go down the Strand

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.

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A Wander through Victoria Embankment’s Main Garden

Lunchtime in Summer

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.

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Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra's Needle

One of the most prominent features along the Victoria Embankment is Cleopatra’s Needle.

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?

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A Stroll along the Embankment

Waterloo Bridge and Somerset House from the London Eye

A Stroll along the 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 Greenwichbut 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.

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The Victoria Embankment

The Victoria Embankment

 

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.

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St James’s Park

The view towards Whitehall

St James's Park

 

Situated on a roughly triangular piece of land between Horse Guards Parade, Buckingham Palace, The Mall and Birdcage Walk, St. James’s Park is the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks.

With so much pomp and pageantry associated with this area you could be forgiven for thinking that it was named after King James I or II, but it was actually named after St. James the Less leper hospital that was founded here in the 13th century.

There is a connection with James I though, because after Henry VIII had acquired this marshy piece of land in 1532 for yet another Royal hunting ground, he set about improving the drainage and water supply. Charles II took it a stage further and changed it into a parkland with lawns and avenues of trees which the general public could also use.

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St Paul’s Covent Garden

St Paul's Covent Garden

 

With so many other things to keep you occupied in Covent Garden it would be easy to overlook the simple church of St. Paul’s, but it’s worth a look inside even if only to take a look at the actors’ memorials that are scattered around the church.

Situated opposite the market, St. Paul’s was the first building to grace the Fourth Earl of Bedford’s square that was to be the focal point of his plans to develop the area in a manner more in keeping with an Italian piazza.
He brought in Inigo Jones to design the square including the church which was completed in 1633.

The large portico that overlooks the piazza is somewhat misleading because the entrance is around the back and entered through the pleasant garden. As you walk into the church you’ll see why the entrance isn’t through the portico because if it was you would walk straight into the altar.

St. Paul’s is one of those sort of churches that is likeable for its simplicity, but it’s the association with the nearby theatres which makes it different to most other churches, even having a theatre company of its own.
The connection started with the opening of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1663 and then the Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House.

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Covent Garden

A Couple of Pearly Kings

Covent Garden

 

Lying on the eastern side of the West End, Covent Garden is a popular destination for tourists and includes the former fruit and vegetable Market, the Opera House, and the area around Seven Dials and Neal’s Yard.

There are no official boundaries to Covent Garden but a map I picked up at the market shows it covering an area from Charing Cross Rd in the west to Kingsway in the east, and from The Strand/Aldwych in the south to Shaftesbury Avenue/High Holborn in the north.
Running straight through the middle from St. Martin’s Lane to Drury Lane is Long Acre which separates the Market and Opera House to the south from the Seven Dials and Neal’s Yard area to the north.
Shelton St which runs parallel with Long Acre south of the Seven Dials is the boundary line between Westminster and Camden.

Originally open fields and then at the centre of Anglo Saxon Lundenwic, the area became the garden of Westminster Abbey and co(n)vent by the beginning of the 13th century.
Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the estate being handed to the Earls of Bedford and a change in the layout to include a fashionable square with a small fruit and vegetable market.

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Chinatown

The Eastern Gateway to Gerrard St

Chinatown

 

London’s Chinatown is located right in the heart of the West End, and as you might expect, it’s a bustling area of restaurants, food stores, and Chinese culture.
Centred on Gerrard St, the area is quite compact, hemmed in between Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, Wardour St, and Leicester Square.

It wasn’t until after WWII that the area started to become a Chinese Quarter, and even then it didn’t really get established until the 1970s. Being a part of Soho, the area already had a colourful history, but London’s Chinese community, who had traditionally worked in the docks at Limehouse, found themselves bombed out by the Luftwaffe, and then locked out by the Dockers unions after the end of hostilities.

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Soho

Soho Square

Soho

 

Soho’s chequered history has been at the cutting edge of film, theatre, music and other forms of entertainment including the sex industry for as long as I can remember, but gentrification in recent times has seen it become less edgy and more mainstream.

Instead of sleazy clip joints and prostitutes you’re more likely to see fashionable restaurants and blue plaques marking a place of interest, but at least visitors can now check out the area’s fascinating history without the hassle of being coerced into a strip club or worse.

Historically, Soho runs roughly from the north side of Leicester Square up to Oxford St, and from Charing Cross Rd in the east to Regent St in the west. These days though Chinatown (which is the area south of Shaftesbury Avenue), is treated as a separate locality, although it’s still an essential part of Soho.

I said that the area has been gentrified in recent times, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s become completely sanitized. It’s still a red light district and the gay community has a strong presence around Old Compton St where the Admiral Duncan pub was the scene of a homophobic attack in 1999 which killed three and left thirty injured.

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Leicester Square

Leicester Square

 

Located slap bang in the middle of Theatreland, Leicester Square is often associated with the stage, but it’s the big screen that’s had the most influence.
Apart from being one of the venues for hosting the London Film Festival, it’s also the place to come if you want to see a film premiere.

There are several cinemas in and around the square, the most obvious being the black polished granite Odeon Cinema which has the largest single screen in the UK and more than sixteen hundred seats.

The cinema influence isn’t quite as strong as it once was though as things are constantly changing, but Leicester Square is still undeniably one of the main entertainment hubs in London. Casinos have a strong presence and if you want cut price theatre tickets the TKTS booth is the best place to come.

Talking of the theatre you can’t fail to notice the water feature surrounding a large statue of William Shakespeare which has been the centrepiece of the square since 1874. Nearby is a much smaller bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin portraying his film character of ’The Tramp’, which seems even more appropriate somehow.

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Theatreland

Her Majesty's Theatre. Haymarket

Theatreland

 

Theatregoers are totally spoilt for choice in London with around 40 theatres in the West End alone, most of them concentrated in what is now called ‘Theatreland’.

Theatreland covers a large part of the West End, and some people might argue that it is the West End. Wikipedia defines the area it covers as stretching from Kingsway in the east to Regent St in the west and from Oxford St in the north to The Strand in the south.

Some people think of Leicester Square as the epicentre of Theatreland but in actual fact it’s really the centre of ‘Cinemaland’ where many film premieres take place.

When I think of Theatreland I tend to think of the area around Shaftesbury Avenue which isn’t far from Leicester Square anyway.

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Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus

 

“It’s like Piccadilly Circus round here” is a phrase often used when somewhere is chaotically busy, just like the road junction was until the layout was changed in the 1980s.

Up until that point the famous Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain was the central point of the Circus (circle or roundabout) where Regent St, Piccadilly, Coventry St and Shaftesbury Avenue all converged. Not only was it traffic mayhem, it was also (and still is) a meeting point.

It’s also where London’s shopping and entertainment districts meet, and in my own mind, I think of Piccadilly Circus as the centre of the West End.

The Circus was built in 1819 to connect Piccadilly with John Nash’s Regent St, but when Shaftesbury Avenue was constructed in 1886 it lost its circular shape, and now that the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain has been moved from its central position to improve traffic flow, it looks quite a bit different from its original creation.

The fountain, commemorating the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was erected in 1893, and for years I was one of many who believed that the statue on top was that of Eros, the Greek God of Love, but in actual fact it’s his brother Anteros. If the sculptor, Sir Alfred Gilbert, had created the first Greek God, Chaos, on the top it might have been less confusing and more appropriate somehow.

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London’s Christmas Lights

London's Christmas Lights

You might have noticed that I haven’t called this post ‘Christmas Shopping in London’ and that’s because Easymalc don’t do shopping in London at Christmastime, in fact I don’t do Christmas shopping anywhere – and come to think of it, I don’t do shopping anywhere at any time.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, you may well wonder why I’m bothering to write anything at all about the subject, especially as I’m not a lover of the over-commercialisation of this time of the year either.

Well, the first reason is that whether I like it or not, the second week in November is when the Christmas lights start to be turned on in London, and the second reason is that Easymalc’s household has been having a family day out up in ‘The Smoke’ at Christmastime for a few years now, and both my wife and daughter have a different concept of wandering along Oxford street to me, and so I content myself with taking a few pictures of the lights and pop into a hostelry or two while they’re wasting their time in the shops.

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The West End

Piccadilly Circus

The West End

 

“The West End” or “Up West” are phrases that are commonly heard around London, but there are no official geographical boundaries to determine exactly where it is, and so there will be many different interpretations as to what actually constitutes the area known as the West End – and this is mine.

Historically speaking, anywhere west of the City of London was the West End, but these days the area is somewhat more defined. Wikipedia suggests that it covers an area from Temple, Holborn and Bloomsbury in the east, Regent’s Park to the north, Paddington, Hyde Park and Knightsbridge to the west and Victoria and Westminster to the south.

From a visitor’s point of view though I would argue that the area is even more compact than that. I would include the entertainment areas of Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Chinatown and Soho, the shopping areas around Oxford St, Regent St and Bond St and also the focal points of Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square – in other words the favourite spots for eating, drinking, shopping, and going to the theatre or cinema.

This list of course is subjective, but hopefully will give first time visitors to London an idea on what the West End is all about, and if there are any Londoners out there (or anyone else for that matter) who would like to add to the debate on what the West End means to them then please feel free to add your comments. I look forward to reading them.

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