Silchester, Roman Road to

Above: Outline map showing the route of the Roman Road to Silchester (in RED). It was joined by a second Roman road (shown in BLUE).

One of the most remarkable features of today’s main roads out of London is that, in many cases, the routes still follow the lines of the ancient Roman roads that were laid out by the legions during the second half of the first century AD. That is certainly true for the Roman Road to Silchester.

If you have not heard of Silchester, then it should be explained that it was an Iron Age and Roman settlement – known to the Romans as Calleva Atrebatum. It lies in the north of the County of Hampshire, roughly mid-way between the modern towns of Basingstoke and Reading. Silchester is remarkable because, unlike most Roman towns in Britain, it was completely abandoned between AD 550 and AD 650 – which was well over a century after the Romans had lived in the town. The defensive walls survive but, within the walls, there are now just fields, a 12th-century church and a house which was once a farm. Evidence for the Roman town was uncovered in the 1890s but serious archaeological excavation of the site did not begin in 1997. It has continued ever since.

Silchester was an important town in Roman times and a road ran from what is now the City of London and Central London. It is likely that the road was established about AD 60 and its route led west via Staines, where there was a bridge over the Thames. It was known as the ‘Devil’s Highway’. The road continued SW from Silchester to Dorchester. From Londinium (now the City of London), the route led approximately west via today’s Holborn, High Holborn, Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Bayswater Road, Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park Avenue, Shepherd’s Bush Green, Goldhawk Road and continued west to Chiswick in Outer London.

It will be noted that the route passed through Holborn, along the south side of St Marylebone and Paddington, through Kensington and finally through Hammersmith before reaching Chiswick.

The route led out of Londinium via Newgate (Gate). After passing through today’s thoroughfares called Holborn and High Holborn, it met a fork formed by another Roman road (shown in BLUE on the map).

Those who drive in London’s traffic today probably never realise that today’s congested streets go back to being laid out nearly 2,000 years ago by the Romans. In those day’s, however, the roads were for pedestrians and the horse and cart!

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Kensington Overview

Above: Outline map showing the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the old border between the Metropolitan Borough of Kensington and the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea (YELLW dotted line).

In the days when Inner London was composed of 28 Metropolitan Boroughs, the Metropolitan Borough of Kensington was always referred to as a ‘Royal Borough’ due to the presence of Kensington Palace. That Metropolitan Borough owed its name to the ancient village of Kensington. With ‘ton’ on the end of the name, that derives from an old word that gave the English language the word ‘town’. This place, therefore, was the ‘tun or town of Cynesige’s people’. Its first mention was in the Domesday Book (1086).

The early beginnings were very humble, being just a hamlet on a Roman road that led west out of London. The ancient route now includes modern road names like Knightsbridge, Kensington High Street whose western continuation is called Hammersmith Road – because it leads to Hammersmith. The hamlet grew into a village but the land around was mainly farms and large estates. With time, land to the north of the ancient route became Hyde Park (which is in the City of Westminster) and Kensington Gardens. Surprisingly, most of Kensington Gardens are also within the London Borough boundary of the City of Westminster.

Kensington Palace became a royal residence in the 17th century and has remained in that state ever since. Actual royalty – as in kings and queens – no longer live there but other members of the royal family still live there. Part of the building is also a large museum. The palace is within Kensington Gardens and that part of the gardens is within the London borough boundary of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The original village grew considerably in Georgian and Victorian times and Kensington High Street became the place to go for fashionable stores – particularly well-known were the three large stores almost next to each other called Barkers; Derry and Toms; and Pontins. The stores were rivals to those in Oxford Street in Victorian times but, like everything else, some have closed down long ago, leaving Barkers as the only one of the three as a departmental store today.

Further west of the original village is another very large park – Holland Park – that once was the estate of an enormous house. Sadly that house was almost completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War but the park is still well worth a visit. Kensington is an affluent district in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with some of the densest housing anywhere in Britain. There are also many grand houses and probably more millionaires per square foot than anywhere else in London – or even England.

In terms of attractions within Kensington, the list just goes on and on. The Royal Albert Hall is just within the boundary. The Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Science Museum are all in Kensington – this part is usually referred to a South Kensington. Within the old metropolitan boundary are two very famous cemeteries – Brompton Cemetery and Kensal Green Cemetery – which were both created in Victorian times. Of recent years, ‘tomb trecks’ have become very popular, being a modern version of a London walk but, in these cases, they are conducted around the cemetery, showing where the famous graves are situated and explaining who the famous were who lie buried there. The list of important places in Kensington could easily be expanded but that will be covered in blogs in the coming weeks.

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Cremorne Gardens

Above: The old gates to the King’s Road entrance of Cremorne Gardens are now situated in a small park beside the Thames.

It is hard to overstate the effect that the Chelsea Embankment has had on the land beside the Thames that was once the original, rather sleepy riverside village of Chelsea. Because Chelsea Embankment is one of the few through-routes for this part of London, people today associate riverside Chelsea with this busy road with all the associated noise when in the 18th century the land was mainly open fields beside the Thames. The land was so open that several pleasure gardens sprung to life near the river. Here is the story of one of them.

The history of the gardens originated with a villa, called Chelsea Farm, built between 1740 and 1745. The house passed through various hands until 1778 when it was acquired by Thomas Dawson, who in 1785 was created the Viscount Cremorne. In 1831, Charles Random De Berenger, Baron De Beaufain, bought the house. He turned it first into a sports club and then opened Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. Entertainment included concerts, fireworks, balloon ascents and galas.

The gardens opened in 1845. After renaming the house after himself, Thomas Dawson, Lord Cremorne had the house enlarged. Maps for the time show that the gardens were very large, extended across 28 acres (11.3 hectares), just west of Battersea Bridge. They covered land now occupied by the old Lots Road Power Station and World’s End Estate – towards the western end of King’s Road. The timing for their opening was not in their favour because they opened just as the popularity – and financial sustainability – of pleasure gardens were coming into serious doubt. Cremorne featured a theatre, a banqueting hall and what is said to have been the first ten-pin bowling alley in Britain.

In an attempt to attract the crowds, who were charged admission to the gardens, many different events were arranged. For example, in 1856 there were balloon ascents from the gardens by professional fliers. As well as professionals, the public was invited to make ascents in a captive balloon, which occasionally much to the consternation of the occupants broke loose from its moorings. Local residents complained about increasing noise, disturbance and the less ‘socially acceptable’ clientele. As with all large attractions, times change and people move on to other things. The licence was not renewed and the gardens closed on 4 October 1877 due to complaints of rowdiness and a reputation for vice – led by a petition from the Vestry. After being closed, the gardens were sold and built over.

The gates to the gardens were preserved until the 1950s in Tadema Road, forming the rear entrance to Bowden’s Brewery which stood on the site. When the brewery closed down, new gardens were opened on part of the old Cremorne site on Thursday 25 March 1982. The gates were restored and are a feature within the gardens. They are made of cast iron and weight almost eight tons. It should be pointed out that the new gardens are in the form of a small open space beside the Thames, being a tiny fraction of the size of the original pleasure gardens.

The small park is situated between Lots Road and the Thames. Its most interesting feature is the gates which once led into the grand spectacle of Cremorne Gardens. The gates are probably the last tangible feature of any of London’s once-famous pleasure gardens.

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Chelsea Bridge

Above: Chelsea Bridge looking south, with Battersea Park in the Background.

The first bridge on this site was built 1854-58 as a graceful suspension bridge. Thomas Page was the engineer. It was opened in 1858 as a toll bridge. Everyone using the bridge had to pay tolls, even pedestrians. The toll was very unpopular with the public and, as a concession to the complaints, Parliament felt obliged to make it toll-free on Sundays. In 1879 it was freed of tolls when it was taken over by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). They took control of many other services in what became Inner London.

The bridge was constructed to link Chelsea, on the north bank of the Thames, with the open land of Battersea Fields, on the south bank of the Thames that was only just beginning to be developed. Battersea Park, 200 acres in size, was laid out from 1846 and officially opened in 1858. A river bank at Battersea was also built beside the Thames to prevent any subsidence of the park into the river. Another nearby major project was the construction of the Chelsea Embankment from 1871 to 1874.

The first bridge was very popular and the traffic increased considerably due to the population which had greatly increased in Chelsea. Another factor was the advent of the motor car which placed unforeseen wear and tear on the bridge. In the 1930s it was decided to close the bridge for demolition and the present one was erected 1935-37. The engineers were G Topham Forrest and E P Wheeler. The new bridge was opened in 1937. That bridge is still in use today. It is a three-span suspension bridge of the self-anchoring type, 698 feet (213 m) long and 82 feet (25 m) wide.

The timing of the construction was unfortunate because it followed the Great Depression of 1928. However, the government agreed to provide 60% of the costs to boost employment in the Battersea area. Chelsea Bridge is a self-anchored suspension bridge – the first of the type to be built in Britain. The horizontal stresses are absorbed by stiffening girders in the deck itself and the suspension cables are not anchored to the ground, relieving stress on the abutments which are built on soft and unstable London clay. The piers of the new bridge were built on the site of the old piers of the first bridge. They were built of concrete, faced with granite above the low-water point. Each side of the bridge has a single suspension cable, each made up of 37 1​ 7⁄8-inch (23mm) diameter wire ropes bundled to form a hexagonal cable.

The bridge was completed just before the outbreak of the Second World War but, fortunately, it was not damaged during the constant bombings of London. Both Chelsea Bridge and its neighbour the Albert Bridge escaped any damage. The bridge today is carrying more traffic than ever and is standing up to the challenge of being in place for nearly 100 years. One decorative feature of the bridge – which is unique to all the bridges crossing the Thames in Inner London – is the coats of arms that are displayed on the four lamp standards, two at each end of the bridge. At the top of each post is a gilded galleon. The outward-facing coats of arms are those of the London County Council (LCC). The inward-facing arms on the south side are those of the Metropolitan Borough of Battersea and for the north side, there are the arms of the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea (west lamp standard) and the arms of the City of Westminster (east lamp standard).

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Crosby Hall, Chelsea

Above: View of the east side of the modern Crosby Hall. Part of the medieval Great Hall, in white stone, can be seen to the right. Notice the large lantern tower on the roof of the hall.

Crosby Hall was a mansion originally erected in 1466 on the part of the land of St. Helen’s Convent, in Bishopsgate, by the wool merchant and alderman, Sir John Crosby. After his death in 1476, the hall continued to be used as the residence of his widow, Anne. By 1483, the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, acquired the property from Crosby’s widow and used it as one of his London homes.

During the Tudor period, Crosby Hall was owned by Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England to King Henry VIII before his fall from grace. Thomas More also owned the estate in Chelsea on which the building now stands. The hall was described by the 16th century English historian John Stow in his ‘Survey of London’ as being ‘of stone and timber, very large and beautiful, and the highest at that time in London’.

After having various owners, the hall was turned into a restaurant and bar in 1868 by Messrs Gordon & Co. They bought the freehold in early 1873 for about £37,000. In April 1907 the building was sold for £175,000 to the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China whose directors intended to pull it down and build a new bank on the site. Crosby Hall was one of the most ancient buildings in the City of London and its impending destruction caused a storm of protest and a campaign was started to save it.

In 1910, the Great Hall was dismantled at Bishopsgate and removed to Cheyne Walk – on a new site just west of All Saints, Chelsea. The hall has one of the most prized scissor roofs in England and is a fine example of medieval architecture. The other buildings at Bishopsgate were all demolished. In the 1920s, the Great Hall was leased by the British Federation of University Women Limited as a centre for women university students. They employed Walter Godfrey to build a tall Arts and Crafts residential block at right angles to the hall in 1925–1927

Above: Looking across the Thames at the modern red-brick addition to Crosby Hall. The lantern tower on the white stone Great Hall can be seen to the right.

The site at Chelsea was owned by the London County Council (LCC) and when the Greater London Council (GLC) took over in 1965 it passed to them. In 1986 the GLC was abolished and the London Residuary Body, charged with disposing of the GLC’s assets, put Crosby Hall up for sale. It was bought for private use in 1988. The owner added modern buildings adjacent to the hall in the 1990s. The new additions are in Tudor style with a mainly red brick exterior.

The site is beside Cheyne Walk, facing onto the Thames, just to the east of Battersea Bridge. The reconstructed hall, in Reigate stone, stands on the east side of the site. The whole complex is privately owned and is, therefore, not open to the public. The rebuilt Great Hall and additional work of 1910 and 1925–1926, are listed Grade II*.

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Cheyne Row

Above: Looking north in Cheyne Row.

The street, then known as ‘Great Cheyne Row’, was laid out in 1708 upon the gardens of the Feathers pub. In 1815 the name was changed ‘Cheyne Row’. It runs north from Cheyne Walk.

One of its most famous residents was Thomas Carlyle who was born in Scotland in 1795 and moved to London in 1831. He is known for being a historian, a satirical writer, an essayist, a translator, a philosopher, a mathematician and teacher. Carlyle moved to No 24 Cheyne Row in 1834, where he lived until his death. The top floor room in the house has double walls and a large sky-light which he installed for peace and light. He hated hearing the noise in the street and the thick walls kept out most of the sound. Carlyle died in the house on 5 February 1881. It is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. Built 1708, the house is Grade II* listed.

The English critic, essayist and poet, James Leigh Hunt (19 October 1784 – 28 August 1859), lived in Cheyne Row. In 1832, Hunt had printed for private circulation ‘Christianism’, the work afterwards published in 1853 as ‘The Religion of the Heart’. A copy sent to Thomas Carlyle secured his friendship, and Hunt went to live next door to him in Cheyne Row in 1833.

The Roman Catholic parish church, Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More, Chelsea, stands on the corner of Cheyne Row and Upper Cheyne Row. It opened in 1895 and is now Grade II listed.

The street remains much the same as it must have been in the 19th century when Carlyle was living there. Most of its grand houses still line the street of which the most notable are Nos 16–34 which includes Carlyle’s house at No 24.

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Cheyne Walk

Above: Cheyne Walk is lined with grand houses. This one is the house where Rosetti once lived.

At one time, Cheyne Walk was a quiet thoroughfare beside the Thames, with houses on its north side facing onto the river. All that was to change when the Chelsea Embankment was constructed 1871–74. The much-widened road was linked to a one-way system of roads at the western end of Cheyne Walk that allows traffic to connect with the A4 and other arterial routes. As a result, the quiet backwater has become blighted by endless heavy traffic – cars, white vans and articulated lorries – all trying to make their way between Westminster, locations south of the Thames using the bridges and main routes out of London.

If we can ‘block out’ thoughts of the heavy traffic for a moment, we will consider the history of Cheyne Walk and describe the many interesting people who once lived there. A good street map might help the reader to understand the layout of Cheyne Walk. At its western end, it joins onto Cremorne Road. As it continues east, beside the Thames, it crosses Beaufort Street (which leads to Battersea Bridge). Further east, Cheyne Walk splits off the riverside thoroughfare which then is named Chelsea Embankment. The narrower Cheyne Walk continues east, separated from Chelsea Embankment by the narrow Chelsea Embankment Gardens. It crosses Oakley Street (which leads to Albert Bridge) and finally joins onto Royal Hospital Road.

The numbering of Cheyne Walk starts at the eastern end. It would, therefore, seem best if the following information is laid out working from the east to the west. Cheyne Walk takes its name from William Cheyne, Viscount Newhaven who owned the manor of Chelsea until 1712. Most of the houses were built in the early 18th century – before the construction of the busy Chelsea Embankment in the 1870s

… Royal Hospital Road

No 4 – George Eliot (1819–80) – The pen name of Mrs Mary Anne Cross, nee Evans – who died in the house on 22 December 1880. She had only lived there for three weeks. On the house is a London County Council (LCC) Blue Plaque.

No 13 – Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958) – Lived in the house from 1905 to 1928. There he wrote works including his first three symphonies, the ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’, ‘The Lark Ascending’ and ‘Hugh the Drover’.

No 16 – Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828–82) lived in the house from 1862 to 1882. On the house is an LCC Blue Plaque. It also mentions Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909).

… Cheyne Mews

Old Manor House – the site is recorded by a plaque.

… Oakley Street

Albert Bridge – Constructed 1870–73.

Cadogan Pier – Before Albert Bridge was constructed, the pier was on the site of the north end of the bridge.

Boy with Dolphin (Statue)

… Cheyne Row

Thomas Carlyle (Statue) – Stands at the end of Cheyne Row, where Carlyle had a house for many years.

No 50 – King’s Head and Eight Bells pub.

… Lawrence Street

… Old Church Street

All Saints, Chelsea

Thomas More (Statue) – Situated in front of All Saints church.

Roper’s Gardens

Crosby Hall

… Beaufort Street

Battersea Bridge – First bridge constructed of wood and opened 1771. The present bridge was built in 1885 and opened in 1890.

James Whistler (Statue)

No 101 – Lindsey House. The engineer Marc Brunel lived in the house (now No 98). His son Isambard Kingdom Brunel grew up there. James Whistler (1834-1903) also lived at the house from late 1866 until October 1878.

No 103 – Hilaire Belloc lived in the house for five years.

No 109 – Wilson Steer lived in the house.

No 114 – King’s Arms pub.

No 118 – Joseph Turner lived his last years as a recluse in the house and died there on 19 December 1851 under the assumed name of Booth. There is a plaque on the house.

… Cremorne Road
… Lots Road

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St Luke, Sydney Street

Above: The south side of the church.

The remarkable church was built 1820-24, designed by James Savage. It was the first of the later parish churches to be built in Chelsea. Being a riverside village, Chelsea could not expand south and with other developments to the east and to the west, the only possible land for houses was to the north. This meant essentially developing the open fields to the north of King’s Road.

It is of architectural significance as one of the earliest Gothic Revival churches in London, perhaps the earliest to be of completely new construction. St Luke’s is one of the first group of Commissioners’ churches, having received a grant of £8,333 towards its construction with money voted by Parliament as a result of the Church Building Act of 1818. The church is listed Grade I. The surrounding gardens are listed Grade II on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

Above: The stone roof of the nave.

Of the church, the eminent architect Sir John Summerson notes similarities in the design by Savage to Bath Abbey, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and the tower at Magdalen College, Oxford, all masterpieces of the Perpendicular style, although some of the detailing refers to earlier Gothic styles. Built of Bath stone, it has been said that it is probably the only church of its time in which the main roof was groined throughout in stone.

On 2 April 1836, Charles Dickens was married at the church to Catherine Hogarth. She was the daughter of George Hogarth, the editor of the ‘Evening Chronicle’. For their honeymoon, they went to Chalk, near Gravesend. On their return, they took lodgings in Furnival’s Inn and a few months later they moved to 48 Doughty Street, in Bloomsbury, to a house that Dickens rented.

St Luke is a church that is typical for its time. It was built on a large plot of land that was to be its churchyard. Much of the land is still open and is in use today as a recreational area. The church itself is large and the nave is very high. At that time, the wealthy that were moving into the area would have wanted an imposing church to make a statement about the area.

The church stands in its own churchyard, now a garden, on the east side of Sydney Street, a turning off the north side of King’s Road.

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All Saints, Chelsea

Above: The restored church viewed from the Chelsea Embankment.

All Saints was the original parish church of Chelsea and was first mentioned in a Papal letter of 1290. Its site beside the Thames was in the centre of the original old village of Chelsea. Also known as Chelsea Old Church, the building on the site has parts that date from 1157. The old church consisted of a 13th-century chancel with chapels to the north and south (about 1325) and a nave and tower built 1670.

Thomas More had a chapel built onto the church in 1528 since he shared the manorial privilege of a chapel in the church. He also had a tomb made in 1532 for himself and his wife to buried in. It was never used because he was later executed on Tower Hill and his body was never returned to Chelsea. The south chapel and the north chapel windows were put into the church in 1528.

Sir Hans Sloane died at Chelsea in 1753 and was buried in the churchyard.

The church contained the earliest painted window in London. It had been bricked up for centuries and was discovered in 1922.

The church, which had survived from 1670 was very badly damaged in the Second World War by bombing on 17 April 194, leaving only the south chapel and windows of the north chapel still standing. The Thomas More Chapel was hardly damaged. After the war, the church was almost completely rebuilt 1953–58 in an attempt to preserve parts of the original building that had not been destroyed in the bombing. The church has been restored in its entirety on its old foundations. It looks similar to the way it did before the Second World War. Many of the tombs inside have been reconstructed, almost like a jigsaw puzzle. The restored church was officially opened on 13 May 1958. The building is listed Grade I.

All Saints is the only church in London to have chained books. These days, it is mainly only ecclesiastic libraries attached to cathedrals where they can be seen. The books at Chelsea were the gift of Sir Hans Sloane and consist of the so-called ‘Vinegar Bible’ (published in 1717), two volumes of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1684 edition), a prayer book (1723) and Homilies (1683).

The church stands on the east side of Old Church Street at the junction with Cheyne Walk. While the church looks modern from the outside, its interior looks as it did before it was destroyed by the bombing. A seated statue of Thomas More is situated in front of the church. The statue by L Cubitt Bevis was erected in 1969.

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Chelsea Embankment

Above: Looking east on the Chelsea Embankment, with Chelsea Bridge in the distance.

During the late 1800s, Central London must have been one vast building site. These days, with huge diggers and enormous cranes, construction methods have moved on but in Victorian times most of the digging was still done by hand. Some of the thoroughfares must have been closed for months while construction work was carried out. The Victoria Embankment was constructed 1865–70. The Albert Embankment was constructed 1866–69. The Chelsea Embankment was constructed 1871–74. Notice that all those dates overlap which must have caused further traffic problems. The three embankments mentioned are only the main ones. There were other similar projects on other parts of the Thames and we have not even mentioned the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament – between 1835 and 1860 – which was also beside the Thames.

Until the 1860s the riverside at Chelsea looked rather quaint, with brick walls embanking some parts of the riverside and small boats, including rowing boats, to be seen along the river walk. Houses lived in by artists and the wealthy stood on the opposite side of the roadway. The scene is recorded in a print made in the early 1800s (shown below). It all looks very countrified.

Above: Chelsea riverside looking east towards Chelsea Bridge.

The construction of the Chelsea Embankment must have totally changed the look of the riverside at Chelsea. What had been quite narrow roads were suddenly widened and the embankment wall meant that many people using small boats on the Thames were unable to tie up as they had done before. The embankment was completed to a design by Joseph Bazalgette and was part of the Metropolitan Board of Works’ grand scheme to provide London with a modern sewage system. It was opened on 9 May 1874 by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (second son of Queen Victoria). The western end of Chelsea Embankment, including a stretch of Cheyne Walk, is in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The eastern end, including Grosvenor Road and Millbank, is in the City of Westminster. Beneath the road lies the main low-level interceptor sewer – taking waste-water from west London eastwards towards Beckton.

The Chelsea Embankment was to change the face of the riverside forever. The picturesque scenes painted by the likes of Turner and Whistler were lost but it meant that the diseases, floods and noxious smells that many Chelsea residents had suffered for all too long were a thing of the past. The Chelsea Embankment is just over a mile long and the total cost was about £270,000 to build. Granite walls reduced the Thames to a uniform width of about 700 feet. To soften the utilitarian look, ornamental gardens were built on the reclaimed land.

The official opening day pamphlet stated that the Embankment had ‘removed the stinking mud-banks which had forced upon the attention of more than one of the senses’ and replaced them with ‘pleasant drives and ornamental gardens’. Standing on the pavements, watching and listening to the thunderous roar of the traffic and inhaling the polluted air from exhausts it is hard not to feel nostalgic for the earlier more tranquil days.

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