Above: The brightly coloured mural beside the railway viaduct at Vauxhall Station.
If you know Vauxhall – because you use the railway station or because you use the buses at the enormous bus station – you probably have a fairly low opinion of the area. Walking around the main streets is hardly a pleasant experience with the endless noisy traffic and the overbearing modern blocks of apartments that the developers tell us are really grand with ‘splendid views’.
Vauxhall was not always this way. In the mid-17th century, part of the land was occupied by the New Spring Gardens – a place of recreation for the wealthy – which may have opened before the Restoration of 1660. It was also mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary for 1662. From 1785 to 1859 an even larger site was Vauxhall Gardens, a more famous pleasure gardens and one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London at the time. There is now a large open space called ‘Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (Spring Gardens)’ but although it is on part of the original site, it is more of a recreation ground than anything else.
Getting back to the Victorian pleasure gardens, they became famous for staging just about every form of public entertainment of the day. If something new came along, it was almost certainly exhibited at the Vauxhall site.
A mural painted in July 2020 by the street artist Nerone pays homage to a hot air balloon record trip made from Vauxhall. The mural, with a bright pink background, has been created in partnership between Network Rail, community groups, schools, and artists. It can be seen on the corner of New Spring Gardens Walk and Goding Street. The mural includes a drawing of the famous balloon itself.
Charles Green, a professional balloonist, set off from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, in London, and flew 480 miles (772 km) taking over 18 hours and landing in Nassau, in Germany. Setting off on 7 November 1836 it was the longest ever balloon trip whose distance was not beaten for almost another 80 years – in February 1914. Green was an experienced balloonist who had already completed 220 hot air balloon flights. He had with him two other men – one a writer, who later documented the journey, and the other a lawyer and politician.
The balloon used nearly 2,000 square yards of specially-woven Spitalfields silk which held 85,000 cubic feet of gas within it. The original wicker-work gondola or ‘car’, supported by ten ropes, and draped with purple and crimson velvet, was just 9 feet by 4 feet, decorated at each end with a large gilt eagle’s head.
Behind the mundane, very noisy street area of Vauxhall Cross, there is now a mural to show that this part of London was the scene of something rather grand for its day and something to be proud of for Vauxhall, even in these modern times. The setting of the mural is at the end of a street that is well away from the din of traffic on the main roads and that is as it should be. Once you have found it, you have the peace and the space to reflect on what a great achievement this balloon flight must have been nearly 200 years ago!