The Victoria Embankment runs on the north stretch of the River Thames between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Despite the cars, coaches, bicycles and emergency vehicles, it still remains one of the capital's most iconic locations. Indeed, it is a welcome contrast to the bustling South Bank which has become a little too popular in recent years.
If you can't catch it on a foggy morning, then the Victoria Embankment looks its best at night. Beautifully lit, there are numerous benches for you to park yourself and take in the neon canyons on the other side of the water.
The icing on the cake (so to speak) are the heraldic dolphins, sphinxes and camels that surround you - all the work of architect George John Vulliamy.
Constructed in the 1860s, the Victoria Embankment was the brainchild of engineer Joseph Bazalgette. The implementation of a modern sewerage network required the partial reclamation of the Thames at various points. With the sewers below ground, the road above relieved traffic congestion and delivered a magnificent walkway. Vulliamy's 'dolphin lamps' provided the illumination and the promenade soon became the envy of Europe.
Cleopatra's Needle arrived in 1878. To celebrate its appearance, the elevated seating was given a suitably Egyptian feel by Vulliamy with the adornment of sphinxes¹ and camels. Incidentally, Vulliamy also worked on the ancient obelisk as well - the two sphinxes² are his too (even if they are incorrectly installed).
¹ Classical Greek
At the end of Savoy Place is a small service entrance that looks like an access point to an underground car park. It is perfectly anonymous - nothing to see here. A brief distance away is a short cul-de-sac named York Buildings that also appears similarly uninteresting. Should you decide to bypass Savoy Place and York Buildings you will fail to discover the subterranean Lower Robert Street.
Lower Robert Street lies at the heart of an area known as the Adelphi. Roughly translated from Greek as meaning brothers or siblings; the Adelphi was an 18th century development by the celebrated Adam brothers (James, John, Robert & William). The centrepiece was a grand terrace that proved to be a popular residence for the well-heeled. Constructed adjacent to the Thames on vaulted arches, it was intended that the wharves and passages below would provide warehouse space even though they were susceptible to flooding.
Historically, this stretch of land had been a desirable site to live with Parliament and royalty in close proximity. This all changed when portions of the Thames were reclaimed in the 1860s so that a proper sewage system could be installed. The arrival of the railway to the metropolis also altered the character of the neighbourhood - nearby Charing Cross Station opened in 1864. Denied access to the shore, the riverside vaults were no longer viable and quickly became the hangout for beggars, petty criminals and prostitutes.
The terrace was eventually demolished in the 1930s. The impressive (New) Adelphi Building erected in the Art Deco style now takes its place. Elements of the underground repository remain in the form of Lower Robert Street. Supposedly haunted, it is now a little used thoroughfare for black cabs and the curious. You can still observe the unfortunates along Savoy Place reminding us that homelessness has yet to be conquered.
The original Adelphi estate survives on in the surrounding street names and in a few buildings - most notably the home of the Royal Society of Arts where the cellars and tunnels have been repurposed for corporate & private events.
London never stands still.
Buildings go up. Buildings come down. The juxtaposition of old and new is quite a sight to behold - especially if you visit the City of London where 21st century skyscrapers nestle up against 12th century churches. The capital's skyline is wonderfully disjointed.
London's silhouette has not always appeared so fragmented. For hundreds of years, only steeples rose above the rooftops. Until the 1960s, St Paul's Cathedral was the tallest building in town.
The commercial and social reasons for going skyward in post-war London have been compelling although the early efforts were hardly pretty. The Tower Wing of Guy's Hospital in Southwark is an obvious offender. The Stock Exchange Tower and Britannic House (built for British Petroleum) have thankfully been remodelled with the facades vastly improved.
Lloyd's headquarters, the Barbican and Richard Seifert's contributions (Tower 42, Centre Point) still split critics. The list of developments worthy of scrutiny is considerable.
Since 2000, construction has boomed and iconic structures have risen. Several have even collected affectionate nicknames: Gherkin, Shard, Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie, Scalpel… These modern cathedrals of commerce may not match the heights of the 'supertalls' in Dubai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen but the quality of build and design is exemplary.
Impressive and distinctive shapes are emerging from Vauxhall to Canary Wharf. If it is not a corporate HQ, it will be swanky apartments. Of course, such fresh additions divide opinion but for architecture freaks and photographers, now is a great time to visit London.
Be warned though! Developers and multinationals are fickle beasts. It is not unusual for relatively 'recent' buildings that may only be three or four decades old, to be pulled down in favour of something that provides extra floor space and/or better aesthetics.
London never stands still.