Sitting on a bench, overlooking the tamed and ordered paths and gardens of Victoria Embankment, it’s hard to imagine that little more than a century and a half ago, the turbulent waters of the Thames rushed right through here. Just as difficult to believe is that, deep in the bowels of the earth, below these crocus-dotted lawns, blossom-cloaked trees and majestic monuments, tonnes of London sewage gurgle away, through a colossal pipe, to safely distant disposal.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, the city’s sewage discharged directly into the Thames. The stench of the water was foul and the diseases it carried, right to the very doorstep of the city, were deadly. After an outbreak of cholera killed 10,000 people in 1853, the engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to design a new and safe sewage system. Fifty-two acres of land were reclaimed from the Thames to create Chelsea and Victoria Embankment to the north and Albert Embankment to the south. Beneath them, Bazalgette located two “interceptor” sewers to divert the city’s waste away from the river. The project was completed in 1859 and it was decided that public gardens should be established on the Victoria Embankment.
In 1864, Alexander MacKenzie began work on the Embankment Gardens Topsoil was brought from Barking Creek and twenty acres was laid out in garden beds, lawns, trees and shrubberies. The York Water Gate, a confection of pillars, lions, pediments and pilasters built by Balthasar Gerbier in 1626 and once part of the Duke of Buckingham’s riverside mansion (demolished in 1676) was incorporated to serve as the west end entrance. Statues were erected to famous Britons, including Robert Burns, Arthur Sullivan and John Stuart Mill. In 1877, 180 tonne Cleopatra’s Needle, built originally for the Pharoah Thothmes III in 1467, was installed in the gardens. The Royal Camel Corps memorial and the Golden Eagle of the RAF are also located here. Victoria Embankment was the first London area to be lit by electricity.
Today, Victoria Embankment is a popular retreat, always busy with strollers, tourists, picnicking families, school groups and workers on lunch breaks. It is a quiet detour along the back of the Strand through to Covent Garden or Fleet Street. There are pleasant green vistas and clean, earthy smells to enjoy at any season, beautiful blossom and bulbs in Spring, bright flowers in Summer and leaves of every shade in Autumn.