A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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36 - From Vauxhall Bridge to Millbank, via Riverwalk House - but no sign of the Effra

It is a relief to get away from the construction sites and walk onto Vauxhall Bridge. West and upstream the riversides are mostly taken up with unremarkable modernish residential blocks, red brick and white brick ones on the north side. Along the south bank, though, the Battersea Power Station and blue gasometer still catch the eye. The tide is out, leaving muddy stony banks of more interest to gulls than anyone else. No moving boats are visible, but a few barges are moored or anchored in the distance. Also, there is no sign of the Effra tributary, not even a drainpipe outlet, that once joined the Thames here. However, the piped outlet of the Tyburn, another tributary with more staying-power than the Effra, is visible on the north bank.

The view is more interesting downstream, eastward, with the riversides occupied by older commercial and sometimes handsome premises. The Tate Gallery, the 32-storey Millbank Tower (originally the Vickers Tower, and most well-known for being the headquarters of the Labour Party until recently), Lambeth Bridge, and, of course, the London Eye, all wish to be noticed.

Vauxhall Bridge itself will celebrate its centenary in 2006. Its design is generally attributed to Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, but Sir Alexander Binnie had some input too. The bridge has five steel spans standing on granite piers, and is celebrated for being the first to carry trams. It was opened by the Prince of Wales (later George V) on 26 May 1906. Although it's not possible to appreciate them from the bridge itself, the piers on both sides are ornamented with impressively large bronze figures symbolising human endeavours: pottery, engineering, architecture, agriculture, science, fine arts, local government and education. These were designed by Alfred Drury and F. W. Pomeroy.

According to information made available by the Vauxhall Society, there may have been a bridge very near here (100-150 yards upstream) 3,500 years ago. Archaeologists recently found two lines of oak posts, five yards apart, which date to 1750-1285 BC. They suggest the bridge, over what would then have been a series of channels through marshy land, may have been made of planks resting on the posts.

In more recent historical times, there was a small bridge over Effra Creek known as Vauxhall Bridge, but, the first Vauxhall Bridge to span the Thames itself opened - after several building delays - in 1816. Prince Charles of Brunswick (he who lived in, and gave his name to, Brunswick House) laid the first stone on the north side when the plan was to build a stone bridge. However, the design was abandoned in favour of a bridge made of iron arches designed by James Walker. Interestingly, during this period the famous Vauxhall Gardens (laid out by Jonathan Tyers in 1661) were still fashionable. It was only in 1859, after the gardens had lost their popularity (despite becoming a venue for ballooning for a while) that the gardens were closed, and the site was then urbanised.

Half way across the Thames I arrive at the London Borough of Westminster, and, as soon as I turn east into Millbank, I'll be in the Congestion Charging Zone. Vauxhall Bridge hits the north bank of the Thames almost exactly on the 300 easting. At the same spot, on the corner, stands the 1960s-built Riverwalk House, 157-166 Millbank, the home of the Government Office for London. This was set up in 1994 as part of a country-wide system of regional government offices. Its main duty is to act as a kind of ambassador for the government, collecting information about London for the government, and promoting the government's policies to London. It also manages a range of government programmes (totalling £2.5 billion in 2002-03, mostly transport and housing), carries out statutory planning functions, and manages the London Resilience Team whose objective is to ensure London is prepared for any terrorist emergencies. It also negotiates for European Union funds for London areas, such as the naffly-named Stockwell United. Next door, a small patch of green, with a Henry Moore sculpture ('Locking Piece'), is fenced off and being given a once over.

Millbank, and its easterly extension Grosvenor Road, are still designated as the A3212, an A road that dissolves somewhere along Chelsea Embankment. On the north side, is the Morpeth Arms. It was built by an inn specialist called Paul Dangerfield, in 1845, to serve the wardens of Millbank Penitentiary, from where convicts would be shipped to Australia. The prison's deep cells stretched underground as far as the Morpeth Arms, and so, almost inevitably, the pub's cellars are said to be haunted by the ghost of a prisoner who died there. Here too is a posh Georgian terrace - with cream paintwork, black doors adorned with brass trimmings, and sash windows - and a surprisingly-welcome old-fashioned telephone box in equally good condition.

Next door is the new home of the Chelsea College of Art and Design, created from the four Grade II buildings of the former Royal Army Medical College (which moved to Sandhurst in 1999): the Married Quarters, South West Barracks Building, Officer's Mess and Commandant's House, and the College Building. The London Institute bought the Ministry of Defence property in 2000, against a rival bid from the Aga Khan Development Network which had planned to set up an Islamic cultural centre. According to the Defence Minister at the time, Dr. Lewis Moonie, the London Institute's bid for the Chelsea college won out as it represented 'a unique opportunity to co-locate a major arts educational institution alongside an art gallery of international standing'. Up to 1,400 students and 250 staff can now be accommodated by the college.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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