In Praise of Victoria Tower Gardens

Protected as “a public garden in perpetuity” by the London County Council (Improvements)Act 1900, Victoria Tower Gardens has served for over a hundred years, as a space for national, regional and local events. While the park’s eventual fate hangs in the balance with the repeal of the act which has protected it for so long, here are some of the events I have witnessed showing how it has, from its beginning, been open and available to all.

Among national events, Victoria Tower Gardens was used as a queueing area for the thousands of people lining up to pay their respects to Sir Winston Churchill before his funeral on January 30, 1965, and most recently hundreds of thousands queued patiently there to the see the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II in WestminsterHall.

However, Victoria Tower Gardens has mostly been a tree-lined refuge by the central LondonRiver Thames for those seeking some moments of respite from the busy life and concerns around them.

Relaxing in the summer
Looking south from Rodin’s Burghers of Calais towards the Buxton Memorial

The gardens are obviously popular in the summer but also in winter and the photograph below shows a fine view of the Palace of Westminster without the obstruction of the Parliamentary Education Centre, which in theory, being only temporary, is due to be dismantled soon.

Enjoying winter
The Park in Winter
Morris dancers: A day of dance organised by the Westminster Morris Dancers
Two Morris dancers chatting
A dance troupe in rehearsal
The open air Luna Cinema pays a visit
Demonstration by farmers, Jan 22, 2024
Protest against energy costs, March 13, 2024
Camera poised for one of the many TV interviews that take place here but pigeons get in on the act, April 11, 2024
Film crew meet local dog
Powerful lamps lining-up for filming a night-time sequence along the River Thames
One of the hundreds of painted elephants for the Elephant Parade set around London in 2018
Spectra August 4 – ll, 2014
An art club on location in Victoria Tower Gardens painting the famous view across the lawns to the Palace of Westminster
Drone practice
A happy moment for Dave Wardell and Finn, Sir Oliver Heald and supporters, after the second reading of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, known as ‘Finn’s Law’, July 6, 2018
Children’s parties often take place in the summer, as do wedding photo shoots.
Another popular event is the Westminster Dog of the Year, a competition where MPs and their dogs gather in Victoria Tower Gardens. Last year it took place on September 14. There used to be MPs pancake races on or around around Shrove Tuesday but not since covid.
Count Binface, recently upping his profile at local and constituency elections, knocking at the door of the Parliamentary Education Centre

The much-enjoyed Horseferry playground
The spontaneous joy of waving back to a passing boat
Carefully maintained during the covid restrictions, the freedom to walk in Victoria Tower Gardens was a great consolation
The two metre distance rule

Since it first came into existence over a hundred years ago, the uncluttered, elegant open space in the centre of Victoria Tower Gardens has been available for numerous events. These have involved the closure of this part of the gardens for a short while and the restoration of the lawn afterwards, if necessary.

Polite notice, April 2023
Marquee covering a lot of ground, soon cleared after the Coronation
The Red Arrows flypast as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, June 2nd, 2022

Remarks and Further Information
Baroness Deech, Member of the House of Lords, wrote in The House Magazine, June 3, 2019.
“The proposed Holocaust memorial is the wrong design in the wrong place […] This bitterly contested plan does not speak to the heart. It is not good enough for the memory of the victims of the Nazi slaughter, including my grandparents.” Baroness Deech, The House Magazine, June 3, 2019.

Sir Peter Bottomley, MP, made powerful speech during the 2nd reading of the Holocaust Memorial Bill, Wednesday 28th June 2023, questioning among other things, how the decision was arrived at to site a Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens. See excerpts.

Nickie Aiken, MP, also made a powerful representations in defence of Victoria Tower Gardens during the 2nd reading of the Holocaust Memorial Bill, Wednesday 28th June 2023, arguing that “this is the right memorial but in the wrong location.” See excerpts.

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre: “While strongly supporting the concept of a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in London, re-iterates its serious concerns that the proposed location in Victoria Tower Gardens, would have an unacceptable adverse impact on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property and therefore, also reiterates its request to the State Party to pursue alternative locations and/or designs.” Unesco World Heritage Centre.

All images ©Patricia Stoughton

The Queen’s Walk

Having explored the north bank in an earlier post, I’m now looking at some of the features of the King’s Reach along the south bank from Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, part of what is known as The Queen’s Walk. The main difference here is that there are no permanent moorings on the embankment: boats are moored on fixed floating barges or tiers out in the river. And as there is no road, only the walkway, it’s quieter here than across the river.
Views towards St. Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London, contrasting familiar old with brash new, give breadth to our vison of the city, and depth to our questions surrounding its origins. There are so many layers of history here, and in some places the only traces of the past are in the names of streets and jetties, or washed up on the foreshore to be found by mudlarks.
The photos below were taken at different times but apart from a couple, all were taken in the 2020s.

View from Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge with moorings along the South Bank

Stretching downstream from Waterloo Bridge are the mooring barges belonging to difference companies, some of which have changed over the years. As marked on a Port of London Authority chart of July 2015, they include the Waterloo Barge Tier, Crown River Cruises, and Cory Environmental. The future of the two floating restaurant boats, SYMPHONY and HARMONY, in the picture above, has yet to be decided.

A section of the Queen’s Walk viewed from Waterloo Bridge

Less frequented than the area around the London Eye, here are views of moorings and boats, and shady places to rest awhile.

Bookstalls beneath Waterloo Bridge

The South Bank Book Market came into being over forty years ago. It was set up by Leslie Hardcastle, controller of the British Film Institute at the time, “to bring some life to the space in front of the BFI’s National Film Theatre”. And that dark space, less inviting in the 1980s, was filled with books bringing in new visitors as the Queen’s Walk gradually became one of London’s most worthwhile attractions. It’s a good place to seek out all kinds of books, maps, prints and postcards. It became part of the Southbank Centre in 2001.

Statue of Sir Laurence Olivier by Angela Conner

The statue of Sir Laurence Oliver by Angela Conner in a dramatic pose facing the National Theatre, which was founded in 1963 with Olivier as its first Director.

The ‘London Pride’ sculpture by Frank Dobson

Cast in bronze from the plaster original by Frank Dobson, commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951, the sculpture ‘London Pride’ was given to the nation by Mary Dobson with help from the Lynton Property & Reversionary Plc and The Henry Moore Foundation. It was set in place on the South Bank in 1987. In 2016 it was given a Grade II listing by Historic England. It stands as a reminder of the Festival of Britain, a festival that many older people remember as a bright moment of optimism after all the damage and privations of the Second World War.

A pause along The Queen’s Walk and in the background, the Blackfriars road and rail Bridges
View of the City before arriving at Ernie’s Beach

Mooring Barges between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges
Strolling along the riverside walkway you will pass the fixed barges with a variety of boats moored to them. Some remain regularly in place and others change around more frequently..

Waterloo Bridge Tier with MV HARMONY alongside

A recent picture of the Waterloo Bridge Tier with Bateaux London’s restaurant cruise boat shows MV HARMONY still in place, while MV SYMPHONY has been moved elsewhere. See her history here.

MV PRIDE OF LONDON at one of the fixed floating mooring barges on the King’s Reach
MV SARPEDON at the Crown River Cruises’ mooring
MV PEARL OF LONDON and bunker barge ALMERE 4
Moorings out in the river opposite the Tideway Super Sewer construction site

Ernie’s Beach
Named in 2015 after local resident John Hearn, known as Ernie, who steadfastly and successfully campaigned for the recognition of this part of the foreshore as “an asset and amenity for London”, the sandy beach is much liked. It’s a favourite place for dog walkers, families, mudlarks and sand sculptors. Have a few coins ready to throw down, or to give to the artists, who usually have a hat or a box for that purpose.

Monster from the deep, 2009. How the skyline has changed since then!
Volunteer litter pickers a couple of weeks ago

Pride in the look of Ernie’s beach means that local people often comb the foreshore at low tide to remove litter and tide leavings.

Man walking his dog towards the jetties on Ernie’s beach

The jetties are normally accessible to all but can be hired for special events from the Coin Street Organisation.

Rising tide. Visitors should take care. Tides run swiftly here

At one time there were plans to build out over the beach following what was known as the ‘Port of London Authority line’ to straighten the river but thanks to Ernie’s efforts with the Coin Street Action Group’s strong campaign, the Greater London Council was persuaded to drop its conditions so the existing river wall and beach were saved. It goes to show that one determined, impassioned person can really change the course of events and leave as Ernie has done, a legacy for those who follow. In this case a small, precious, sandy bay in the heart of London.

A quiet moment at Gabriel’s Wharf before the crowds

Gabriel’s Wharf
Set back from Ernie’s beach, Gabriel’s Wharf is a bright, arty oasis with a variety of shops and restaurants, and a long history. Christopher Gabriel (1746-1809) was the founder of one of the most successful firms of woodworking-tool makers, establishing his business in the 1770s. He was particularly known for planes and piano-makers’ braces, which were marked ‘Gabriel’ and are still identified and sought after today. His sons, having “changed the business to importing and selling timber, took a long lease on the site now known as Gabriel’s Wharf.” The author of Waterloo Histories writes: “The business was extremely successful, and Christopher Gabriel’s grandson, Thomas, rose to become Lord Mayor of London in the 1860s and was knighted.” The company closed the wharf in 1919 but the name lives on, perhaps inspiring the craft shops and restaurants there now, with the story of “how a small timber yard grew and left a permanent name on the South Bank”. And if any of you are fans of Genesis and Peter Gabriel, yes he is from the same family. “He is Sir Thomas’s great-great-great nephew!”

Gabriel’s Wharf, the two Coin Street Jetties, and Ernie’s Beach
The OXO Tower

For anyone familiar with oxo stock cubes, the decoration of the OXO Tower will strike a chord. It stands on the site of an old power station, built in 1900, that once supplied electricity to the Post Office. In the late 1920s the site was bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, which manufactured the famous stock cubes, and the new tower, “being the second highest commercial building at the time” became a well-known London landmark. Designed by Albert Moore in the Art Deco style, the original plans proposed the setting up of illuminated signs spelling out OXO in large letters. This was refused owing to a ban on skyline advertising. However, not to be defeated, Albert Moore carefully incorporated the OXO design into the tower windows for all to see.

A line of George Vulliamy’s ‘dolphin’ lamps

Looking back as you approach Blackfriars Bridge, this particular row of George Vulliamy’s lamps, is with its elegant form and silhouettes, striking at any time of the day or night.

Pier on Blackfriars Bridge

The piers on Blackfriars Bridge were designed like pulpits as a nod to the thirteenth-century Dominican monastery that gave Blackfriars Bridge its name. The stone carvings of water birds on this pier, facing upstream, are by John Birnie Philip.

Doggett’s Coat and Badge pub

The name of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge pub might not mean much to some but the River Thames community specially, will know that it marks an annual rowing contest known as the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager, that has been in continuous existence since 1715.

One Blackfriars

One Blackfriars is one of the more interesting additions to London’s skyline. And, of course, it has unbeatable views along the King’s Reach. Its distinctive shape has prompted various nicknames including the Boomerang or the Vase, and it is known affectionally in my family as the Loofah.

Looking back along this section of the King’s Reach to Waterloo Bridge from Blackfriars Bridge

If you would like to explore the history of this part of the Queen’s Walk in greater depth, the sources I’ve listed below will give you a good way in.

Sources and Further Information
Port of London Authority King’s Reach
South Bank Book Market: Southbank Centre
The National Theatre
Gabriel’s Wharf: Waterloo Histories
Ernie’s Beach: Coin Street
The OXO Tower Wharf: Coin Street
See: Doggett’s Coat and Badge
Thanks to N for help and forbearance