Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Walk through Georgian Westminster

Yesterday, on Westminster Bridge, elbowed by passing sightseers, it would have been difficult to imagine the scenes on the Thames 200 years ago if it hadn't been for the knowledgeable input of our guides, historical authors Louise Allen and Sarah Mallory. The walk was part of 'Writing Historical Fiction - the Westminster Way' organised by Louise and Westminster Archives.

It felt odd standing in that particular place because if the year had been 1745, we'd all have been in the drink. The first Westminster Bridge wasn't built until 1746 when the Houses of Parliament seen here would have looked very different (see p.70 of Louise's 'Walking Jane Austen's London'). How far would Mr Wordsworth have got in 1802 with his poem 'Upon Westminster Bridge' if he'd been writing it today? He might have managed 'Earth has not anyth...' before the pencil was jostled from his fingers by some bloke using thimblerig (find the pea) to con a gullible tourist. The game was surely known to the Georgians, who probably played with similar intent.  

Horse Guards provided a view of some beautiful Grade 1 listed buildings of between 1751 and 1753. The parade ground above was large enough the enable the Duke of Wellington's funeral procession to form in 1852 before making its way to St Paul's Cathedral where he is interred. Nearby, in Downing Street, was the Colonial Office. There, in 1805, took place the only recorded meeting between him and Lord Nelson. I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one!

The Parade Ground is home to a couple of remarkable military survivors - a mid 16th century Turkish cannon captured by the British in 1801 from Napoleon's forces in Alexandria (left), and a mortar taken at the battle of Salamanca in 1812, during the British Army's long Peninsular campaign. Functional items in their time but, my, what embellishments their carriages have endured since -the first bears a crocodile, pyramids and Britannia, while the mortar is supported on a Chinese dragon.

The mortar was presented to the Prince Regent by a grateful Spanish Nation. Referred to as 'The Regent's Bomb', the caricaturists of the time had a field day with the 'Regent's Bum.' The carriage was made at Woolwich Arsenal.

Horse Guards is bordered on one side by St James' Park, at night the haunt of Georgian prostitutes. The lake is home to an enormous variety of wildfowl, and to Duck Island.

Duck Island existed in the reign of Charles II, who appointed a court favourite as its Governor. It appears to have been William III who first built a cottage there. Over the years the island fell into disuse, but was restored in the 1820s when the park was landscaped by John Nash. The cottage put in a reappearance soon afterwards. Below is how it looks today. 

One surprise was seeing pelicans. Apparently, in 1664, a Russian ambassador presented a pair to Charles II. They've been in residence ever since - not the same ones, of course. The present pelicans are more modern. In fact, the one I snapped yesterday has a positively punk look about him.
Our group strolled back to Westminster Archives from Birdcage Walk, so named because of the Royal Menagerie and Aviary kept there by James I and Charles II. 

On the route we noticed a few surviving Georgian buildings, many overshadowed and over looked by more modern constructions. 

What a beauty that bow-fronted corner building is (to the left). The building on the right is a pub named for two sedan chairmen. If you look closely you can see them in the sign between the two first floor windows. This pub was first established in 1683. The current building dates to the mid 18th Century. 

I  must say a massive thank to the staff at Westminster Archives, to Sarah Mallory as our group tour guide, and particularly to Louise Allen for her afternoon talk on how writers of historical fiction can get the best out of archival sources. I had a really enjoyable day. And what fun it was trying to make my way back to Waterloo Station. Westminster was gridlocked by what appeared to be an amalgamation of protesting groups. By 4.30pm the bridge was festooned with banners. What would Wordsworth have made of it?    


  1. Lovely pictures, Eileen. thanks for posting Anne Stenhouse

    1. Yes, thank you, Eileen. I had to miss the day because of Southern Railway's engineering schedule but your post helped to fill the gap!

    2. Thank you both. Pity you missed the day, Isabelle. The weather stayed fine, and the rain just about held off. Very crowded around Westminster though, which is why we had to split into two groups for the walk. I was with Sarah Mallory. Without the pink aerial (her furled umbrella) she held aloft, I might have got lost, being a bit on the short side.