Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Palazzo di London

The Thames in London has gone in and out of fashion.

In the 19th century it was heavily polluted but before then the river bank was graced by many grand buildings which made London look like Venice with its river side palazzos:
Many of these mansions are now lost or replaced, including the one above. This was originally a Tudor Palace built by the Duke of Somerset, and once was the London residence of King James I's wife, Anne of Denmark.

It was re-built towards the end of the 18th century with this grand river front: the great arches allowed boats and barges to enter into the building itself where there were landing places. There was a downside for this close access to river as critics said of the basement offices... "in these damp, black and comfortless recesses, the clerks of the nation grope about like moles, immersed in Tartarean gloom, where they stamp, sign, examine, indite, doze, and swear..."

Then there was the Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames was so polluted that Parliament could not but notice the horrible smell. London's expanding population required a sewage system and Joseph Bazalgette was the man for the job.

Thinking big, his team re-claimed a long stretch of the Thames, embanking it to create space for sewers, an underground railway and telegraph cables, while on top was built a road. It meant that the great building above no longer heard the lapping of waves and creak of oars but the endless roar of traffic.

But the building is still there, now called Somerset House after the site's original owner. You can just see the arches, though they are hidden by a row of trees:

Try to imagine that instead of art experts there were barges and ferries heading under this grand arch, and instead of concrete pavings there was muddy Thames water...

The area behind is due for regeneration, but the square at Somerset House already has many new uses, not least the ice rink:

And it will re-opening soon. This year seems to be rushing towards its close all too fast!

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