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History at Embankment Pier

'The islands within the river, the eyots, or the marshes beside the river are liminal areas; they are neither water nor dry land. They partake of two realities, and in that sense they are blessed.'

Peter Ackroyd


EMBANKMENT NORTH - Charing Cross, Aldwych, Temple, Farringdon


M Akemannestræt (Akeman St (Roman > West))

This was the old Saxon war road to the West from Lud Gate in the City, following a previous Roman road, via Fleet St, The Strand, Charing Cross, then Knightsbridge and on to the important ford at Staines, before leading to Winchester.

M thære wide here-stræt, Oxford Rd/St (Great West Rd)

Again a war road (here-stræt = Army Street) following the most obvious central London Roman road, and now roughly corresponding to the dead-straight Oxford St, Bayswater Rd, Goldhawk Rd, and eventually the Great West Road. As it crossed the Westbourne, near current day Lancaster Gate, horses stopped to drink at 'Bayard's watering', hence Bayswater Rd.

M Cyrringe (Charing Cross), Trafalgar Sq, Admiralty Arch

Charing Cross, its name from Old English for bend, whether in the road or river is unclear, was the ancient mid-point between London and Westminster. Site of a gallows, and market place it is the best place to view the Thames River Terraces and thus understand the repeated glaciation of the Thames valley. The Taplow and Boyn gravel Terraces at 100 and 50 foot respectively are clearly visible here and excavations show that millennia ago, while Hippos wallowed in Trafalgar Square, Elephants strolled along the Strand.

Admiralty Arch, The Mall, Captain Cook

Captain Cook, whose statue stands here, was despatched to further Imperial aims, to make astronomical observations and refine the chronometers that gave the Navy mastery of the seas, and to seed all new lands he found with commercially viable plants, taking no account of local ecologies. One of his missions was to attempt the NW passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic over Arctic Canada. The Admiralty was the home of the navy from 1626 and after 1668 of the Lord High Admiral.

M St Martin-in-the-Fields

In 2008 a grave was found with all the signs of being Roman, but that dated to Saxon times. This adds to evidence that the discontinuity between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon habitation of the area was possibly less complete than most history books would have us believe. The church occupies a truly ancient site, almost certainly with a pre-Christian origin.


M   Ealdwic (Lundenwic), Aldwych, Strand

5thC Anglo-Saxon invaders, with a society based on small hamlets and marine trade, settled here rather than in the 'abandoned' Roman Londinium. The 'Auld Wic' or 'old market' was later home to Vikings, as indicated by St Clement Danes on the Strand, the ancient riverside track.

The Aldwych crescent itself is a 19thC Development referring back to Lundenwic. Nearby are several ancient holy wells, and the post-Imperial trilogy of India, Bush, and Australia Houses. Also here are the ancient churches of St-Mary- Le-Strand and St Clement Danes which stand, Alfred Watkins claimed in the early 20thC, on a leyline.

The Strand

Anglo-Saxon for riverside track this was once the main road through Saxon Lundenwic. Later it was known as 'Densemanstrete', or street of the Danes, indicating that the Vikings were not mere invaders, but also settlers after Danelaw had occupied the entire Essex North Thames bank.

M Denschermen parosch (St Clement Danes Church)

The oldest recorded name for this church is another indication that this area persisted as the 'parish of the Danes', after Alfred had rebuilt his Lundenburgh within the old City Walls to the East. St Clement is the patron saint of sailors.

M Somerset House, York Palace Watergate

This is the only surviving example of the many grand water palaces that developed along the Strand. The current building was introduced to accommodate the 'Navy and Victualling Offices' and was later occupied by parts of the Admiralty, the Audit Offices, the Office of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and marriages, and the Inland Revenue Office. The original river entrance still exists, cut-off from the river by the Victoria Embankment.

The York Watergate still standing in Embankment Gardens was a triumphal gate from the river through the gardens of the Duke of Buckingham's York Palace, and indicates exactly where the shore once was.

M Holburnstreete (High Holborn)

This is the extension of the Roman Great West Road, through St Giles, across the Fleet at Holborn Bridge, past the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and into London through Newgate.

M Ealdestrate (Old St)

Already recognised as an ancient track in the 12thC, Old Street branched-off from Holburnstreete at St Giles, ran along what is now Theobald's Rd, becoming the currently-named Clerkenwell Rd, and then making for the east at Old Ford, where it crossed the River Lea.

M St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street

Dunstan, a scholar, became effective prime minister in the 10thC, Bishop of London, and was the most popular English saint before he was eclipsed by St Thomas Becket. This church, recorded from 1185 as St Dunstan-over-against-the-New-Temple, certainly older, escaped the 1666 fire. Like so many London churches it succumbed to road widening in 1829, and was rebuilt in an adjoining site.

Notably home to statues of Gog and Magog, the sons of King Lud, mythical founder of London, it also contains a statue of Elizabeth I, taken from Lud Gate, which is the first known public statue of an English monarch.


The New Temple, Temple Church of St Mary

The Knights Templar acquired this spot outside the City in 1162 to found their circular church and riverside complex, moving from the Old Temple in Holborn. Having accrued a vast fortune protecting crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land the military order moved into banking and property development. Their wealth and power led to accusations of heresy and sodomy. Excommunicated in the 14thC, their lands were leased to lawyers.

Temple Bar, Silver Griffons

Temple Bar marks the only place where a ruling monarch can enter the City of London. like so many of the approaches to London, from the middle-ages it was topped with heads of criminals, but the gateway so blocked the street that it was later whipped off to a leafy estate. Recently the arch has been reconstructed in Paternoster Sq, St Paul's.

Flanking the Victoria Embankment sit a pair of silver Griffons, which also mark the City's western limits. They were rescued from the demolished Coal Exchange in Lower Thames St in 1963.

M Temple Stairs, Middle Temple La

The lane once ran right down to the river and also marks the limit of the 1666 fire. In the 18thC the area north of here was the social centre of London, and the Temple Stairs allowed a direct route up and down river by waterman's wherry.

M White Fryers Stairs, Alsatia

After Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and the abandonment of Bridewell Palace this area, the Liberty of the Fleet, became a vicious no-go zone in the 16thC. Criminals operated from here with immunity, and those on the run from authority, such as Defoe in 1692, found refuge here. The area developed its own argot, replaced by an equally impenetrable set of hierarchies and titles when the press colonised the area in the 19thC.


M Fleta, Holeburne, River of Wells (The Fleet)

Anglo-Saxon for 'tidal inlet or harbour', and once important for transporting goods, especially coal, into the city, the Fleet is celebrated in accounts as early as the 12thC as a beautiful clean brook.

As London spilled westwards, the waters became polluted, eventually little more than an open sewer. Crime and poverty took up residence on the banks and its environs soon became associated with all that is low in London. Despite numerous attempts to clean up the river and its denizens, including one by Christopher Wren, eventually it was covered in several stages during the late 18thC.


The covered Fleet valley still retains a vestige of its once watery existence in the name Farringdon, Old English for fern covered hill. In the 1860s it was the site of a flourishing watercress market.

M St Bride's Church, Fleet Street

Possibly the second most famous of Wren's rebuilt churches St Bride's it has been argued that the church was originally dedicated to St Bridget a 6thC Irish saint, or even to Brighde, the Celtic god of healing, and it is probably the oldest place of worship in London. It has been rebuilt 7 times on same spot and its octagonal Wren tower was used by Mr Rich, a baker of Ludgate Hill, as the model for his popular wedding cakes. Pepys was a parishioner. Beneath its crypt lie the stones of a Roman Fleet-side villa.

St Bride's Well (Brideswell La)

Beneath St Bride's once gushed a holy well that flowed into the Fleet ravine. Surely ancient travellers would have stopped-off on their journey between settlements along the Thames bank.

M Bridewell Palace, Bridewell, Prison, Alsatia

Bridewell Palace was founded in 1520 by Henry VIII, one of his string of riverside palaces. After his death, granted to the City by his son, the palace became the most notorious prison and workhouse for petty criminals and debtors. It was demolished in 1864 but a plaque still records its presence, now grounded far from the waters of the Thames or vanished Fleet.

Fleet Prison

Once standing on an island in the Fleet this was the first purpose-built prison in London, opened in 1170. Notorious as a debtor's prison, where inmates' families had to work to pay their upkeep and service their debt, it was finally demolished in 1846, soon after the laws changed and bankruptcy was no longer an imprisonable offence.

M Pankeridge (St Pancras-in-the-Fields)

Situated far to the north of the Thames this pre-conquest church stood 'all alone, old and weather beaten' and deserted by the 17thC. Containing Roman bricks it is surely very ancient and shows how strong the Fleet waters once were from the frequent records of local flooding.


EMBANKMENT SOUTH - The South Bank, North Lambeth


M The Bermondsey Lake, Old Kent Road

In 11-8,000 BC after the retreat of the last great glaciers, the river was left a braided mass of streams and eyots generally south of its current course, with no tidal flow, and near a large freshwater lake. Hunter-gatherers stopped seasonally on the lake banks to fish and hunt amongst the reeds and birch woods of the tundra landscape, to feast, and to work skins and flints.

M The North Lambeth Eyot

By 2-1,000 BC, the main stream of the river was now close to its current course and the South Bank had resolved into three significant islands, all showing signs of forest clearing, Iron Age field systems, cultured grains, and the bones of domestic animals.

M Lower Marsh (Old Marsh St or Marsh Lane)

It is believed by some that a now lost Roman road may once have run from Vauxhall Ford to Old London Bridge, possibly along the ridges of eyots that can be seen on the Dark Waters map.

OXO Tower

In the late 19th and early 20thC power stations grew up along the Thames, fuelled by coal 'coasted' from the North East of England. This former station which helped power the local packing and processing industry was closed and bought in the 1920s by the Liebig Extract of Meat Co, the makers of OXO, who famously circumvented the City's strict advertising rules in the decoration of their tower. Derelict by the 1970s it was saved to become one of the icons of the reborn South Bank.

The Doggett's Coat and Badge (Pub)

Dogget was an Irish Actor who in 1715 founded a race still run between The Swan, London Bridge and The Swan, Chelsea. Open only to apprenticed watermen only, and originally rowed against the tide this, the longest continually running sporting event in the world, gains the winner a silver badge and orange coat and trousers of an 18thC waterman's uniform. It still rankles the Watermen that for historical reasons the prizes are lodged at the Fishmongers' Hall, and not their own, at St Mary-at-Hill.

M Kentisshestrete (Old Kent Rd)

Heading south from Old London Bridge, the old Roman road of Watling Street skirted the marshy wastes of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, and then crossed the Ravensbourne at Deptford, before climbing over Blackheath and heading off to Canterbury and the Kentish port towns. The route was followed by thousands of Pilgrims who crossed the bridge and supped on 'Southwark Ale' as described by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.

History of the piers

Download the exclusive Dark Waters history of the piers pdf here (pdf - 2MB).