Villiers Street, WC2N
For many of us Villiers Street is the road you shuttle up and down to go from Embankment tube station to the Charing Cross termini or vice versa. Shortly after you leave Embankment station, on the right-hand side, is the oasis of calm that is Embankment Gardens. If you explore the gardens you will see a rather forlorn Italianate arch, somewhat out of odds with its surroundings. It is the last vestige of York House and is a poignant testament to the changing topography of the metropolis.
What became known as York House, when it was granted to the Archbishop of York in 1556, was built around 1237 and was the London home of the Bishop of Norwich. In the 1620s it was acquired by the first Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers. In 1626 Villiers’ appropriately named master mason, Nicholas Stone, built the arch to serve as a magnificent entrance for those visitors to the house who arrived by river. To impress the visitor, the river front of the arch bears the coat of arms and the motto (Fidei cotucula crux) of the Villiers family.
The modern visitor will be surprised to note that the arch is now some 150 yards away from the river bank. The arch did not move, rather the river did when the Victoria Embankment with its enhanced sewerage system, under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, and the District Line was constructed in the mid 1860s. As a consequence, the river was considerably narrowed and York Watergate marks the edge of the original northern river bank.
John Tallis, writing in his Illustrated London, the first volume of which was published in 1851/2, described the water gate enthusiastically; “the last relic of the gorgeous pile of York House, will furnish some conception of the beauty of the whole fabric. It is considered one of the most perfect and elaborate relics of Inigo Jones.” Despite Tallis’ enthusiasm, the gate fell into some decay and it was only after the London County Council petitioned Parliament that they were able to acquire it in 1893 and restore to something of its former glory.
And what of York House? Well, it was sold by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, also called George, to developers in 1672 for the princely sum of £30,000. They then flattened the house and built a series of houses and thoroughfares which, in accordance with Villiers’ sale conditions, they named George Street (now York Buildings), Villiers Street, Duke Street (now John Adams Street), Of Alley (which is now York Place) and Buckingham Street. Quite a clever way of ensuring his name and title was preserved.
The current street boasts a collection of eateries and drinking establishments. Perhaps the building most redolent with historical associations is Kipling House at no 43 in which Rudyard Kipling lived in the 1890s as a tenant and where he wrote The Light That Failed – perhaps he hadn’t put enough money in the meter. Other famous residents of the street include John Evelyn and the founder of the Spectator and Tatler magazines, the Irish writer Richard Steele. In 1834 the Charing Cross Medical School was founded on the street.
At no 47 is to be found Gordon’s Wine Bar which boasts a candlelit, vaulted cellar and, founded in the 1890s, is said to be the oldest in London. From the 1820s the building was occupied by seed merchants, Minier & Fair, who used it as a riverside warehouse. The change in the river’s direction in 1864 meant that it was now landlocked and useless for their purposes and so they sold up and the building was converted into accommodation and commercial premises – another victim of the riparian revolution but not as forlorn as the York Watergate is now.