I think it’s true to say that Victoria is probably not my favourite area of London. It’s one that seems ill at ease sitting next to the very grand Belgravia and the less grand Pimlico estates. If I go there at all it’s usually to Victoria Railway Station, never a pleasure, always a chore! However, with time to spare I found a small part of Victoria with a very Gallic flavour to it.
I’ve just finished putting a guided walking tour together for neighbouring Pimlico and so Victoria Station and myself have crossed paths once more. Not wishing to spend more time than necessary in the station concourse, I took myself outside for a little wander.
Quickly passing the parody known as “Little Ben”, a terrible piece of late Victorian pomposity suppose to be an echo of the larger clock tower in neighbouring Westminster. The clock had been taken down in 1964 and lain in storage until 1981 when the cost of restoring and re-erecting it was footed by the French petroleum company Elf Aquitaine, offered as a gesture of “Franco-British friendship“. For myself I think it’s one of the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, even the name is wrong. As everybody knows “Big Ben” is the name of the bell that sits inside the clock tower, not the tower itself. It sits forlornly on a traffic island and cuts a rather ludicrous figure.
Passing quickly by I traversed Victoria Street, a very uninspiring mix of modern style buildings and second rate Victorian facades. I started to think that possibly I’d be better off sitting in the station concourse, but pressed on as I’d remembered that at the end of Victoria Street there were a couple of small public gardens.
At the junction of Victoria Street and Buckingham Palace Road is a small triangular public space. It is known as Lower Grosvenor Gardens and at it most acute angle it meets with its counterpart, Upper Grosvenor Gardens. I have to admit that I resorted to Google Maps to find out what they were called as I’d never heard or read about them.
To call them gardens is a bit of an overstatement. There’s a few flowers and Box hedging, but the remainder is tarmac and scrubby grass and the obligatory Plane trees. It’s quite an austere place, not helped by the towering statue to the French Field Marshal, Ferdinand Foch the Supreme Commander of Allied forces during the First World War.
The statue was destined to be placed in the “Upper” garden in 1930, but French sculptor Georges Malissard insisted that it be placed further south, so that French people alighting the continental boat train at Victoria would see it.
The gardens were laid out around the 1860s during the construction of the impressive Grosvenor Gardens House which runs adjacent to it. The mansion block is built in Châteauesque (French renaissance) style and is reportedly the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1900. Apparently her birthplace is a little uncertain, but it was certainly the birthplace of the actor David Niven ten years later.
As described earlier the gardens are very functional, and during the Second World War the entire area house a large public air raid shelter, which came in handy as the road next to the park took two direct hits from high explosive bombs. The area of the garden pre war seems to have been the tradition grassed design with two paths intersecting at right angles and several large trees giving access to shady areas.
Following the war the shelters were removed and the park was destined for a makeover. It would appear that someone in some department somewhere decided that they should go the extra mile and commissioned the then architect-in-chief of the National Monuments and Palaces of France Jean-Charles Moreux, to re-design the gardens and two small buildings to sit on each side. The gardens were to be unofficially known as “London’s French Gardens” and opened in 1952. As part of the new French look, a number of the existing large trees were removed, a large arabesque pathway formed with gravel, and a fleur-de-lis centerpiece composed with flowering plants. This design did not sit well with many of the gardens more traditional visitors and there were numerous letters to the papers from people who preferred the “British Style” against the more ostentatious “Foreign” design. “Like wallpaper patterns turned into paths” harrumphed one upset Londoner, while others found the design “inexplicable’”, and “completely useless“.
The two buildings take the form of of French 18th century pavilions that were known as ‘fabriques’ or Follies. The pavilions, which are now used to store gardening equipment are decorated with sea shells collected from the coastlines of both Britain and France to signify a cross cultural connection.
I’m not sure when the park reverted back to what you can see today, but I couldn’t help but think that Victoria would be a slightly nicer place if the gardens still had wallpaper patterns turned into paths.