Strandlines

Childhood days in Embankment Gardens

This is my sister, Kate, eating ice cream (or is it yoghurt?) on a September day in 1982. This was a few years before I was born, but it’s evocative of my own childhood memories of the Strand.

We grew up in Kent, but our parents’ roots are further North, so we would often pass through London on the train on the way to visit family. In those days, there were no Javelin trains so heading North meant a long haul – into Charing Cross, across London, then onwards. We got to know the streets around the Strand when we walked up to Euston, and on the return leg, we would often stop in Embankment Gardens before getting the train home.

Our stops in Embankment Gardens were the last precious minutes of being on holiday. For Mum, this was when she could breathe a sign of relief that Dad hadn’t got us completely lost, despite winding her up by taking a slightly different combination of back streets each time.

I remember a great sausage shop in Villiers Street, selling all sorts of interesting sausages – I remember being particularly taken with the ones in the shape of a swirl (or Catherine Wheel or snail).

Many years later, I ended up taking an MA at King’s, walking through Embankment Gardens on my way into the College, and wrote my dissertation on one of the Strand’s former residents – the poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827 – he lived at Fountain Court, roughly where the Cole Hole Tavern is today). When Kate came to visit, she introduced me to another Villiers Street gem – Gordon’s Wine Bar!

My first memory of Embankment Gardens? A little further back than the photograph of my daughter -eating yoghurt. That day itself was memorable: she is sitting on the bench above the ornamental goldfish – a spot all our children have enjoyed.
I guess I was about 5, for I could read a bit, when my father took my brother Richard and me to London for the day from Birmingham. Perhaps he had an appointment there and took two little boys for a day out of my mother’s hair? This would have been around 1955.
Western Region Castle class locomotive ‘Wellington’ took us to Paddington aboard a chocolate and cream carriage. We saw the sights around Westminster, rode the red buses, and the red underground trains, visited a Lyon’s corner house … ending up at Charing Cross and the River. Did we catch a boat there? I doubt it. In any case we did visit the gardens and I was thrilled to see a black electric engine on Hungerford Bridge and to visit Joe’s Cafe underneath the station. I was disappointed to see that it was bulldozed away some years ago. Dad helped me to spell out the word ‘Yoghurt’ on the menu, but he didn’t buy one for us.
The journey home was eventful. A wheeltapper at Leamington Spa discovered a broken axle on the train. With the passengers in the damaged carriage evacuated to other seats in the train, there followed a series of shunts to remove it, join the good ones together again, and proceed on to Birmingham. We arrived home after midnight – what a story to tell, and with no phone in the house, let alone mobiles, no way to tell my mother about it before we got in. Tea and cakes in the cafe on the embankment seemed a very long time ago by then!

Naomi Bilingsley

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