The York Watergate: The Forgotten Treasure Of Embankment Gardens

By M@ Last edited 22 months ago

Last Updated 20 July 2022

The York Watergate: The Forgotten Treasure Of Embankment Gardens

Ever noticed the "watergate" in Embankment Gardens — a gate for boats that is nowhere near the water?

The elaborately chiselled structure of York Watergate is almost 400 years old, more elderly than almost anything else in this part of town. It was built around 1626 in the grounds of York House, as a kind of posh parking space for the Duke of Buckingham's boat. Yet it's now marooned. The river, more than 100 metres away, can barely be seen over the intervening turf.

The gate's position shows just how broadly the Thames could swell, before construction of the Embankment in the 1860s. Large swathes of the river were reclaimed at that time, using earth from the digging of the District line, with topsoil from Barking Creek. The watergate ended up markedly inland, and much lower than the surrounding park — a "dark portal which now leads from nowhere to nothing," as one Victorian newspaper put it. Shouldn't we be making more of it?

The watergate, in its final aqueous days. c.1850, Henry Pether. Image public domain

Like a shaved poodle

York Watergate, also known as Buckingham Watergate, looks every bit of its 400 years. Centuries of rain and smog have taken their toll. The rusticated stones are so weathered, they might be hewn from porridge.

The sorry structure has come in for derision ever since the Embankment ruined its setting. "Every tasteful visitor must pity on beholding it shrinking away from the broadest and most ornamental part of the garden," opined the Clerkenwell News in 1871. Another writer compared its distinctive columns to "the legs of a half-shaved poodle". He has a point:

Poodle's legs?

We're lucky to have it at all. The watergate was initially set for demolition during construction of the Embankment. Plans were then drawn up to shift the folly to Whitehall Gardens, though these came to naught. In the end, it was simply left in place — far from the water and several metres lower than the reclaimed land.

Who built the York Watergate?

The only water today comes from puddles (but not poodles).

The peculiar structure seems to share inspiration with the Medici fountain in Paris, built in the same decade. But who designed the York Watergate is something of a mystery. For a long time, the Portland stone structure was popularly associated with Inigo Jones, architect of Whitehall's Banqueting House and St Paul's Covent Garden. However, some doubt exists, and other candidates include Sir Balthazar Gerbier and the aptly named master mason Nicholas Stone. The latter gets the credit on a nearby plaque, which also offers a potted history:

As the tablet declares, the gateway bears the arms and motto of the Villiers family. It also supports London's most terrifying baubles on the rear roof.

Giant-pigeon deterrents?

Whoever designed it, the gate must have seen its share of illustrious footsteps over the years. Its original owner, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, is the fellow whose name-parts famously gave rise to many of the surrounding streets — including "Of Alley". Most famous of all, diarist Samuel Pepys lived in a house right next to the watergate in the latter half of the 17th century.

York Watergate Today

Nobody walks through the watergate today, save for keyholders from the City of London, which has protected the gate since the 1890s. This is a pity. For a Grade-I-listed structure, it remains surprisingly uncelebrated and largely forgotten, squatting in its divot like an ennobled gopher.

It's no longer true that the prorogued gateway "leads from nowhere to nothing," for, if reopened, it could serve as a ceremonial route into Gordon's wine bar — surely the finest drinking establishment in the West End.

Forget the rebuilding of the Euston Arch, let's unlock and recall to life the York Watergate.

Explore a 3-D model of the watergate here, courtesy of artfletch: