Westminster Cathedral – a trapped treasure

I work in a tower block at one end of Victoria Street, London SW1, the station end.  It’s fine- in fact it’s good.  The surrounding shops are excellent, there are plenty of restaurants and bars, and the transport links are as good as you can get. Victoria station is hateful in the rush hour, but that’s part of London life.

But something that bugs me just about every day as I walk out to get a sandwich, or a bit of Japanese nosh, is WHY did THEY, whoever THEY were, consent to build office blocks so close to Westminster Cathedral that they have largely destroyed the view of that magnificent building, the home of the English Catholic church?

This is what I mean.

Actually, simply by asking the question you answer it. The English establishment, back in the late 50s and the 60s, probably didn’t give a damn. Booming London – private and public – needed office space. Victoria Street was ripe for redevelopment.  It happened.  Obviously didn’t extend quite extend to the other end of the street, home of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster. Understandable. The true heart of the British, not just English establishment. Don’t worry about the Catholics though.

I’ll declare an interest.  I am not a Catholic, but I am married into a Catholic family.  But this piece is not about religion: it’s about the assault on the beauty and dignity of a special building. But it is also about how it survives and prospers, and how some of the new architecture in the area brings new perspectives.  So an optimistic story in the end.

A tiny bit of history. The Cathedral opened in 1903, construction having started in 1895. The Archbishop at the time was Cardinal Vaughan, the architect John Francis Bentley.  The design was “Neo-Byzantine”.  (I’m nicking all of this off Wikipedia, of course). The site, centuries before, was part of the Westminster marshes. The Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey had reclaimed the area, and it was used as a market and a fairground.  Later it was  a space for a maze and a pleasure garden (whatever that is) and a ring for bull-baiting (that doesn’t sound good).  Between the 17th and 19th centuries it seems to have been the site of various prisons, before the Catholic church acquired the site in 1884.  So not the holiest of backgrounds. But ready for redemption.

Anyway, back to the present and some photos to illustrate my theme.

The earlier photos showed how hemmed in the Cathedral is. This one shows how hidden.

(You can enlarge any of the photos by clicking on them)

The sixties blocks are rather ugly, but the juxtaposition with the Cathedral can be interesting.

And once you get beyond the office frontage of Victoria Street, things relax, and there is some beauty. Or maybe grandeur rather than beauty. Here’s some detail:

And there is also harmony with the surroundings when you get away from the hideousness of Victoria Street itself.  The buildings nearby are constructed in a similar style, in red brick. And, as ever, the presence of trees adds to the spectacle.

It’s very stripey. Must be those neo-byzantines!

What I do like is the view from the other side of Victoria Street once you step back a bit. The whole area was redeveloped a few years ago, creating what is now known as Cardinal Place – respect for the Cathedral in that name.  It was clearly designed so that there is a vista of sorts. The old and the new, jarring, but also complementing.

And glimpses through the architecture.

Just for context, here is Victoria Street, shot from the same area as the Cathedral lurks. Nondescript is the best description.  Ugly, maybe.  But not to forget that it does the job.



About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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4 Responses to Westminster Cathedral – a trapped treasure

  1. Drew Dadds says:

    Great photo’s especially the last one framed by the glass fronted offices of Cardinal Walk. Just from a photographers point of view the building is a real pain in the arse to capture beautifully. Apart from all the other buildings in Victoria getting in the way the steeple is way too big. It reminds me of a minaret you’d find on a mosque. Taking a full length photo means you lose some of the close up beauty. I decided to do a multiple exposure when I photographed it see here http://www.lomography.com/homes/discodrew/albums/1720012-mega-sprocket-rocket-mx-mashup/photos/13541069 Thanks John enjoying the blog.

    • John S says:

      I think I recognise some of those mash ups! Byzantine = Istanbul/ Constantinople, so big minarets not so surprising. Though I think they like to call it the “campanile”.

  2. Osama Rahman says:

    Ugh. Southside. Remember when we had people in Southside when we were in Selborne?

  3. John S says:

    Remember Southside very well. Sprawling all all over the Army and Navy. Worked there. Name always made me think of Johnny and the Asbury Jukes of course! I got the fever…

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