Whitehall London Travel Guide

Whitehall is an arena for state ceremonial, and a good one in its oddly a formal way. It comes to life well when the state coaches and landaus ride down it towards Parliament Square amidst the clatter and bone shaking jog of the Household Cavalry. But it has also at all times a steady magnetism, not of spectacle, but of the sense of the exercise of power in administration. The Prime Minister and his colleagues come and go in chaufTeurcd limousines; the policeman stands outside No. to; in and out of the doorways of Whitehall go the drab suited anonymous officials. Down miles of corridors behind the august facades, tea trolleys, files and minutes are on the move, discharging at surface levels compact briefs for Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. Here are by no means all the headquarters of all Ministries (which have long been scattered out from Whitehall from pressure of space), but here most certainly is the distributor head of the vital essence that keeps the State movingmoneythe Treasury.

To cast and west of Whitehall, leading to the river and to St James’s Park respectively, flow the minor tributaries. Flow is perhaps the wrong word; they are more like canals, placid beneath the high walls of the Ministries, with cars tethered thick down their sides. Between the back of Whitehall and the river, a garden, of municipal flavour; squads of tulips in May, broad asphalt and close, razored grass with park type benches, some of them rather splendidly Edwardianly monumental to look at though in practice they reject the body; at fairly regular intervals the huge, Trafalgar Square scale bronzes of benefactors in the usual mood of benign severity; it hurts me as much as it hurts you. Farther up river, the completion of the Ministry of Defencc cliff has left a wide stretch of clear grass; at the foot of the cliff, let in even, into the tedious prose of the masonry like a lost quotation from a classical poet, there is a sunken ruin, from which an elegant curve of stairway climbs to expire on the blank new wall. And here you realise that you are standing in what was ooce the river itself.

These are step where the boats landed you from the water, and all the land between here and the pnpw of the Embankment is no more than a hundred years old, the great swag of embankment consolidated by Sir Joseph Baxalgette (subject of a rather agreeable bust let into the Embankment wall opposite the opening of Northumberland Avenue) in the i86o’s.

At the west end of Whitehall, down by the river, where the traffic piles up at the T junction at Westminster Bridge, is West minster Pier for the river boats, and opposite it the baronial keep started by Norman Shaw in 1891 for the Police Headquarters, New Scotland Yard.

It is a strong, self confident building, large but somehow rather crouching amongst its horizontal layers of brick and itone; it is also of course very strategically sited between the Gothic pinnacles and towers of the legislative at Westminster and the more Italian order of the administration in Whitehall. Parliament proposes, Whitehall disposes, and Scotland Yard is there to enforce if necessary and to keep the peace. The building is now very well known, thanks to dctcctive films, which generally show it in action with a police car and motor bicycle roaring out with a continental scream of lyres.

In practice such action is rarely seen, and the spcctadc it presents to the casual passer by is one of a rather lazy seeming businesslazy, owing to the traditional large, slow booted gait of the London policemen. Like big blue bees they emerge from their hive.

But as everyone knows, our policemen (besides getting stupendously younger every day) are wonderful.


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