Sitting a decent walk from the edge of the Thames is a grand stone gateway, the York Watergate that was once right next to the river. It’s not the gate that moved though, but the river.
The York Watergate has stood on this location ever since it was built in 1626 as a grand entrance linking the river to York House, one of the many grand manor houses that fronted the Thames at the time.
York House had a long history, having been first built for the Bishops of Norwich by at least 1237. When King Henry VIII evicted the bishop, he gave the house to Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk in 1536, but it became known as York House in 1556 when it was granted to the Archbishop of York, in his role as the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England.
The house was passed to subsequent Lord Keepers until, in 1622, it was acquired by King James I’s favourite and suspected boyfriend, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. It was George who decided to spend some of his considerable fortune on constructing a grand entrance on the riverside in about 1626.
He didn’t get to enjoy it for long though, as George was assassinated just two years later, although he was so unpopular that his assassin was hailed as a hero.
With the Banqueting House, the gatehouse is one of the few surviving reminders in London of the Italianate court style of King Charles I. The architect is not known, but its rusticated design in a Serlian manner has been attributed to Sir Balthazar Gerbier, to Inigo Jones, and to the sculptor and master-mason Nicholas Stone. The design is modelled closely on that of the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.
York House was demolished in 1675, with the estate chopped up into streets and houses, but the water gate was retained as a decorative feature next to the Thames with a promenade walkway along the Thames behind it.
It remained next to the Thames until the 1860s, which is when Joseph Bazalgette built his famous sewer network with sewer drains running along the edges of the Thames, creating the modern Embankment and gardens.
The watergate was now marooned in Embankment Gardens.
When the Embankment was built though, it seems no one took legal responsibility for the water gate, and it wasn’t until 1892 that the London County Council took legal charge of the gatehouse, which was by then in a decaying state and in need of repairs. It was restored in 1893, 1898, 1912 and 1962, and is now looked after by Westminster Council. There’s a stone plaque inside the gate, which can be seen from the back commemorating the restorations by the London County Council.
Another slight change took place when the terrace path behind the water gate, which was originally called York Terrace was renamed Watergate Walk.
The gate has been generally locked since the river departed, but in 1908 the gates were unlocked so that it could become a grand entrance for King Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark when they attended the formal opening of the Royal National Pension Fund for Nurses, which had moved into a building next to the gardens.
At the moment, the water gate looks rather forlorn, for while it’s clearly looked after, the lack of context around it, and the sunken location in the park gives a sense of abandonment. A random decorative pile of stones that should be more visible and maybe even a highlight of how people visit the park.
In 2026, the water gate will mark its 400th anniversary. There’s just enough time to do something to improve its setting before its birthday.