Urban landscape — 30 September 2011

Henry VIII wine cellar

Whitehall, which incidentally is the widest road in central London, takes its name from the palace which once stood on the site. The main residence of English monarchs from 1530 until it burnt down in 1698, it was at the time the largest palace in Europe with over 2,000 rooms and 23 acres of grounds.

All that survives to this day is Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House with its ceiling pained by Rubens, which is one of the last things Charles I saw before being led out of one of the buildings upper floor windows to a newly erected platform to have his head removed; the gable wall of Henry VIII’s tennis court set now within the Cabinet Office (if you wish to see an intact Tudor tennis court go to Hampton Court); and below ground Henry VIII’s wine room.

Originally built by Cardinal Wolsey when Lord Chancellor, Henry wasted no time when Wolsey fell from the King’s favour by requisitioning his well-stocked wine room. This 70ft by 30ft building once stood above ground, at the point that today’s Emmanuel Vincent Harris designed Ministry of Defence building now stands. All there is left to see above ground is the steps on the green between the MoD building and the Thames. Now called Queen Anne’s steps these might have been used to take the barrels of wine from boats moored nearby to be loaded into the wine room.

When the MoD building was proposed in the early 1950s the news that the cellar was to be destroyed caused a public uproar. Encased in a steel frame designed by ingenious engineers, the room was literally inched (a quarter of an inch at a time) 9ft north-west and 19ft down to create what it should have always have been a wine cellar.

Accessed via drab corridors and downstairs into a murky chamber lined with heating pipes, this gem with its Tudor vaulting, pillars and original brickwork is now only used as a backdrop for Ministry parties. The wine barrels lining the walls are only used for cosmetic purposes. Heavily guarded guided tours are available to groups only

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