(Wednesday 10 February 2016)
To the west of Cannon Street station, on the north side of Upper Thames Street, Whittington Gardens lays where, in Roman times, there would have been the muddy tidal banks of the Thames. Part is on the original site of St Michael Paternoster Royal churchyard. The gardens are named after Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London four times from 1397 – 1419. Immortalised in the nursery rhyme and pantomime as Dick Whittington with accompanying black cat, I think he would have preferred to be remembered for his funding of the rebuilding of this church and the founding of a college and almshouses here. It was recorded that he was buried in the grounds, encased in lead, but digs after the war couldn’t find the Lord Mayor’s grave, but did unearth a mummified cat!
The church has been destroyed and rebuilt twice since Whittington’s days: in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and in the Blitz in 1944. In the 1960s it was restored and the gardens, a little under quarter of an acre, were laid out. The college has moved and its buildings now house the Mission to Seafarers.
I walk up Little College Lane, turning my back on the frenetic Upper Thames Street, past a naked beech hedge which reaches around this end of the garden. Looking up this way I would get the feeling of being in a quiet corner of a university town, if it wasn’t for the noise from traffic and roadworks behind. Across the east end is a patchy swathe of crocused grass with mature trees, including beech, plane and, I think, an old black locust tree. There’s also a twisted magnolia tree in bloom, the flowers bright against the background cliff of green- blue glass.
I draw from the paved and brick- bedded west end, looking past the wide goblet fountain, sploshing and spittering down onto its pebbled base. Sitting on a cold stone wall, my view is across towards the magnolia and redbrick Innholders Hall with its grand west window.
It’s February cold today but an occasional shaft of sunlight tracks across the lawn. Many people take moments in the garden to eat, to rest, to phone, to read. A smoking couple stroll back and forth, chatting and laughing until their cigarettes are finished. A skein of lycraed cyclists stream around the fountain and gather beneath St Michael’s Church tower for a pep talk.
The deafening noise of road drills and grinders starts up again and fill the day, but when it stops for a few moments, I hear the call of gulls and the long honk of a barge, reminding me that the river is very close.
Drawing finished, I walk towards the western corner, running my hands over the tactile shiny black Cambellotti horse and rider bronzes (‘Magister Equitum’), mounted on granite (gifted by the Italian president on his state visit in 2005) and leave past a bed of shrubs, trees and winter flowers. There’s an overpowering sweet perfume from a white- flowered shrub (I looked it up later: Sarcococca), which stays with me as I walk west along Upper Thames Street.
Less than 5 minutes brings me to Cleary Gardens. It’s on three levels, covering about quarter of an acre below the rush of Queen Victoria Street, stepping down the slope of old Huggin Hill (named after the hogs that were kept here in mediaeval times) and overlooked by the Painters Hall at the east side and tall office buildings opposite. Pergolas of dark beams sit on chimneystack- thick brick supports on the upper terrace and lower gardens, with trails of vine and honeysuckle tangling around. Beds are cared- for and weeded, planted with evergreen shrubs: mahonia, laurel and box. Collections of winter- flowering peonies light up the leaf- mulched beds.
I draw from the halfway turn in the steps which carry you to the lower garden, where old walls of decayed and blackened brickwork now have trellis and clematis, but still give a sense of an industrial past: this was the site of a printing works which was bombed and destroyed in the Blitz.
The garden is named after Fred Cleary, who was chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in the ’60s and ’70s. A commemorative blue plaque states he was ‘TIRELESS IN HIS WISH TO INCREASE OPEN SPACE IN THE CITY’. However, it was Joe Brandis, a leather worker, who first cleared this space, spending all his spare time in the years after the war, labouring, digging and planting the original beds. A little plaque sunk in a bed on the middle level reads: ‘JOSEPH BRANDIS CORDWAINER created the original garden here on a Bomb Site after the 1940 Blitz assisted by his son Jack’.
My view is divided horizontally by the pergola beams which sit at my eye level. I look down and through the garden towards a beech hedge, which sections off the foundations of a Roman bath house, discovered in the 1960s. It would have been built in terraces overlooking the Thames and fed by spring water. The site is now mostly covered with a lawn as protection. I also look up and over the hoarding of a demolition site, across to the Palladium portico of The Vintners Hall and on, beyond to the gleaming Shard. The garden is lit- up now and then by the glare of sunlight reflected from an office block behind.
This is a tranquil space, being sunk below, many city noises are dulled. One or two people pass by to sit down there and read. A pair of hi- vis jacketed gardeners sweep the steps and stop to chat about my drawing. I forget to ask them the name of this flake- barked woody climber in the foreground with its fiery red brown twisted stems and buds like bright- green flames. A magpie hoarsely caws from the plane tree above.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )
Whittington Gardens, College St, Upper Thames Sreet, London EC4R 2RL
Cleary Gardens, Huggin Hill, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4HQ
Google earth view here