(Thursday 3 March 2016)
Turn from Kensington High Street into Kensington Church Walk and immediately the rush and heave dies and is left behind. The damp flagstones lead past the Old Vestry Hall into the leafy hush of what was, for 700 years, part of the churchyard of St Mary Abbots. This ‘L’ shaped third of an acre was grassed and planted in 1953. Brick pergolas support climbing rose and clematis. They frame the view across to the gleaming west front of the church, with its tall triple window and rose window above. Today it’s adorned with shadows cast by the rank of gangling pollarded limes. This exquisite spire, at 85 metres was built to be the tallest in London. It defines a lofty air, suggestive of a cathedral close with its contemplative serenity.
St Mary Abbots was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and completed in 1872, replacing at least 4 previous churches on this site, dating back to 1262. It was founded by the Abbots of the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary in Abingdon, who were given the land as a gift by Sir Aubrey de Vere Cole, a Norman Knight who was awarded the manor of Kensington after his participation in the Norman conquest.
The path doglegs between the two gardens, bounded by strong railings with curlicued ironwork and pointy tops. Daffodils burst through a wide circular bed and wave in the chill, early spring breeze. A couple of ancient stone box tombs stand as clues to this garden’s former life.
I walk under the arched gateway into the Alec Clifton- Taylor Memorial Garden. This small space was created from wasteland and opened in 1991 to commemorate the life of Alec Clifton- Taylor OBE, the architectural historian and broadcaster, who lived in Kensington. A stone plaque is inscribed: “He opened mens eyes to the delights of English Architecture”. Box and euonymus beds, curving metal benches, brick- edged paths form arcs around a stone foliate sundial (sadly fin-less). A mountain ash reaches over, already in yellow- bright foliage.
I rest my sketchbook on the rounded top of a bench back. On the wall behind me, an old worn pair of boots have been incongruously placed. A vigorous Fatsia fills the bed to my right with its leaves like wavy green hands stretching up. My view is across the garden, over the path and towards the gables of the old Victorian redbrick primary school buildings (now Bluebell Cottage Nursery). All is verticals and uprights: railings, tree trunks, the tall school windows, drainpipes, scaffolding and chimney stacks silhouetted against bright sky. The lamppost glass captures the sunlight and glows.
This is a haven: pigeons cooing, high birdsong, broken only by the clack and shuffle of footsteps on stone and the occasional squeal of bus brakes echoing from the High Street. There’s muted drilling from an upstairs flat. But suddenly- an explosion, an outburst! Pigeons fly! Playtime has started at St Mary Abbot’s primary school next door: excited hooting and roaring. The playgrounds are fenced around these gardens: a zoo of schoolchildren. After half an hour, the clang of a bell, a chorus of “Happy Birthday to Beth”, the scrape and clatter of play equipment being stowed away. The haven returns.
Workers from nearby offices and shops have timed their lunch breaks for the end of playtime. They begin to filter into the gardens. Cigarette smoke wafts and scents the air. A couple sit on the sunny bench opposite and share their lunch. They take pop shots into the waste bin with scrumpled rubbish. She scores. He misses. They get up and kiss and leave through a sunlit tobacco cloud.
(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 )
St Mary Abbots and Alec Clifton- Taylor Gardens,
off Kensington High St, London W8 4LA
Google earth view here