Through the Southern Row entrance, a tree- lined path leads you away from the housing- blocked streets of North Kensington. You walk alongside ‘Horniman’s Adventure Playground‘: exciting and colourful rope swings and wooden towers emerge tantalisingly above wall and fence. Ahead, the lawns open out, rising towards the warehouse frontage of Canalot Studios on Kensal Road. On this sunny March morning, the brickwork is a red- orange blaze through the trees that mark the top of the park. Today the park is sparsely populated, there seem to be more gardeners than visitors, but the lawns show signs of being well- used. Tall aluminium lighting posts telescope up, out of the grass and march beside the winding paths.
Emslie Horniman Pleasance was opened in 1914 on land donated to London County Council by Emslie John Horniman in 1911. He was Liberal MP for Chelsea and was committed to improving conditions for the urban poor. His philanthropic spirit was funded by a family fortune from tea importing. He was encouraged to provide this park by Sister Ruth, a nun who worked with the local poor and understood the benefits to people, particularly children and the elderly, of access to nature and space for recreation. Horniman, who had a background in the Arts (he studied at the Slade), wanted it also to be artistically uplifting through the use of progressive design.
Horniman engaged his friend, Charles Voysey, one of the foremost Arts and Crafts architects of the late 19th century, to design these gardens. Voysey believed strongly in the importance of simplicity in design, creative individuality and use of good quality materials. As well as a small children’s playground and sandpit, he designed an enclosed garden with moat, pergola, bridge and planting areas, describing his plan as follows:
“with the idea of securing brightness, the new boundary walls and shelters are built of brick, roughcast in cement and to be kept limewashed in white. They thus form a good background for the flowers, which are arranged on an oak pergola, flanking the oak bridge and all around the waterway, the latter being provided with clay holes for the water plants.”
Voysey did not like the term ‘park’ as he felt it sounded too municipal, and preferred ‘Pleasance’, the older term for a pleasure garden. The planting scheme was designed by the young garden designer, Madeline Agar, to contain 100 types of herbaceous plant.
After the slum clearances of the 1930s, reclaimed land was added to the Pleasance, extending it to its present 3½ acres, with broad lawns, sports facilities and tennis courts, a bigger playground and much tree planting, but the original Voysey Garden remained at the core.
In the 90’s, Voysey’s garden was faithfully restored, after decades of underfunding, lack of maintenance and vandalism had left it in a sad state. The rest of the Pleasance underwent a major redesign. Following Horniman’s tradition, the arts featured highly: a team of contemporary artists, led by Peter Fink were involved in the design of everything from lighting to children’s play equipment. A wavy steel and cable fence, with accompanying gates, gleams playfully through the park like a metallic ribbon.
I walk from the main park into the original Voysey Garden and feel that I’ve walked into the next season. Like a Mediterranean courtyard, the tall, whitewashed wall, pierced with large portholes, traps and reflects the early spring warmth. In the centre, the large oak pergola is the ribcage of a fortress, with its great, thick beams, silver- grey and run through with long splits. An arched bridge climbs through the structure, but sadly with padlocked gates. At its feet, a moat runs the long rectangle, decorated with already flowering water- lily. The moat protects an island planted with ferns, dwarf palm trees, pruned balls of box and hebe. Bricked beds have evergreen shrubs and spring bulbs spiking through. All is well cared- for, but Madeline Agar’s ‘100 types of herbaceous plant’ are long gone. Way too much to maintain!
I take the wide path all round, looking through the pergola as it frames and slices the view beyond. At either end are Gothic pavilions with Tudor arches, giving generous shelter for old wooden settles. I perch at the edge of the moat, on a decked corner, to make my drawing. The sun blazes through the pergola, making stripes across the grass. From here I can peer into the water, the reflections of Voysey’s portholes blink back at me like the great round eyes of an underwater creature.
The tranquility of this place is relaxing and calming. Everything slows. Even the hoots from nearby mainline trains sound long and laid- back. Breeze sisses through the palm leaves. For several minutes, a woman calls “Pixie, Pixie. Pixieeeee!” from the main park. I hear Pixie barking back.
A girl in spangled baseball cap and headphones stops and says “that’s cool” and then goes to sit in the shade at one end of the pavilion under a gothic arch. She sings along to her music unselfconsciously. Another girl in charcoal grey hijab wanders over to the other bench and unpacks her lunch. As I struggle with the colours and contrasts in the water, I’m accompanied by baseball cap girl singing along to the rhythmic rustle and scrunch of hijab girl’s crisp packet.
(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 )
Emslie Horniman Pleasance, Bosworth Road, London W10 5AN
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