Sunken below the stucco white elegance of Warwick Avenue, this 1½ acre rectangle of lawn and ornamental beds lies alongside the north east bank of Browning’s Pool: a broad triangle at the junction of two branches of the Grand Union canal with the Regent’s Canal.
This is the core of ‘Little Venice‘. The name is said to have originated from a comment by Lord Byron who sneeringly called it ‘Venice’, on observing its contaminated and debris- filled water and squalid surroundings. The name stuck like mud, becoming the affectionate byname for this area ( the ‘Little’ being added early last century), but was only officially recognised in the 1950s. The pool and little island were named after Robert Browning, whose home was close by and is said to have planted trees on the islet.
These gardens were created in 1952, after derelict buildings and artists’ studios had been demolished and cleared. A scheme to replace them with luxury flats was opposed by a campaign supported by some of the evicted artists, including Feliks Topolski, whose first London studio was on this site. They succeeded in having these gardens laid out instead (originally named Warwick Avenue Gardens).
I take the steps down into this haven and the traffic noise dwindles. I’m lured on by the lap and shimmer of sunlit water, and walk through to the tow path. Tree roots corrugate the ground and rusty mooring rings wait for a clumsy step. The aroma of fresh coffee wafts from the narrowboat: ‘Essence‘, tied up here. An idyllic view across to the willows on Browning’s Island, new spring foliage drapes down towards squiggly bright yellow reflections. Excited children’s voices skip across the catkin speckled water from the Puppet Theatre barge, eye catching in red and yellow banded tarpaulin. It has been here, moored just below the ornate Warwick road bridge, producing marionette performances for over 30 years.
I walk back through the northern gate and across the damp lawn, between ornamental low- hedged rose beds. I dodge the path of a flying football kicked by a boy towards his disinterested sister. The ball bounces across and comes to earth in a bed of yellow and red tulips, just blooming.
Back in 1975, to celebrate the twinning of the City of Westminster with Amsterdam, a bargeload of 5000 tulip bulbs and hyacinths were donated to these gardens in a ceremony which also marked the 700th anniversary of the founding of Amsterdam. And to commemorate the occasion, the name was changed to Rembrandt Gardens.
I retread the steps back up to the railed, WC- roof terrace, palm- potted and fringed with evergreen shrubs, for a higher, balcony view for my drawing. I look down across the park and Little Venice, boat- busy beyond, with Easter holiday sightseers promenading the southern tow path, or queueing for canal cruises, while swans stretch their necks on the island. I really think, with the tree- lined streets and iron railings reflected in the canal below, ‘Little Amsterdam‘ would be a more appropriate name.
Only a little way to the south is the swoop of the Westway flyover, emerging between tower blocks, carrying the relentless A40 into Marylebone. How many times I’ve hammered over there, totally oblivious of down here! Just beyond is the rattle and rush of trains into and from Paddington Station. And running at about 15 metres or so under the bed of Brownings’s Pool is the clattering Bakerloo line which brought me here earlier. Sandwiched between all that haste is the easy and leisurely waterway pace, which percolates through these gardens and soothes the spirit.
A woolly- hatted, dark- coated man paces the path below, back and forth for an hour, muttering and beating a fist rhythmically on his thigh. I like to think he’s a poet, wrestling with his latest piece. The sun is warm and plane tree shadows spread wide across the lawn, but when the fast clouds scoot over, I reach for my coat.
An old man with silvery pony tail sits on the bench to catch his breath and rests his heavy shopping bags. He looks across and asks about my drawing. We chat as I work. He tells me about how shabby this area was in the sixties, with run down properties and rats and rubbish in the streets. The island over there was locally known as Rat’s island. “But my mate Charles, the park keeper, he kept these gardens immaculate”. It was a bohemian enclave before the property boom, he says, with artists and music and parties. You could get a place for next to nothing. “But now..” he jabs his thumb at the row of perfect, gleaming Georgian villas behind us, “millions… Millions!”
(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 )
Warwick Avenue, London W2 1XB
Google earth view here