I’ve been slow with this post as I’ve been in panic mode, getting ready for my ‘stourhead / fifty- two / twelve / four’ exhibition, which is now up and running until 6 May. I’m hoping to be back up to London some time this coming week.
The larger part of the narrow western lane leading from Moorgate to Finsbury Circus has been hoarded off for Crossrail works. I’m funnelled through, along with others, coats and jackets flapping, hunched against the raw breeze.
This soaring oval of tall stately buildings draws the eye up and looms across the sky. Today the clouds are slaty and threatening. I walk the 340 metre perimeter of the Circus, looking in at the clattering and crashing Crossrail construction site that has taken over two- thirds of these gardens, leaving only the outer ring of long- established plane trees (much older than many of the buildings here) and evergreen bushes and shrubs.
A shaft has been excavated to provide access to the building of the new Elizabeth Line platforms at Liverpool Street Station. Machinery, cranes, temporary offices, stacks of building materials and miscellaneous equipment now stand where there were lawns and shrubberies, pavilion and the gentle clack of bowling green. Hard- hatted figures in orange hi- vis stand in groups or stride purposefully. All is shielded with ivy- clad ‘living hoardings’. At 5½ acres, this is the largest public green space in the City and is much used by city workers for relief from office confines. They’ll have to wait about another 2 years for the gardens to be made whole again, when the new line is opened and the hole filled in.
This isn’t the first time that Finsbury Circus has been disrupted for tube expansion. In 1864 the gardens were excavated to construct an extension to the Metropolitan, the world’s first underground railway. As recompense, the Metropolitan Railway Company pledged an annual £100 to the upkeep of the gardens. This continued until 1900, when the management was taken over by the City of London Corporation.
I walk back round to the western end of the Circus, to the remaining pocket of garden, where generous and abundant beds curve around a paved plaza. A tall, mature hardy palm stretches out its spiky fronds. Set against the golden stone background of the grand Salisbury House, you could almost believe you were in a Riviera garden if it wasn’t for this dreary day! And there, leaning a welcome, above the steps, a tall and spreading camellia, its red flowers blazing through the damp air, improbably bright. There is incessant noise: stone grinders, heavy machinery rumbling, drilling, the sirens of reversing lorries. Pigeons flap and squabble under a laurel. A few people sit on benches, lunching or smoking: one or two Crossrail construction workers and suited office staff.
Human activity here dates back to pre- Roman times; evidence was unearthed a few years ago of an Iron Age settlement on the banks of the Walbrook River (now sadly part of the London sewerage system), which flowed where the gardens are now.
The line of London Wall is less than 50 metres to the south of Finsbury Circus. When originally constructed in Roman times, this massive structure impeded the flow of the Walbrook enough to cause flooding and, over the centuries, this became a lost area of marsh and moor, used for dumping the city’s rubbish. But after the construction of an opening in the wall: the Moor Gate, in the 15th Century, and various drainage schemes, ‘Moorfields’ started to be used for recreation, such as hunting, archery and ice skating. Not to mention other nefarious activities which were best carried out beyond the city walls!
The area where Finsbury Circus Gardens now stands was formally declared as London’s first public park in 1606. Gravel paths were laid and trees planted. It became a popular escape from the squalid and claustrophobic streets of the city. An orchard of mulberry trees were planted here, their fruit harvested and supplied to the city until the 1920s.
Bethlehem Hospital (known as ‘Bedlam’) was built just south of this park, treating the mentally ill for two centuries until it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1814 (patients were moved to a new hospital over the river, in Lambeth). With Bedlam out of the way, affluence crept in. The area was remodelled and the current oval of Finsbury Circus was created, but to domestic proportions. Doctors and surgeons set up practices (this is where Moorfields Eye Hospital started life). However, by the end of the 19th Century, medical institutions were, in turn, being driven out by financial institutions. The requirement was for grander and taller, so consequently, by the 1930s, none of the original Georgian buildings remained and the gardens were overshadowed by six and seven storeys of pilasters and pediments.
A few spots and then the threatened rain starts. I give thanks for the bandstand and dash under its cover. I clear away crumpled newspapers and discarded remains of a takeaway and unpack my drawing things on a bench. My drawing view is towards Salisbury House and the crane angling over the construction site, while umbrellas weave like fish through the downpour. Blurred reflections seep down into the paving. Rain rattles on the bandstand roof and I’m joined by all the smokers from Finsbury Circus Offices and their orchestra of conversation, but no-one talking to each other. Once they’ve left, I’m joined by the pigeon gang, pecking at lunch leftovers.
(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 )
Finsbury Circus, London EC2M 7EA
Google earth view here
Crossrail photo from calmeilles photostream