This is an area of many parts: culturally diverse with a huge mix of lifestyle, wealth and housing. Cremorne gardens sits alongside the river here and reflects this diversity in its different sections. I enter from Lots Road, into a paved courtyard area with pergolas and planted pots and brick walled beds with tall, gently swaying birches. In its centre a splashpad with squirty nozzle, dry at the moment but just waiting for the slap of little feet. I sit in the shade, hot after a long walk, almost wishing I could paddle!
A pair of large, ornamental iron gates dominate this part of the gardens. They seem a bit grandiose for this patch of just under an acre, but they are all that remains of the famous (and infamous) Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. They once stood at the entrance to Viscount Cremorne‘s estate (known as Chelsea farm), which extended from Kings Road in the north, down to the Thames. Originally, from before the Middle Ages, this tract of farming land was divided into individually owned and leased ‘lots’ (the origin of Lots Road) for growing crops and grazing livestock to supply the burgeoning needs of the City. It was pulled together as a single estate in the 18th Century.
The Cremorne family sold the estate in 1831 to Charles Random De Berenger, a colourful character, who set up a sports club for for ‘the cultivation of skilful and manly exercise‘, which included fencing, shooting, archery and sailing but, after running up huge debts, the venture sank. The estate was purchased by coffee house owner, Thomas Bartlett Simpson and the gardens were remodelled. Theatres, halls, restaurants, a hotel, and an illuminated pagoda with a massive dance floor, were built and terraces, fountains, Chinese- lantern walks and flowerbeds were laid. And in 1845 these very gates were opened once more to welcome visitors of all classes.
A century later, the gates were donated to the Borough of Chelsea by the old Watney’s brewery in King’s Road, where they had been used for an entrance. They were painstakingly restored and installed here in 1982 when the present day Cremorne Gardens was created from waste ground, a tiny fraction of the original gardens, but in the exact spot where Victorian pleasure seekers would stroll in the riverside gardens or lose themselves in the maze.
I walk through into a grassed area, like a slightly overgrown back garden with a variety of trees, bushes, large shrubs and wildflower corners with marguerittes and celandine. The benches all have occupants, variously snoozing, reading newspapers, drinking cider. A wonderful growth of many birdboxes in a Tree of Heaven is the ‘spontaneous city‘ installation: a blue- tit version of the tall, red, castle- tower blocks of the World’s End Estate, always visible through the trees.
A weeping willow and flowering shrubs frame a view to the river frontage where steps lead to the embankment wall and pier. Terraces and walls provide river- watching shelter. I make my way towards the pier. I know several paintings of Cremorne made by Whistler (he lived at nearby Cheyne Walk), including one or two ‘nocturnes‘ which he painted from across the river: lights from the gardens reflected down into the silver blue- violet water and firework displays with rocket sparks falling into the luminous Thames. So I’m keen to make a river’s eye drawing back towards the garden. I balance my sketchbook on the wide railing top. The river breeze is cooling and brings with it a sea brine scent. A sudden gust catches at my sketchbook. I grab hold but one of my bulldog clips gets dislodged and plummets to the shingle below.
150 years ago this is where summer evening visitors would disembark from the threepenny steamers from the City. At it’s heyday in the 1850’s and 60’s you could watch ballet, hydrogen balloon flights (including, once, an ascent by French balloonist, Madame Poitevin, dressed as Europa, seated on the back of a heifer disguised as Zeus!), Japanese jugglers and Austrian marionette shows. You could visit the Crystal Grotto, go American bowling, go dancing, eat lobster and drink champagne in the restaurants. But after dark, the gardens increasingly took on a more disreputable element, with pickpockets, drunks, prostitutes and marauding gangs. By the mid 1870’s, local residents had had enough and raised a petition, stating that the gardens were a ‘nursery of every kind of vice’. Its licence was revoked and it closed, debt-ridden. In the subsequent decades, much of the land was built on with much needed housing and riverside warehousing and industry, but the area suffered hugely from WW2 bombing.
A group of high spirited teens are laughing loud and playing music and strutting along the wall tops in the sunshine. It’s very warm and little flies dance up and down in front of my face and I swat at them ineffectively with my paintbrush.
The tide is on the turn and begins to creep slowly in as I draw. There’s a beachcomber down there, slowly picking his way across the shingle and beach debris: squashed dustbins, traffic cones, smashed pallets, rocks, bricks and flowerpots, everything the same warm grey clay hue. A large flat piece could be the side of a boat. There must be precious things buried here: lockets, cigarette cases or pearl topped hairpins dropped by carefree Victorians having too much fun. And champagne!
As he passes near I call to the beachcomber and ask him to pick up the bulldog clip for me. He retrieves it and throws it up and I manage a fumbling left-handed catch! And he shouts “Nice one, mate!”
(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 )
Cremorne Gardens, Lots Road, Chelsea, London. SW10 0NA
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