(Wednesday 8 June 2016)
A 4- acre green oasis that hugs a gentle bend in the Grand Union Canal, a little under a mile west of Little Venice and Rembrandt Gardens ( see Sticks in the Smoke 11). It’s also only a very short walk along Kensal Road back to Emslie Horniman Pleasance (see Sticks in the Smoke 9). Before getting here today, I had to drive across London and back through painfully slow traffic on a very warm and humid day, to deliver some work to a company in the City for a possible commission. Now, hot and sticky and irritable, I walk in through the gate at the east end of the gardens and dive into a cool patch of tree shade, and follow the shade patches like stepping- stones over to the blue Carlton Bridge, which carries the Great Western Road over the canal.
It was while crossing this bridge, back in 1974, that young sculptor, Jamie McCullough spotted a stretch of derelict waste ground which was being cleared of demolished Victorian terraces. In a desire to move away from the conventions of the 70’s art world, he was inspired to direct his creativity towards the founding of a community space which would bring a haven and a place of joy and nature to the people of, what was then, a run- down and deprived area. He spent the following 2 years working with schools, community groups and Westminster City Council to progress his vision. The council had no immediate plans for the land, so eventually granted temporary permission in 1976, but only until a permanent use could be found, hence the name. The Meanwhile Gardens Community Association was set up as a charity to oversee the project with the help of volunteers. The gardens have continued to rely on the input of volunteers and dedicated staff. In recent years it has received awards and grants from the national lottery and the British Waterways Board.
This was the first of many of Jamie McCullough’s landscape projects which include the ‘Beginner’s Way‘ in Haldon Forest, Devon, and inspired a generation of community artists. He wrote a book about his Meanwhile Gardens project, published by the Gulbenkian Association. Jamie died in 1998 at the age of 53
Lawns undulate and rise to the tow path. A string of colourful narrowboats are moored. As the water claps at the canal wall a group of boaters are chatting and one stands astride the gap between boat and edge. He points across to the other side where a pair of swans are puffed up and fiercely guarding their clutch of fluffy hatchlings on a ledge at the foot of the sunlit canalside apartment blocks. My mood softens.
This is a practical, lived- in park. Not manicured, over- pruned or weeded (a bit like my back garden!). The path sweeps down and past the swooping and rattling and (very) graffitied skatepark bowl, the first in London and still very popular. A colourful sculptural drinking fountain designed by Steve Bunn is called ‘Soft Landing 2007’ and is an abstract response to the twists and turns of the skaters. Graffiti spills onto the railway sleepered sides of the curving path which leads past a playground with paddling pool and life-size (friendly) croccodile. And there’s the Playhut (closed on Wednesdays), which provides stimulating creative play and nature learning for the youngsters of the many families living in the drab blocks of Elkstone road or the brutalist Trellick Tower, looming there behind the trees on the left.
I follow the snaking path through narrow woodland of birches and beech. The air is cool. A boardwalk leads down to a platform overlooking the duckweed covered pond, with flag irises and waterside plants. A perfect spot for local school groups to come and study tadpoles and water boatmen and dip dripping nets. A wagtail hops and jerks around the edge, chirruping noisily.
Rustic, rough- hewn fences and gates draw you into the depths of the Meanwhile Wildlife Garden. This is run by Kensington and Chelsea Mind, to provide support and training for people suffering mental distress, to achieve better lives, through developing, nurturing and maintaining a natural wildlife habitat. The ethos is to use only British native plants and trees and encourage wildlife. There’s even a multi- storey insect hotel, made out of piled palettes and stuffed with sticks and organic matter: ‘Open to all beneficial insects’. This feels like a fragment of our local woods, with hazel, birch and damson trees. My hand brushes bark and I feel absorbed, relaxed and at home here. Only the red flashes of buses passing along Kensal Road remind me where I am. I push through luxuriant growth of elder, bracken and forget- me- not, down a sun- dappled earthy path and find a little clearing, with a foliage- framed ‘window’ out towards the sunny brightness of canal and towpath. I stand and draw here, from my shaded haven: an unobserved observer as towpath strollers and runners pass. The melody of birdsong and background traffic hum are interrupted by bursts of drilling from the nearby housing block.
Later, I cross the twisty- sided bridge to the garden hub, where compost heaps, planted containers, wooden benches, logpiles, boulders, piles of earth and old wooden barrow verify a working space. The wooden garden office / shed is welcoming and calming blue and green. A polytunnel runs behind, the sound of trowel chinking on flowerpot.
As I leave, my eye catches a notice pinned to the board: a quotation from gardening writer, David Hobson: “Yup, gardening and laughing are two of the best things in life you can do to promote good health and a sense of well being.”
(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 )
Meanwhile Gardens, 156 – 158 Kensal Road, London. W10 5BN
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