Month: July 2016

Sticks in the Smoke 24: The Green Park, Piccadilly

024a-Green-Park(Thursday 21 July 2016)

From the hot and busy east end of the The Green Park, close to the station entrance, I quickly escape the crowds and walk in shade, parallel with Piccadilly, towards the west corner of this 47 acre triangle of (mostly) trees and grass, where stands the impressive RAF Bomber Command Memorial. The lawns become more like grassy meadows, natural and unkempt and overgrown and I’m distracted by the Watering Holes drinking fountain, a slab of blue grey granite, pierced with three large holes, looking something between a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and a slice of Emmental cheese (this was funded by the  Tiffany and Co Foundation, who also sponsored the restoration of the fountains in the Italian Gardens see Sticks In The Smoke 20). And then, beyond, there’s a trio of ancient hawthorn trees, dried and bent and brittle as witches, with purple grey bark, almost dead like firewood, but still a few topmost sprigs of foliage show life’s still clinging on. Beneath is a swathe of downy thistles. I unpack my drawing things in the shade of a spreading plane tree. Here it’s a perfect temperature (after the swelter of the past few days). And there’s a mild breeze which rustles the thistles.

024cThis piece of ground was originally marshy meadowland alongside the River Tyburn. The area occupied by Green Park was called Sandpit Field; there’s a strip of alluvial sand and gravel deposits here (the presence of which caused a collapse during the tunnelling of the Victoria Line in the 1960s). Before the 15th Century it was used as a burial ground for the nearby St. James’s Leper Hospital (which was roughly where St James’s Palace stands today).
It was laid out as a park by order of Charles II after his return from exile in 1660. He bought Sandpit Field from the Pulteney family (the Earls of Bath), which lay between St James’s Park and Hyde Park, so he could ride through 2 miles of uninterrupted parkland. He had it enclosed by a brick wall and, as was the fashion, built an icehouse, to provide the royal household with all year round cold drinks.
A lot of passers-by stop to look at my drawing. A couple of young Americans ask to look. They introduce themselves (Eli and Josh) and shake hands. Eli has an under chin gnome beard. He nods at my drawing and says “woah, that’s sick!”. Josh just says “yup!”. I say “thanks”. A family with children, licking dripping lollies, lean over my sketchbook and I worry for my drawing! An unkempt, stubble- chinned man wanders over. He stands and looks and smiles and says “yes, yes” and walks back towards the spread of another plane tree, under which is a rucksack and several plastic bags and, possibly, a sleeping bag rolled up.
A pony- tailed girl in a red top has being doing a workout on the other side of the path and then, hands on hips, saunters wearily over to the drinking fountain. But some teen boys are trying to kick a football through the holes and are oblivious of anyone else. The girl shrugs her shoulders and walks away.
250 years ago, the park had a reputation as a notorious hangout for thieves and highwaymen. You’d be very unwise to go for an evening stroll without armed bodyguards. It was also known as a duelling ground; one particularly notorious duel took place there in 1730 between William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath and John Hervey, 1st Earl of Bristol over a political quarrel (both survived, though Hervey only just!). Originally it was known as ‘Upper St. James’s Park’ but renamed ‘The Green Park’ in the 1740s; not just ‘Green Park’ but ‘THE Green Park’. No one’s sure why it was given that name, but a good guess is that, as it was little more than grass, very few trees and no flower beds, it was very. Very. Green.
024aVarious improvements at the beginning of the 18th century made it more of a pleasure garden. It became a popular venue for ballooning attempts (plenty of room for soft landings!), and public firework displays; in 1749 the Temple of Peace, a huge structure, like an over flamboyant wedding cake, built of wood and canvas, erected to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession, was half destroyed when it was hit by a firework! (Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed specifically for this celebration, so presumably had a bigger than intended crescendo!). And in 1814 the Temple of Concord, erected to mark 100 years of the Hanoverian Royal family, was also destroyed by fireworks during the Prince Regent’s gala.
Drawing finished, I walk over to Constitution Hill (Charles would take his “constitutional” walks here, a regular event which is now remembered in the name), and down the dappled path towards Buckingham palace and the gold gleam of the Victoria monument between the trees.
In the 1820s, celebrated Regency architect,  John Nash  re-landscaped the park alongside alterations he was making to St James ‘s Park. Trees were planted for the first time with the intention of creating an idealised pastoral idyll in the midst of dirty, smoggy, 024bindustrialised London. All buildings within the park (that hadn’t already been destroyed by fireworks!) were eventually removed. The Tyburn was hidden in a tunnel (most of its length now sadly incorporated into London’s sewerage system).
Children are dabbling their hands in the cooling water, which slips and trickles over the bronze wedge slabs of the Canada Memorial. Designed by the Canadian sculptor Pierre Granche, and unveiled by the Queen in 1994, its inscription reads: “In two world wars one million Canadians came to Britain and joined the fight for freedom. From danger shared, our friendship prospers.
I return to the busiest corner, where people swarm through the gates from Piccadilly. I stop in the shade of one of the Plane trees which line Queens Walk. This is where once a large reservoir was dug in the 18th century, fed by the River Tyburn, called the Queen’s Basin (named after George II’s Queen Caroline), which supplied fresh water to St James’s Palace and other nearby Royal residences.  I set up my drawing things and explore the view 024dlooking west through a flickering forest of green striped deckchairs, each one a bright slip of light against the cool dark background of bank and shady hedges which border clamouring Piccadilly.
As I draw, thoughts of relativity enter my mind: I’m aware of two different space- time continuums operating in tandem:
(i) The constantly and erratically moving parade of humanity across my field of vision, on the path from Green Park station.
(ii) The deck chair loungers, grass sprawlers and sunbathers, settled in the warmth and still as stone.
I find that if I focus on (i), the (ii)’s appear even more rooted and tranquil. But if I give my attention to the (ii)’s for a while, the (i)’s become a blur of activity like frantic ants from a stick poked nest. I think I know which category I’d rather belong to on a day like this.
The breeze wafts the tree shade coolness but when the sun escapes its cloud cover from time to time, everything suddenly vibrates in its piercing heat.


(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. )

The Green Park, Piccadilly, London. W1J 9DZ
Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 23: Drury Lane Garden, Covent Garden

023-Drury-Lane-Garden(Thursday 14 July 2016)

This little quarter- acre rectangle is wedged between office blocks, just round the corner from Theatre Royal Drury Lane  (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into its 3rd year!). And partly overlooked by the Fortune Theatre (The Woman in Black into its 25th year!). Today this area is a hub for family entertainment. In the early 1800s, however, this was the poorest part of London. Over- populated, rat infested and ramshackle, the entertainment it offered ranged from cock fighting and gambling slums to gin palaces and brothels!

On this muggy afternoon, as I approach the sturdy stone gateposts of the garden, a nursery rhyme bubbles up in my mind:

“Do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?…”
It stays with me, ominously, coming and going in my head for my whole visit, like one of those slightly sinister film soundtracks with children singing discordantly.

I walk up the steps into a small paved courtyard area. It’s dominated by a mass of clematis 023aand honeysuckle and jasmine that have amalgamated into an enormous green caterpillar, supported on a hidden pergola that carries it right across the garden. Today it provides some welcome shade while I sit on the brick edge of the raised bed, take a swig from my water bottle and look around.

The space in front of me is symmetrical: brick walls and pedestals, iron railings. Evergreen trees and shrubs soften the severity of the gothic chapel buildings on either flank. Access ramps curve up to this paved area. Turning around, I can see the very busy children’s playground, enclosed with low walls and gates. A bright yellow spirally climbing frame and slide; a pair of toddlers sit at the top, oblivious of the fidgety queue behind them. Further back, high netting protects a court for ball games. Empty at the moment.

“Do you know the Muffin Man, Who lives on Drury Lane?..”
As with St John’s Gardens last week, this space was also once a burial ground (for St Martin-in-the-Fields) until the mid 19th century. And it too suffered from overcrowding.

023cAll the worse for its location in the midst of such squalid deprivation. It had the vilest reputation and was perfect inspiration for Charles Dickens. In Bleak House, it was the burial site for Nemo, the opium addict. Dickens describes it as: “pestiferous and obscene, with houses looking on on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court, a dark and miserable covered way, gives access to a burial ground where are heaps of dishonoured graves and stones, hemmed- in by filthy houses, on whose walls a thick humidity broke out like a disease”. 

The 1852 Burial Acts sought to put an end to horrific scenes like these. Larger cemeteries were being established away from the most populous parts of the city, such as Brompton Cemetery (see Sticks in the Smoke’ 6) to alleviate the pressure. This ground was closed for burials and grew wild for 20 years until, following the Open Spaces Act of 1877 (by which it became illegal to build on any ground that had been previously used for interments), it was the first burial ground to be made into a public garden in Westminster.

 “Do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man? Do you know the Muffin    Man, Who lives on Drury Lane- o?…”
I perch with my back to the old mortuary, from where I can take in a good width of the 023bspace, and start my drawing. Just visible above the clematis foliage is the bell tower of the Presbyterian Crown Court Church of Scotland. And next to that is the multi- spired cluster of mobile phone antennae on the roof of the Fortune Theatre. A white shirted business man strides up the steps in front of me, as though entering on stage. He’s holding a loud and exasperated phone conversation. It goes on as he slumps down onto a shaded bench opposite. The argument continues for a further 5 minutes until, with a heavy groan, he slams his phone down and hunches over with head in hands as if in prayer. He then sighs and turns and slowly lies down on the bench.

There are other players on this stage. A little boy discovers a new game: he gleefully launches his ride- on tractor down the access slope, to crash into his Mum’s legs, while she chats to a friend. He retrieves it and giggles back up the slope and repeats this a couple more times until, wearily, she hauls the wriggling bundle to her hip.

Two women with space dyed hair are feeding noodles to each other with chopsticks.

The harassed business man is now sitting and is tapping at his laptop. A child is waving coloured streamers in the playground behind him, which appear like whooshing blurs of pink and orange around his head.

“Yes I know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man. Yes I know the Muffin Man Who lives on Drury Lane- o!..”
Two hundred years ago, muffins were dense, flattish wheat cakes: a cheap and filling foodstuff in poor areas such as Drury Lane. Muffin men, with their long aprons and trays of muffins on their heads, strode the streets, singing out their wares. It’s thought that this rhyme developed from these street cries. Other theories about it’s origins are more sinister, however. One popular belief is that the Muffin- Man was a child serial murderer, who used the little cakes to lure his victims to their gruesome fate, perhaps in the darkest corners of this graveyard. And this rhyme was about the hunt for this criminal (the last verse perhaps describing the crucial turning point in the long and tedious investigation!). But there’s no evidence to support this story.

Feeling hungry, I pack up my drawing things and leave in search of a bite to eat. Hmm, now what do I fancy?



(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. )

Drury Lane Garden, Covent Garden, London. WC2B 5TB
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 22: St John’s Gardens, Horseferry

023-St-John's-Gardens-(Thursday 7 July 2016)

I push impatiently through the milling Westminster crowds as midday simmers and the Big Ben bongs follow me down Millbank. I take a right and into Smith Square where the white baroque St. John’s church fills the space and the senses. Charles Dickens once described it as: “some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air”. Following devastation caused by an incendiary bomb in 1941, it lay semi derelict for 20 022eyears, but was restored and reopened in 1969 as St Johns Smith Square, concert hall, now used regularly for BBC music broadcasts. There’s also the Footstool Restaurant in the crypt downstairs where I had an exhibition back in the 80’s. This is the first time I’ve been back here since. I remember fumbling my paintings up onto nails in the brick walls and embarrassingly dropping one with a splintering crash that echoed around the vaulted space!

As there wasn’t room for a churchyard in this modest residential square, a nearby field was bought from the Grosvenor Estate, and was consecrated for burials in 1731. I walk in the sombre footsteps of countless corteges over the centuries, 100 yards down to the busy Horseferry Road and across to St. John’s Gardens which now occupies the site of the old burial ground.

In the 18th century, this was a rapidly growing part of London. The burgeoning population was reflected in heavy demands for burial here. Within 20 years it was bursting at the seams  (a contemporary report states that 5126 graves were dug over a 10 year period!). To ease the congestion, 3 feet of extra topsoil were laid on top and retaining walls built, but by the early 19th century it was getting overcrowded once more. In 1823 an extra strip of land was bought to provide an extension.

The graveyard also needed watchman armed with pistols, to guard against grave robbers (the resurrection men). Body snatching was a serious problem at this time, but was serving a growing demand. Medical schools and private anatomical schools paid well for 022afresh specimens for medical research. The 1832 Anatomy Act required anatomy teachers to be licensed and only permitted donated bodies or those unclaimed to be used for dissection, which more or less put an end to this grisly activity.

I walk through the gates into the garden and there are bodies everywhere;  lying on the grass, sitting on benches eating sandwiches or lounging with backs against ancient worn gravestones which are cemented to the perimeter walls. Couples are strolling the barley twist edged paths.  A pair of shirtsleeved businessmen, drinking coffee and smoking, are leaning against a half buried and wonky monument (it almost looks like they’re pushing it over!). It commemorates Christopher Cass, master mason, who died in 1734. A highly successful stonemason in his time, who worked on the construction of of the four corner towers for St. John’s church.  I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave at the thought of the crumpled Costa cup perched on the pediment of his granite gravestone.

022cThere’s a shady coolness here. Plane tree branches rise and seem to knit together high above, where their foliage forms a high and airy canopy, gently moving and throwing flickers of light onto the paving. People gather and mingle around the fountain pool and sit on the edge, the refreshing trinkle of water behind them. This paved central area with its planted beds has the air of an alfresco meeting place, like a Mediterranean town square. An informal business conference seems to be happening on one side, dapples dancing over dark suits and blue shirts. Just over there is the HQ of Burberry; maybe the air con had broken down and they’d decided to move outside.

I skirt around the spray of a lawn sprinkler watering a triangular bed planted out with cineraria and geranium.  The long yellow hose snakes and twists across the lawns. I walk further and sit on the ground behind another flowerbed and start a drawing looking across towards one of the garden’s two tall and slender gingko trees.

022dBy the 1850s, this ground was closed for burials. It became neglected, overgrown and a haunt of villainous gangs. In the 1880’s a committee of residents raised money for it to be tidied up and, with the support of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and a bit of help from the Duke of Westminster, had it laid out as a public garden, which was opened on 23 May 1885. Not much has changed to the garden’s layout since then, apart from the replacement of the original central shelter with the fountain and pool.

The garden is closely overlooked on its east side by the ten storey 1930s brick cliff face of Westminster Green, originally Westminster Hospital. Opposite is St John’s buildings, equally tall, which were built as Queen Mary Nurses’ Home and Training School. Since the hospital’s relocation to Fulham in the early 90s, both buildings are now mostly upmarket apartments, with these 1½ acres serving as their back garden.  At the base of Westminster Green, openings in the garden wall are filled with a series of (‘30s inspired) abstract metalwork grills by renowned jeweller, Wendy Ramshaw, commissioned in 2005. Looking up, I see a large 4th floor 022bwindow is wide open, a woman puffs a blue cloud of cigarette smoke; a little dog cradled under her arm.

As I draw, the shh – shh of the sprinkler is a steady rhythm. A jackdaw scritches around amongst leaf litter under the shrubs behind me. A flock of pigeons take off as a body and I feel the breeze from their wings. A bumble bee flops down onto my paper and skitters about in the wet paint. I help it onto the grass but it makes a bee line for my sketchbook again. I gently scoop it over to the nearby flowerbed.

A gardener, phone clamped to her ear, turns off the sprinkler one- handedly and pulls it over the lawns towards the bed just in front of me. I decide its time to finish quickly or face another soaking like I had at Kensington Gardens two weeks ago!



(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. )

St. John’s Gardens, Horseferry Road, Westminster, London. SW1P 4SA
Google earth view here
Image of St Johns Smith Square from London Churches in Photographs

Sticks in the Smoke 21: St Alphage Garden

022-St-Alphage-Gardens(Thursday 30 June 2016)

At first the way into the gardens is hard to locate amongst the the chaotic commotion of the London Wall Place development site (high rise office buildings and new landscaped gardens, hyped as the ‘most dynamic and exciting places in the City of London’.).  I’m about to give up when I see a worker jetwashing dust off a path and I catch a reflection of green in the wet. There’s a narrow passage between hoardings with a sign overhead reading SITE ENTRANCE.

Part of the eastern section of this little strip of garden (a little less than 1½ acres) is sectioned off behind more hoardings.  A mature magnolia and an oak tree are 021aprotectively boxed in. The magnolia end has signs reading ‘SMOKING AREA!’ and the area around the oak is the designated ‘VAPING AREA!’  The benches are occupied by construction workers, smoking, vaping and eating and not appearing too bothered by the signs. The garden is bounded on its north side with a long section of London Wall, topped with a band of eroded Tudor diamond brickwork, abundant with plants bursting and twining from its cracks and crevices. Beneath is a flowerbed, bursting with yellow loosestrife.
This piece of ground is shouting distance from Cripplegate (the name probably originated from the Old English crypel: to creep, as you had to duck down under the original low arch). Orginally the northern entrance to the Roman fort of Londinium, built in 120AD, a defensive bastion which housed barracks for over 1000 men. Cripplegate was built of stone, superseded by later brick gateway buildings until 1760, when it was demolished to widen the road.
In 1331, William Elsing, mercer of London was so distressed at the number of destitute blind and semi- paralysed beggars in the streets of the city, that he founded a hospital here. It was taken over by the Augustinian order 10 years later. This is where the churchyard lay for the priory church of St Mary (later to be rededicated to St Alphage, the patron saint of kidnap victims). The hospital was ordered to close in 1536, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. All that now remains of the priory buildings and church, after centuries of fire, dilapidation, neglect and the Blitz, is the stump of the original 14th Century tower, just to the south of this garden. At the moment, though, it crouches in the midst of the building site, shrouded in protective plastic (architects’ simulations show it incorporated into the proposed new garden space, populated with lots of young, shiny and smart business people!)
A flaking stone plaque in the wall states that the churchyard was closed by Act of Parliament and laid out as a public garden in 1872. After the second world war, a lower 021dsection was added to the garden, to the west, partially created from the cellar of a bombed out adjacent building; you can still see the soot blackened brickwork and an old fireplace.
I descend the wooden steps into the paved lower garden and feel like I’m climbing down through time, the space is dominated by a further butt of the old London Wall, its textures catching and refracting the sunlight. This section of wall was an important part of London’s defensive fortifications until Saxon times. Over the following centuries, the remains of the wall were butchered, plundered, patched up, and incorporated into other buildings. There are still surviving fragments of the wall throughout the City. It’s enthralling to be so close to this stonework. I run my fingers along its rough flank, feeling the planes and edges of ragstones and flint bedded here by Roman, Saxon and medieval hands.
There are four rectangular wooden planters with lilies and a mix of bedding plants. A single bench sits, empty, at the end. Half the garden’s width has been built up into 3 tiers of planted beds, colourfully laid out with precise ranks of geraniums and nicotiana. The beds curve around to the far end, where the garden jams up against the 10 storeyed block of Roman House.
This whole area sprouts tall and massive with glass and concrete office buildings. And a 021blittle north, the brutalist Barbican Estate. They are the result of regeneration schemes to resurrect a new business and residential district, covering some 28 acres, from the ashes and devastation of wartime bombing. Developed and then redeveloped. I’m acutely aware of this today: a constant percussion section of drilling, hammering and battering, pierced by the shrill toot toot toot of reversing cement lorries.
I climb up behind the shrubs to the topmost tier and draw the view back down into the deep well of this space, guarded by the crag of the ancient wall and fringed with magnolia tree, fern and shrub foliage. A glimpse of sky flickering though. Hidden birdsong from the undergrowth: teep teep teep. Behind me a rickety trellis over which construction workers lean and smoke. One nods and says “alright?” with east European inflection and flicks his fag end down into a shaggy privet bush.
There’s an access gate through to the Salter’s Garden, which underlines Basil Spence‘s dramatic modernist Salter’s Hall.  Laid out with lawn, box hedges, pergolas and paths, with three fountains and pond. It’s supposed to be open to the public from 9 – 5 on weekdays and I’d love to look closely at the other side of London Wall. But today the 021cgate is locked.
No one comes to this lower garden for the whole 2 hours until, just as I’m finishing, a young builder comes down and saunters over to the bench, lays his hard hat beside him and puts in his earphones.
This little space is enclosed on all sides but no feeling of claustrophobia here. Surrounded by clamour and clatter but down here is strangely tranquil. Overshadowed on all four sides by monumental blocks but still full of light.



(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. )

St. Alphage Gardens, London. EC2Y 5EL
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 20: Kensington Gardens (north east)

020-Italian-Garden,-Kensing(Thursday 23 June 2016)

The day of the EU Referendum. An ominous and static feel in the air, muggy and thunderous. The pavements are wet and taxis splash the gutters, still full from an earlier rainstorm. I dash across Bayswater Road and into the gardens through Marlborough Gate.

Kensington Gardens is the twin sister of Hyde Park. They share an early history as Henry VIII’s royal hunting grounds (see Sticks in the Smoke 10). It was separated from the remainder of Hyde Park in 1728 by order of Queen Caroline (wife of George II) and designed by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman to form Baroque style landscape gardens and parkland for Kensington Palace. These included fashionable features such as the Round Pond, formal avenues and a sunken Dutch garden. The River Westbourne was damned to create the Long Water on its eastern flank, which flows on into the Serpentine.
At exactly the point where the Westbourne would have once gently flowed through grazed pasture is the Italian Garden. There are four stretched octagonal ponds walled in Carrara marble, and a smaller central pool, each with fountain, spurting arcs of water sparkling against the sky. They are planted with water lilies, bright yellow flag iris, flowering rush and purple loosestrife. An Italianate shelter overlooks the garden (originally built to disguise the Victorian steam powered pump for 020bthe fountains), today filled with a picnicking school party which has spread itself over benches and spill down its steps.
I stroll towards the garden end, where a balustrade with stone urns and water nymphs and the Tazza Fountain (no water today, just dank and dripping), frame the view down to the wilder, more naturalised Long Pond. Down there are overgrown banks, twisting branches of a dead tree, reeds and twining brambles. I peer over and see a sleek fat coot and fluffy chick, dabbling at water edge flotsam. Suddenly this becomes a portion of wild country river transposed into the city! It stretches down towards the Serpentine Bridge, the opposite view to my drawing of the Serpentine exactly three months ago. I balance my  sketchbook on the edge of the nearest pond, so I can draw the fountain spray against the distant trees. And looking down is the zinging contrast of almost fluorescent green pond algae floating above the deepest violet sky. A large carp slowly flips its fin and stirs the surface.
The Italian Garden was designed by architect Sir James Pennethorne in 1860, commissioned by Prince Albert as a gift for Queen Victoria, inspired by the Italian Garden at Osborne House, their home on the Isle of Wight. Painstaking renovations and repairs have been carried out over the past two decades or so, to the frost damaged stonework, choked pipework and corroded fountains. This was funded by the Tiffany and Co Foundation020a. Thirteen tonnes of silt were dredged from the fountain basins and the fountains are now fed with fresh, cold water from a deep borehole. This water is aerated and warmed by the fountains, before flowing out to improve the ecology of The Long Water.
As I draw, an occasional gust brings a welcome cooling mizzle from the fountain. Teenage girls eating lunch shriek as pigeons flap and flock at their feet.
Many garden visitors amble past, an unsteady stream of the world’s languages behind me. Several stop and look. Some ask to take photos. A bearded German man asks me to hold my sketchbook up for the camera. An eastern European girl asks me how much my drawing might be! She tells me she works in a hotel overlooking the gardens and visits the park railings art exhibition every Sunday, just over there, along the Bayswater Road. She loves the variety of art to be seen: “So many different ways of making painting..”
At 265 acres, Kensington Gardens is far too big for just one visit, so I will aim to return at least once more over the next few months to explore more of this fascinating and multifarious tract of land. But I do have time today for another drawing so I take Budges Walk, which leads, straight as a march to Kensington Palace, half a mile at the other end of the park. The footpaths and walks run and radiate like dot- to- dot lines, linking the 22 020cgates and the gardens’ main features. Most haven’t changed course for over 200 years, trodden and flattened by Londoners’ feet since the gardens were first opened to the public (on Sunday nights only, at first) in 1733.
The walk is lined with a procession of chestnut, oak and lime up to the Speke monument (an elegant red granite obelisk commemorating John Hanning Speke, the explorer who discovered Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile). Up here I’m transported into rural parkland and away from traffic hum. There’s grassy open space all around, with rides and arboured views towards the palace or through to the rearing equestrian ‘Physical Energy’ Statue to the south. The scent of horses and damp soil lifts from the ground like mist. This has the feel of countryside, a direct progression from wilderness to grazing land to Royal deer park to city breathing space. People are scattered few and far, the occasional glimpse of blue or red or yellow. I meander along paths through long grass and between trees. I hear the little ting of a bell from somewhere.
020dA couple are sitting partially hidden behind a ragged bush. They’re in their own private space, each oblivious to anything beyond the other. I discreetly detour and onto Lancaster Walk, leading north, catching glints of the spire of St James’s at Sussex Gardens, silver grey between the tree tops.
I keep hearing the little bell. It carries on, intermittently ringing over the long meadow grass. I can’t quite place it, but try to follow. I’m led to a clearing where a scatter of golden hawkweed are growing. I settle here and start to draw but within seconds a few fat drops of rain on my sketchbook page make the ink lines burst. Then all the heavens open and I have to scoop up my things and scuttle for shelter under a nearby sweet chestnut tree which keeps me dry (for a while!) as I paint. And then a great thunderclap! It seems to resonate throughout the whole volume of the tree! The rain gets heavier still, and there’s a cold trickle down the back of my neck!
I hear that jingling sparkle of the bell again. Much closer. A couple of mums, running with buggies and umbrellas, slosh past. And the ringing recedes with them into the veil of rain.


(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. )

Kensington Gardens, London. W2 2UH
Google earth view here