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

kensington-gardens-1(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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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..”
 kensington-gardens-2
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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.
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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!
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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.
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(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 )

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

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