(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.
This 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
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.
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.
Various 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,
industrialised 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
looking 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.