This is part of the City where ancient and very modern just about rub along ok, sometimes almost literally! I’m so close to gardens I’ve visited before: Postman’s Park, St Pauls, St Alphage and Finsbury Circus are each less than 5 minutes away. The map here is littered with these little green fragments, almost as though the occupants of this area of high rise, high finance and high flyers, more than most, need regular grounding!
It’s warm and bright and breezy. Perfect conditions for drawing. So today I’m feeling ambitious and aim to tackle three gardens, all on the footprints of ruined churches. They’re so close that you could comfortably hold your breath while walking from one to the other. I don’t do that though.
But exactly 350 years ago you’d probably want to! If you were winding your way through the waste ridden and filthy narrow streets of this part of London in the heatwave of August 1666, the air would be ripe and malodorous and full of flies. But in just over a fortnight, and less than a mile away, a small bakery fire was to get out of control, fanned into the thundering inferno of the Great Fire, and funnelled ever closer towards these alleys, fuelled by the tinder dry timber and thatch houses. You and your family would be forced to take flight, clutching the few possessions you could manage, towards what you hoped would be the sanctuary of one of the three nearby stone churches of St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary Staining or St Olave Silver Street. But very soon you’d have to flee again, as these havens were also threatened. A desperate dash towards the staunch firebreak of London Wall, joining the panicking throng trying to squeeze through Cripplegate. Maybe abandoning precious belongings so you could protect your children from the worst of the choking smoke and showers of burning embers. And looking just to the south: a great plume of leaping flame and sparks from the tower and roofs of St Paul’s Cathedral. What hope then for these small parish churches.
St Mary Aldermanbury
I stand in the shade of a robinia tree, a flame of golden green, in a corner of this comfortable retreat of just under 2 acres. Hedges, shrubs, herbaceous planted beds, a parched, well- used lawn and enclosed seating areas on different levels. The ancient stone pillar footings, now used as picnic tables, seating or backrests for relaxing and lunching office workers: an ever- changing, munching congregation. The cooling breeze brings spiced and pungent aromas of at least 30 diverse lunches to my nostrils. And the mix of scrunches, crackles and rustles of food wrappers to my ears.
(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 )
St Mary Aldermanbury, Love Lane, London. EC2V 7HP
St Mary Staining, Oat Lane, London. EC2V 7EE
St Olave Silver Street, Noble St, London. EC2V 7EE
Google earth view here
Illustration: Woodcut from ‘Shlohavot, or, The burning of London in the year 1666’ Museum of London