The layout of Postman’s Park looks like it was based on 3 different sized envelopes dropped randomly together on the doormat. And, although the ‘envelopes’ do unify together into this calm, welcoming and sheltered space, each still retains its own unique character. They were originally the churchyard of St Botolph-without-Aldersgate (St Botolph was the AngloSaxon patron saint of travellers, consequently churches dedicated to him were often close to city gates. The church has been here since the 12th century, although the present brick building, with pillared and porticoed frontage, dates back to the early 1800s), alongwith the adjacent burial grounds of nearby St Leonard’s Foster Lane (destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and Christchurch, Newgate Street (which was mostly burnt to the ground in the Blitz).
Sturdy decorative railings stand at the St Martin le Grand entrance, with an 1870s granite drinking fountain (still working!). The gate arch has its original Victorian gas lamp girdle. Up these steps and into a cool and shady yard, trees and luxuriant evergreen shrubs forming a leafy guard of honour. Then a round pond with dripping mossy fountain, tree canopies darkly reflected and sparkles of sky, with vivid ribbons of goldfish slowly curling in the depths.
Emerging into the wider, brighter section, I look across to the southern border: rounded lawns and a variety of trees, dominated by the rockface of a neoclassical office block. This was the site of the 8th century collegiate church and monastic precinct of St. Martin’s, originally founded by King Wihtred of Kent, rebuilt and expanded over the centuries. As it was so close to Aldersgate, the church was responsible for sounding the curfew bell in the evenings, which announced the closing of the City’s gates. It was dissolved in the Dissolution and demolished in 1548. The huge GPO headquarters and central sorting office were built on this spot in the early 1800’s. The gardens were so popular with the Post Office staff that it was renamed ‘Postman’s Park’.
A fine drizzle starts and I stroll around the shadier northern garden segment, which is bordered by Little Britain (an ancient, narrow street which winds from Smithfield, named after the Dukes of Brittany who built a house here in the 15th century) and set my easel on a piece of earth under a chestnut tree for cover. I think it has blight as there’s an untimely rustling scatter of red gold leaves on the ground (Later I catch sight of a planning notice on the railings outside stating that the chestnut and a plane tree are due for felling soon, to be replaced by an ornamental acer). The park is busy with office workers, tourist groups and day- out families.
In front of me are colourfully planted quadrant beds, encircling an old stone sundial base. It has the feel of an abundant tropical garden, with four banana palms, large leaves spreading and unfurling and seeming to transmit a vivid yellowgreen light. And a host of verbena flowers on tall stems appear to hover in front of my eyes like exotic violet moths. And opposite is a long loggia, looking something like an Indonesian monsoon shelter.
But take a closer look and the contents of that shelter transform this space from pleasant garden into a place of truly powerful significance! This is George Frederic Watts‘s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice: glazed plaques commemorating the lives of 62 individuals who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten. Watts, a well known Symbolist painter and sculptor, had long considered a national monument to the bravery of ordinary people, believing that these people were models of exemplary behaviour and character. He said: “the material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are“. In the 1860’s he had proposed a colossal bronze figure: “a great statue to Unknown Worth”, but was unable to get funding for this. As an alternative, he proposed this memorial. Even then it was a struggle for him to win support and find a location So it wasn’t until 1900, only 4 years before his death, that the project was finally realised. There is space here for 120 plaques. The first 24 were designed and produced by William De Morgan, each one glazed onto a block of six tiles. After Watts died, his widow Mary Watts, oversaw the creation of a further 29 by Royal Doulton. The following give a flavour:
The project lapsed after 53 plaques had been installed until, in 2009, the Diocese of London finally consented to further additions and another was added, the first in 78 years, to Leigh Pitt, a print technician, who died in 2007, rescuing a 9 year old girl who had fallen into a canal (a cellophane wrapped rose is taped to his plaque).
In 2015 The Friends of the Watts Memorial was established, run by volunteers, with the primary aims of protecting, preserving and promoting the memorial and, ultimately, to work towards completing Watts’ original plan. A full list of the plaques can be viewed here.
A squirrel skitters across the wet tile roof, a shortcut from oak to plane. The rain has stopped. The sun emerges briefly, sending sprinkles of light across the paving. A guide is giving a passionate talk about the Watts Memorial to a tour group, but all look around at the sudden loud shriek of a little girl who’s slipped while chasing her brother around the sundial. A large and burly dad springs over to scoop her up.
This is not a place of morbidity. The Arts and Crafts design and lettering of each plaque instead evoke celebration of life and humanity. Look over the heads of people sitting and chatting or eating their Pret a Mangers and sheltering from today’s light showers. Be drawn along by these nutshells of tragic dramas immortalised in ceramic. Then walk away in thoughtful contemplation of these ordinary people whose heroic final moments have raised them far above the ordinary.
(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 )
Postman’s Park, St Martin le Grand, London. EC1A 4AS
Google earth view here