The forecast was for a 20% chance of light rain today, but I’m splashing along Kensington High Street towards the Holland Walk entrance to the park through a heavy downpour and hoping the 80% begins to happen soon.
Holland Park spreads across land that was once part of the grounds of Cope Castle, built in 1605 for Sir Walter Cope, the Chamberlain of the Exchequer. His daughter, Isabel, inherited the property. She married Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, a Royalist officer, who was beheaded for treason in the Tower of London in 1649 and is said to haunt the house with his head under his arm. During the Civil War, the castle was taken over and occupied by the Roundheads and was often used by Cromwell. After the war it was returned to the family, who renamed it Holland House. This was still a predominantly rural area, but during the 1800s, as demand for housing grew, much of the 500 acre estate was sold off for building, leaving these 54 acres.
The rain continues on and off. This is such a full and multifaceted park: enclosed gardens, hidden spaces, ornamental flower gardens, sculptures, secret corners, rose beds etc that it takes me an hour or so of walking, dodging showers, and hunting for a view that encapsulates it. In the end I’m forced under cover in the Orangery arcade, looking out across the Iris Garden (sadly too late in the year for the flowers!) and towards the William Pye ‘Sibirica’ fountain sculpture, rising like a verdigris flower trumpet from the circular pond. Up to the left is the Belvedere restaurant, topped with bell tower and resident peacocks strutting haughtily and announcing their presence with strident shrieks.
This, the library and the east wing of the house is all that survived a massive ten- hour Blitz bombardment of 22 incendiary bombs during the night of 27 September 1940. The ruins and the grounds were purchased by London County Council in 1952 from the last private owner, the 6th Earl of Ilchester and opened to the public. The formal gardens, walls and walks were restored. The southern section was laid out as sports fields and the northern half left as mostly natural wild woodland.
On the back wall of the colonnade is a long mural by Mao Wen Biao, depicting scenes of Edwardian social grandeur: elegant ladies and blazered gentlemen against backdrops of rose bushes and dappled sunlight. A far cry from today! I unpack my sketchbook and light raindrops pitter on its cover. I step further back under the arch.
As I draw, I start to notice figures dodging through the drizzle, some hooded, some hunched, all determinedly hunting with phones clutched in front. Singly, in pairs or groups, they make their way down the steps, around the pond, along the colonnade: Pokémon Go hunters! Hesitant footsteps behind me as I draw, and “it’s gotta be down here somewhere!” and a yell of “Hey! There’s an Eevie down there!”. I find out, a bit alarmingly, that I’m standing halfway between a Bulbasaur and an Eevie.
The sun peeks out for a moment and brings a busily chittering coach party of about 20 ladies in wide red hats with purple ribbons and red jackets into the garden. They linger and look lost and some point in different directions. One asks me if I know where Alice is. And I say that I really have no idea. Then one shouts “This way girls!” and they swish down the passage and out. An acrid cloud of mingled perfume hangs in the air behind them and slowly descends on me and two young lads who are trying to locate the Bulbasaur.
Music stutters and wafts across. Sounds of tuning up, a trumpet, fragments of song. Later, I discover that it’s for this afternoon’s opera: Alice in Wonderland ( composed by Will Todd). Since 1986, opera has been staged every summer under canopied cover on the lawns. After scores of critically acclaimed performances over the years, Opera Holland Park has become a prestigious mainstay of the London cultural calendar.
On the further lawn, I can just see some teenagers are manically clonking each other with the giant plastic garden chess pieces.
Flagstones steam in the muggy sunshine. I pack my things and meander through the magnificent Dutch garden, box- hedged and elegantly colourful. Then skirt around the edge of the Japanese themed Kyoto garden (I’m planning to come back to draw here another time). Down a path and here’s a pond with seated statue up on a plinth, of the Victorian 3rd Lord Holland, sculpted by George Frederick Watts. Remember him? Creator of the extraordinary Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice at Postman’s Park, in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 25.
On into the wilder, wooded area. There’s a damp leaf littery scent. A maze of paths and tracks. Sounds of wildlife rustling, calling and chirping in the dark and dripping woods. Three teenage boys lurch past on Boris bikes, trying to keep an eye on their phones as they go.
I find a clearing near the Abbotsbury Road entrance and set up my easel for a second sketch. Watery light makes a bright pool on the grass, which looks stringy and parched after last month’s lack of rain. Five pathways converge and emanate from this clearing. As I draw, ever more Pokémon Go seekers walk past, in twos and threes and larger groups. They seem to be coalescing with the gravity of a common purpose. A large group of, perhaps, 15 disappear up one path, only to reappear five minutes later from another, having collected 7 or 8 more members. Every one an Alice, chasing after their own versions of the White Rabbit.
A squirrel scuttles through the oak tree canopy above. Birdsong echoes. Much happens here to encourage, preserve and protect nature. The Ecology Centre promotes awareness and understanding of biodiversity, working particularly with schools. Pigs and cows have been brought in over the past few years, as part of a conservation-grazing project by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to restore woodland meadow areas, which had become nettle and bramble choked. And the Friends of Holland Park is a voluntary group to promote the conservation of the natural plant, animal and bird life of the Park and, in particular, its retention as a natural woodland habitat for wildlife.
Spits of rain begin once more and I pack my things. The 3 boys on bikes wobble past again. The last one struggling and out of breath and yells: “I’m knackered and wet and still not caught nothing. Whose dumb idea was this?“
In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018. www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.