Month: September 2016

Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

031a-Victoria-Embankment-Gd(Friday 16 September 2016)

A day of blustery showers: an autumn taste. I enter the gardens at the narrowest end, away from the sound of traffic splishing along the Embankment, and follow hurrying figures along the curving puddled path. Mature planes, catalpa and metasequoia, yews 031aand laurels, luxuriant plants, exotic shrubs and banana palms line the way and provide backdrops for an array of statues and memorials, including one to Sir Arthur Sullivan by Sir William Goscombe John, put up in 1903, with semi- naked muse draping herself seductively in grief (he ignores her, but looks across to the Savoy Hotel, which was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas). Further along, I try out the brass button of the drinking fountain, memorial to Henry Fawcett (political reformer and campaigner for women’s suffrage), work of sculptor Mary Grant in 1886. It still works after all these years and spurts a forceful jet of water from its dolphin spout which sprays over me and a shocked tourist couple, who jump back, already damp from the rain! Then there’s the grand white Portland stone monument to Lord Cheylesmore (Army major- general and chairman of London County Council who, in 1925, was the first member of the aristocracy to be killed in a car accident), designed by Edwin Lutyens, behind a circular ornamental pond. It’s back to back with the Belgian War Memorial, which faces out to the Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle.
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031bThis garden was one of several created after the completion of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, along the northwestern bank of this mile long, dog leg bend of the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. The Embankment was built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, as described in my blog post about Whitehall Gardens (only a stones throw south of here), back in May. A hugely ambitious project to tame the Thames and assert London’s authority over nature (an embankment and road had originally been proposed 2 centuries earlier by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666). This string of gardens forms the decorative icing on this massive practical and utilitarian cake. Take a slice through and you have the Circle and District line, running just below (not tunnelled, but cut down from the surface and then covered over). At a ventilation opening on the east edge of the gardens, you can feel and hear the rumble and screech of trains below, pulling in to Embankment station. And under the road, there’s the cavernous Low Level Sewer, a major conduit which flushes much of central London’s effluent away to be treated to the east of the City.
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A few spattering drops then the heavens open again and I make a dash for the cafe. A mug of tea bought, then I set up in the dry under the cafe canopy, looking across through a varied pattern of partially autumnal foliage, along with limes, tree fern and fig tree, towards the pink granite of Cleopatra’s Needle, stabbing up towards a slaty sky. Glimpses of the river, slipping silvery under Waterloo bridge. Snatches of chatter and drifts of tobacco smoke from occupants of other tables. A bedraggled looking blackbird scrabbles among the soggy fag ends beneath a dripping viburnum.
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031dThe rain eases and I wander between lawns and brightly planted beds of rudbeckia and banana palms. The garden layout was designed by landscape designer, Alexander McKenzie in 1870 and is little changed. Curving rows of empty blue deckchairs are a patient audience to a closed up bandstand. I sit for a while. A couple are taking selfies, posing with a plastic white knight from the giant chess game. I watch some surveyors in hi-vis jackets battling with a mis-behaving theodolite. And a little girl in a yellow raincoat is chasing her father around the lawn. She’s parked her very shiny matching yellow ‘ride-on’ Mini Cooper expertly by the path edge.
I make my way out and wander through the heaving Embankment station and up the steps to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I follow the raised walk away from the river, towards Charing Cross and find a covered balcony that overhangs Villiers Street. From here my sketchbook is protected from raindrops and I have a pigeon’s eye view down towards the garden entrances: between scalloped walls and railings, with plane trees forming a welcoming party. I can watch the crowds, scurrying to and from Embankment station; transitory snippets of hundreds of lives. A rumble of thunder rolls and echoes down the street. And then a sudden raucous screech of female laughter from the trattoria opposite. When I glance round I notice a blue plaque which announces that Rudyard Kipling lived there from 1889 -91, where he wrote his novel The Light That Failed, which references this area.
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That building also houses Gordons Wine Bar, established in 1890: easily the oldest wine bar in London with, what looks like, its original drab brown Victorian frontage. Before the Embankment was built, it had been a warehouse on the river’s edge, where sacks of seed 031cand grain would have been winched directly from river barges. It sits on the corner with Watergate Walk, where you can follow the path along to the York House Water Gate. This impressive arched gateway was built in 1626, designed by Sir Balthazar Gerbier as the river access for York House, the residence of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Originally lapped by the grey Thames waters, it’s now landlocked, looking out onto the potted palms, flowerbeds and lawns of Victoria Embankment Gardens.
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Drawing done, I close my sketchbook. My eye is caught by a gleam of evening sun, which streaks into the Pink Pansy flower stall at the bottom of the street, between the gardens and the station entrance, shimmering down into the wet pavement.
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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.


 

Victoria Embankment Gardens, Villiers St, London WC2N 6PB
Google earth view here

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Sticks in the Smoke 30: The Regents Park (South side)

030a-Regent's-Park(Thursday 8 September 2016)

This is another park that’s so huge (182 acres) that I can’t possibly sum it all up in one visit (I’ll return at some point over the next few months to explore the wider and more open northern meadows, pitches, winter gardens and canalside walks, not forgetting a glimpse through to the zoo).030e

I’ve just this week finished reading the amazing John Fowles book ‘The Magus’ in which, coincidentally, the final chapter is set in Regents Park. His description is so evocative:

“The park was full of green distances. of countless scattered groups of people, lovers, families, soilitaries with dogs, the colours softened by the imperceptible mist of autumn, as simple and pleasing in its way as a Boudin beachscape”

Today I’m sticking to the southern section, east of the boating lake. Even this part is like a progression of different gardens, jigsaw- puzzled together, each with its own character. There is a ring road called the Outer Circle, which circumnavigates the whole park for over 2.5 miles, and the Inner Circle which is about half a mile in circumference. These, apart from the linking roads, are the only routes for motor traffic.

The tree lined paths and straight hedged formality of the Avenue Gardens remind me of a Parisian Park. Ornamental fountains or decorative urns at every intersection and colourful box- hedged beds. At a distance the strolling figures could be promenading Victorians. But Marylebone Green, just next door, by contrast, is a proper village green, rough- grassed, tree- shaded, mole- hilled. You just want to run across here tugging an old fashioned kite!

There is a pull which draws you away from the noise of hectic Marylebone Road, towards something sweeter, like the pull of nectar for a bee. So I cross York Bridge and through the gently meandering and wooded waterside walk. And the banks are crowded with every 030dkind of waterbird! A group of hunched herons are standing around in their grey tailcoats like a bunch of bored wedding ushers; they couldn’t care less about me being so close (on  river walks at home, you can’t even tiptoe closer than 25 metres to a heron without it taking off with an annoyed, pterodactyl cry).

Here I can almost imagine myself traipsing a winding track in the vast Forest of Middlesex that, a millennium ago, thickly blanketed the land from here northward, up over Primrose Hill, the whole of north London and further. Before the 16th century it was a mix of woodland and rough pasture belonging to Barking Abbey.  It was appropriated by Henry VIII in 1538, during the Dissolution, adding the land to his growing collection of Royal hunting grounds.

The parkland was seized by Cromwell during the Civil War and much of the remaining forest’s timber was cleared and sold to pay off war debts. After the Restoration in 1660, the land was returned to the crown and was leased out to tenant farmers, who supplied the city markets with milk, butter and cheese.

On the bank, just before the boating lake there’s a planting of young birch, gleaming against the dark strap of Clarence Bridge. I set up my easel where I get the view through to a ribbon glimpse of water. It’s a very warm and sunny day, but pretty breezy, so I edge back into the shade of a mulberry tree. A branch keeps getting blown into my neck so I bend it away and clip it temporarily to another branch with my spare bulldog clip. Two Egyptian geese flap down and immediately stage a squabble then lose interest in fighting and start earnestly pecking at the grass, taking surreptitious glances at me with their unblinking orange eyes.

030bThe piping, squawking and cawing of waterfowl is punctuated by the incessant squeal and clash of the gate into Regents University grounds just behind me. A constant flow of park visitors (just as Fowles describes above) across the bridge, break into shifting colour diamonds through the gaps in its iron latticework.

In 1811, the Prince Regent saw this area as a perfect location for a new summer palace and commissioned John Nash to make it happen. Nash’s original idea was for a circular park, with a lake, a canal, the palace and 56 private villas set in ornamental gardens. The whole would be surrounded with streets of grand Regency terraces. But it didn’t all go to plan: the fickle Prince’s interest was diverted by other projects, such as Buckingham Palace and the Brighton Pavilion so, although the park was established (and renamed as The Regents Park), there was no palace and only a few of the planned villas were built. However, Nash did manage to build the white stucco terraces and sweeping Regent Street to link the Park with other Regency schemes such as Carlton House Terrace and Buckingham Palace.

030aSome of the park was opened to the general public from 1835. Other portions were leased out to local societies and groups, ranging from The Royal Botanic Society to the Zoological Society (which still runs the Regents Park Zoo) and various sporting, scientific and educational bodies. Each of these portions were developed differently which has led to today’s diverse patchwork of gardens, recreation grounds and park buildings.

I pack my things and step back onto the path. The breeze has dropped and the heat is building. I walk alongside the lake; the mass of waterfowl reluctantly letting me through. A couple in a blue pedalo are having steering problems and seem to be going in circles, backwards. I cross the lawns, between deckchairs, push under the swaying curtains of a high weeping willow, with flickering reflections and glimpses across the blue banded water. And out, to pause by the bandstand (there’s a memorial stone here to the seven bandsmen of the Royal Green Jackets who were killed by an IRA bomb in 1982 while performing a lunchtime concert).

I feel that ‘nectar’ pull again and am drawn up the slope, across the Inner Circle road and into the perfect round of Queen Mary’s Garden (named after the wife of King George V). This 17 acres was originally used by the Royal Botanic Society for nurseries and a huge conservatory, but they gave it up in 1931. It was relandscaped and planted and opened to the public to experience its exotic leafy borders and Mediterranean gardens and colourful beds and walks. And secret corners. A pond with little rills. And lawns and trees. The conservatory 030cwas demolished and later, on its site: the Triton fountain built, jetting high (with gleaming and dripping mer figures, as a memorial to artist Sigismund Goetze), .

I buy a cup of tea from the cafe and walk on and, as I leave behind the aroma of pizza and chips, there’s a syrupy, heady scent wafting to greet me. I’m lured to the rows of rectangular rose beds next to the stately Jubilee Gates (donated by Goetze for George V‘s Silver Jubilee in 1935). I’ve never been the greatest fan of roses, but these beds are truly magnificent! (There are around 12,000 rose plants of many varieties in these gardens). Ablaze with vibrant colour, petals pierced by bright shards of sunlight, alive with bees and gusts of breeze. I have to draw! Drawn closer by the intoxicating cocktail of scent and colour and movement. And the sun beating down. Bursts of laughter and applause bounces across the lawns from the Open Air Theatre on the opposite side of the garden (performing ‘Pride and Prejudice’ today).

As I draw, a magpie hops in amongst the rose bushes. It re-emerges with a crimson bud in its beak and pecks at it on the grass. Then hops back in to pick another!

030b-Regent's-Park

 


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.


 

The Regents Park, Chester Rd, London NW1 4NR
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 29: Bessborough Gardens, Pimlico

029-Bessborough-Gardens(Thursday 1 September 2016)

From Pimlico Station, I dash across Lupus Street through the cool white columned entrance portico and iron gates into the dazzling sunlight and shady leafage of Bessborough Gardens.
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On two sides are tall and elegant Georgian style stucco terraces, whose front gates open straight onto the park. I step down and follow the asymmetric pattern of stone and brick paths around and across the summer scorched lawns. There are several generous plane 029aand sycamore trees, and wide fringes of mature shrubs are flickering thickets to screen out the relentless Grosvenor and Vauxhall Bridge Roads.
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A map of Pimlico sites it in a rounded swoop of the Thames, just south of Westminster, on what was once marshy grazing land, known as ‘The Five Fields’. In 1666 it was inherited by a scrivener’s baby daughter, Mary Davies as part of a legacy (which also included the land that Knightsbridge and Mayfair now stand on). At the age of 12, Mary married Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet. Her dowry was to become a large part of, what is today, the massive property corporation: Grosvenor Estates.
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It was some time before any real development happened in Pimlico, however. This was not a popular area, partly due to its marshiness (a branch of the River Tyburn, which was pretty well an open sewer in the early 1800s, flowed through here and flooded regularly); and partly because the infamous Millbank Penitentiary, only 150 metres away (where Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Art now stand), cast a grim shadow over the area from the early 19th century. For part of its history it held prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia.
It’s a warm day with a gentle breeze rattling leaves across the path. I walk to the south end and slowly circumnavigate the tall, three- tiered fountain a few times, letting its mist cool 029cmy forehead. It was installed in 1980 to celebrate the Queen Mother‘s 80th birthday and is set in an octagonal stone pool. It was designed by the landscape architect, Peter Shepheard, based on George Vulliamy‘s dolphin motif that you can see twining around the lamp stems on the Embankment walls. I scramble up into the raised shrubbery at the southern end to perhaps draw a higher view back across the park, but trip over the edge of some flattened sheets of cardboard and, hidden under bushes, there are plastic bags of belongings. I have the feeling I’m intruding into somebody’s makeshift bedroom, so I make a hasty exit.
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I find a view from a shady corner at the other end, looking back across the lawns towards the fountain. The glittery blue St George Wharf Tower, at over 180 metres, appears ready for launch in the background.
In the 1820s, developer Thomas Cubitt saw the potential of the district for high-class housing. He started buying parcels of land from the Grosvenor Estate. The boggy ground was drained and was made firm with thousands of bargeloads of soil and rubble excavated during the construction of St Katharine Docks downstream.  Cubitt created a grid of streets and squares of grand white stucco houses and smaller terraces. As part of this scheme, a wedge-shaped garden was laid out in 1843 to serve the surrounding properties, with Holy Trinity Church being built a little later on the south side (the church was fire bombed in the 2nd World War and subsequently demolished in 1953).
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Much of Pimlico was severely affected by the Big Flood of 1928, where a downstream deluge of winter melt water met an upstream storm surge, causing the Thames to gush over and through the Embankment to inundate a large part of the city. Cubitt’s Bessborough Gardens terraces were badly affected. They were also much damaged during the second World War and deteriorated further over the following decades. Eventually they 029bwere pulled down as part of a major road scheme. In the 1980s new buildings went up, about 50 metres to the west, in the original style, containing 140 luxury apartments with underground parking, and the present gardens were created.
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The gardens are full of chatter and laughter now from bunches of lunchers sitting on the dried out grass. A plane tree on the middle lawn is spreading its shade in a wide circle, over a group of workmen who are joking and throwing someone’s boots and mock insults at each other. A mother and 2 daughters come over to watch me draw. Then every few minutes the girls run across from their picnic to see how I’m getting on with the sketch.
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After lunchtime the gardens quieten down and the true Bessborough residents emerge:
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A woman with shorts and spotty sun top struggles across with bags and bottles and sets up camp with a bright orange sunlounger. She ineffectively dabs suncream on her shoulders and neck and knees before stretching out with magazine and headphones.
An elegant lady with grey hair in a bun shuffles past with stick and a highland terrier in tow.
029dA pigeon gang strut about and peck at picnic fragments. A tawny cat stalks around them into the undergrowth. It emerges 10 minutes later and strides proudly back with a shrew (I think) swinging from its mouth.
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The sound of a piano trickles from an open upstairs window. I look up to see a small child’s face gazing down into the garden.
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A man in a long dark and dishevelled coat comes up and asks if I can spare some change. I drop some coins in his hand and he pushes at them with a long fingernail and nods and thanks me. As he walks away I wonder if it was his ‘bedroom’ I stumbled across earlier. He works his way methodically around the park, stooping over every person. Some reach into their pockets. Some don’t. The orange sunlounger lady dismissively wafts him away and reaches for the suncream.

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.


 

Bessborough Gardens, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Pimlico. SW1V 2JE
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 28: Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea

028a-Ranelagh-Gardens-(Thursday 25 August 2016)

Through the London Gate entrance and down, past the magnificent buildings and courtyards of the Royal Hospital. I see my first Chelsea Pensioner of the day: white bearded and wearing full scarlet coat even on this hot day!
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The Royal Chelsea Hospital was designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1692.  It had been instituted by Charles II to provide care for old and injured soldiers, “broken by age or war”, who had no family to look after them. Until that time, these men relied on church charities or even workhouses. The hospital was built in fields at the edge of the village of Chelsea so they could benefit from the countryside air, with a good view of the Thames. It very soon reached its full capacity of 476 residents. Today there are around 300 living here, including soldiers who served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and World War II..

028dI walk through the gate into Ranelagh Gardens, following meandering shaded paths which roam through and between the shrubberies, thickets and grassy undulations. I pass a group of mothers and offspring on the middle lawn. The children squealing as they run through the rainbow spray of a sprinkler. Beyond that, all is strangely empty here on such a sultry day.

Ranelagh Gardens was once a fashionable public pleasure garden, along similar lines to Vauxhall Gardens or Cremorne Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 16), but a bit more exclusive. The entrance charge, at half a crown, was more than double the others’ (Horace Walpole wrote soon after the gardens opened, “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.”). It was opened in 1742 in the grounds of Ranlelagh House, formerly the home of the first Earl of Ranelagh, treasurer of Chelsea Hospital .
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There were beautiful formal garden walks, through trees and around a long ornamental lake (fed by the River Westbourne, which used to flow into the Thames just south of here, but now flows under the plane tree- lined avenue on the east edge of these gardens, as part of the London sewer system) and a ‘floating’ Chinese pavilion. The entire gardens were illuminated at Canaletto_Ranelegh_1754night by strings of fairy lanterns and sparkling mirror fountains. But dominating everything else was the rococo Rotunda. It was 185 feet in diameter, built of wood, and lavishly decorated, it had high external and internal viewing galleries and provided an enormous circular arena (the Millenium Dome of its day). This was a major concert venue, with an organ and staging for orchestras (in 1765 the Rotunda was bursting at the seams for a performance by the 9 year old Mozart). The central core support of the building housed massive fireplaces and chimneys, which made this an all-year-round venue; the other pleasure gardens were closed in the winter.
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Canaletto visited the gardens on a number of occasions during his London visits between 1746-56 and painted pictures of the gardens and the interior of the Rotunda (see above) for different patrons.
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These 14 acres provided the perfect setting for Masquerade balls, hugely popular in the 18th Century (think of the last fancy dress party you attended and picture something 10 times more grand, imaginative and intriguing!). Wondrous pageants of pretence and make- believe. Masquerade was a real leveller at a time of great class division: you could dress up as a prince and rub shoulders with a real prince disguised as a shepherdess; come as a 028cbutcher and hobnob with a baker dressed as a candlestick maker; or you could be a duchess for the day and dance with the devil, a dodo or a dandy! At a time of the strictest social mores, you could let your hair down (or put it up), and cast aside inhibitions and decorum for an evening. These gardens were especially popular as, inside the heated Rotunda, the Masquerade season could extend well into winter..
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In 1803, debts and spiralling costs forced the consortium who owned Ranelagh to cut their losses and close the pleasure gardens after that summer’s season. The Rotunda was demolished two years later. Around 1860, Ranelagh Gardens were redesigned by John Gibson as a public park, much as it appears today.
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I continue through, seeing no-one except a solitary gardener watering a newly sown area of lawn. The air is so still and warm and shimmery. I have the oddest sense that, any moment, I’ll round a bend and catch the slightest glimpse of a harlequin disappearing behind a tree, or the ghosts of masked revellers dancing in a clearing. I walk up to the far southeast corner, amongst the trees and bushes, just behind the brickwork of the The Carabiniers memorial at the busy Chelsea Bridge crossroads. It’s overgrown and wilder here, and unkempt. Just how I like it! So I unpack my drawing things where I can get a view back through to the empty lawn.
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But here is the strangest contraposition: under this overgrown corner copse, just a few feet 028baway, through the railings, the world is going on in its hootiest, roaringest, roadragest, ghetto- blasterest and diesel fumest! Somehow, though, I can filter all that out, and hear the clear birdsong, the zuzz of passing wasps, and smell the earthy scent of leaf litter, as I look down onto a sunlit scene of tranquility, totally devoid of people. Standing with pinching shoes removed, in my own private estate! .
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A little green bud plops down onto my sketchbook page. Then suddenly, just as I’m about to brush it away, it becomes a little cricket and springs onto the rim of my paint water pot, where it stays for ages and doesn’t move even when I rinse my brush.
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End of drawing, shoes back on and I take a different route back towards the top part of the garden. Catching views through the western railings to the 13 acre South Grounds; closed off at the moment, to allow the field to re-establish itself. It’s used for a number of large scale events each year, including the Chelsea Flower Show in May.
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028aI find a spot amongst some redcurrant bushes to set up, opposite the gardeners’ depot, to make another drawing across towards the elegant brickwork and roofs of the Royal Hospital. Behind the hedge is the site of the original Ranelagh House. There are greenhouses and a patchwork of allotments which are used by the residents. It’s very warm now, no cooling breeze to speak of. I’m glad of the shade of a horse chestnut but I’m having to bat the wasps away as I work! There’s a constant percussion of hammering from the new Chelsea Barracks housing development over the road.
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A few more garden visitors now, some on shaded benches, some sunbathing. Children chase across the lawns. A convoy of 3 Chelsea pensioners on mobility scooters trundle past. And a pair of the old soldiers march slowly by, they pause to peer over at me. One lifts his stick as though he’s on parade and waves a shaky greeting to me. And I find myself waving a greeting back to him. With my paintbrush.
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028b-Ranelagh-Gardens
 


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.


Ranelagh Gardens, Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3 4SR
Google earth view here