(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.
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
and sycamore trees, and wide fringes of mature shrubs are flickering thickets to screen out the relentless Grosvenor and Vauxhall Bridge Roads.
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
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
my 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.
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
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
were 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.
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.
After lunchtime the gardens quieten down and the true Bessborough residents emerge:
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.
A 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.
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.
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