(Thursday 6 October 2016)
I walk a wide path, which traces around the garden’s long elegant rectangle. A sedate acre of lawns, flowerbeds and surrounding shrubberies, many mature trees, including limes and planes providing pools of shadow, cherry trees and ornamental acers. It’s clearly well tended and cared for. The tarmac is a deep purple patchwork within the patterns of strewn fallen leaves and twigs. All seems in slow motion, sharp sounds absorbed by the swaddling
softness of foliage above, below and all around. There are very few people, figures restful on benches. And, in the children’s playground, a mother tightly rocks her baby, as daughter swings.
At the time of the Domesday Book
, in 1086, the land in which this garden sits was mostly rough pasture and woodland belonging to the Abbey of Westminster. It was well known for the purity of its spring water which fed the Westbourne River
. At this time much of it was leased by a close associate of William the Conqueror
called Baynard (or Bainiardus
), who built the fortified Baynard’s Castle
, close to the Thames riverfront. He used this land for grazing and to supply his household with fresh water. Over the centuries that followed, this tract of semi- rural land became known as Baynard’s Watering, later corrupted to Bayswater
I arrive at the southwest corner directly beneath the flagpole, which proudly flaunts the garden’s fluttering Green Flag
award. From this point I have the path’s perspective all the way to the far end, where the sun dappled stucco and porticoed windows of the terraces glimpse between the plane branches.
London’s explosive expansion into the surrounding countryside during the nineteenth century buried Bayswater’s fields under stone and cobbles. Squares and terraces spread and railway lines stretched and stitched these new communities together. Porchester Square was one of the last areas to be developed. Begun in 1850 and completed within 10 years, the houses were built piecemeal by about 8 different builders, more or less to the same proportions, and including the same features of columned porches, balconies and balustrades, but they’ve clearly tried to outdo each other with a range of different architectural ornamentation, such as scrolls, bosses, swags and volutes.
The leftover oblong of pasture in the middle was laid to lawns and flowerbeds to provide a private garden for the square’s residents. Although opened to the public in 1955, it still has the air of genteel exclusivity: the entrance gate is hidden down the side street and the houses of the north terrace back on to the garden where, in times past, children would have been able to run out of their back doors into a safe and enclosed play space.
The shrubs are thick and abundant at the west end of the garden, shielding the busier Porchester Road. But I can see across to the stone lion heads roaring either side of the entrance to Porchester Hall
, as sunlight rakes across its art deco frontage. It was built in the 1920s and houses a banqueting and concert hall. It’s had a colourful and sometimes controversial history: home to London’s earliest drag balls in the 1960’s. And it was where some of Monty Python
‘s ‘The Meaning of Life’
was filmed (including the delightful exploding Mr Creosote!
). Here too are the Porchester Spa
: London’s earliest Turkish Baths (still going full steam
), a swimming pool and the Paddington Library.
Cars pull up at the junction and I hear an eclectic range of world music blasting through the railings from their open windows, from Armenian rap to Arabian hiphop. Bayswater has long been one of the most cosmopolitan areas in London, with communities including Greek, Arab, French and Brazilian.
Hardly anyone comes round to this end of the garden. A woman walking her King Charles Spaniel lifts her sunglasses to look at my drawing and says she thinks it’s ‘nice’. Meanwhile her dog licks my paintbox that I’ve left lying on the ground. The sun edges round and I catch an awareness of the flag’s shadow dancing on the lawn to my left. But I’m also aware of the sun hot on my right cheek. I move my easel forward into the slowly retreating shade and, by the end of the drawing I’ve probably moved about 3 metres! Later, the sky clouds over and an insistent easterly breeze sends leaves shivering across the path.
(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 )
Porchester Gardens, Bayswater, London W2 6AW
Google earth view here