A piece of land covering about 8 acres, mingling unevenly between thoroughfares ancient and modern and much shaped by their development. Overhanging this space is the elevated curve of the A40 Westway, which carries an endless stream of traffic east to west and west to east, and piggybacks the ancient route of Harrow Road. And then, a little further, crosses Edgware Road: the Roman Watling Street. The major westward railway tracks running from nearby Paddington Station are a musical score stretching just to the south. On the north edge of Westbourne Green, the Grand Union Canal bends like an elbow.
My shadow leads me away from Royal Oak tube station, over Lord Hill’s Bridge and then disappears under the colossal concrete slab of the overpass (Westway was built in the late 60s to relieve congestion into central London. The route closely followed the railway to minimise its impact on housing, but still resulted in the demolishing of a large number of buildings. There were campaigns and rooftop protests about the disruption and noise). I dash across the busy junction into the calm of these open, gently undulating grounds. The paths follow the dips and rises, between striped sweeps of mown lawn and oaks and poplars and shady stands of lime (It’s difficult to imagine that, 50 years ago, this was a demolition site and was then used to store the massive concrete sections of the flyover before being craned into place). To the west, the high rise housing blocks of the Warwick Estate are tall silhouettes but don’t overshadow, their stark verticals softened and broken by the billows of tree foliage, autumn tinged from bright golden yellows through to warm mauve greens. And further round: the red and white spire of St Mary Magdalene Church juts sharply between the tree tops. A handful of people, dog walkers, runners. A group of teenage boys stand chatting around a bench, leaning close towards each other as they talk. A man with orange work trousers lies on the grass and seems to be simply contemplating the tops of buses and lorries rushing over the flyover.
At the eastern slope of the Green is a wildflower area: grasses and a mix of plants now dead, long white-pink stems and brittle seedheads waving stiffly in the breeze. But scattered amongst the dried herbage are bright dandelion- like flowers, very much alive. But not quite dandelions. Slightly bigger. I want to draw these exploding yellow stars in the undergrowth, with the thundering swoosh of the Westway above. So I set up my drawing things in the middle of this little bit of wildness and start scribbling in my sketchbook (see drawing at the top).
All around where I’m standing was once the hamlet of Westbourne, which dates back to well before the 12th century. Manor house, farm and cottages gathered around the green. The spring- fed River Westbourne winding through the surrounding fields. Over the following centuries, its well- watered and fertile meadows, orchards and nurseries provided produce for the growing population of London. As I draw today, goods are being transported into London at speed from all over the country from right to left across my field of vision. And I try to picture weary carthorses 500 years ago, hauling heavy carts, creaking with sacks of apples and onions. Or livestock being shepherded onto the rutted Harrow Road, just in front of me, for the journey to the City markets.
Westbourne green remained largely rural until the mid 1800s when housing began to spread northwards after the new Great Western Railway line (Paddington to Taplow) was brought through in 1838. Building at first along Harrow road, but it wasn’t long before new streets of terraces pushed northwards towards the canal until, before the end of the century, this whole area was densely covered. The only green spaces were private gardens. The river was diverted underground into buried pipes and culverts, where it flows today
I close my sketchbook and walk out of the main park area and through the grove of oaks and planes, dappled shade across the path and grass. Past the lively Edward Wilson School playground and northwards towards the church and canal. With inter war neglect and wartime bombing, by the 1950s, this had become one of the most deprived and densely populated areas of London. This walk towards the church would have been through grimy streets, past tattered terraces, grubby kids playing hopscotch in the gutter. Despite the conditions, this was a thriving and close- knit community. But it wasn’t to last. In the 1960s, London County Council initiated a programme of major slum clearances which wiped the slate clean here. Many families were displaced to new towns out of London (such as Stevenage and Harlow). Others were rehoused in the Warwick Estate tower blocks that rose from the newly landscaped area. Today, the church and the school are all that remain of Victorian Westbourne Green. A new, multi ethnic local community now benefits from this leafy, canalside setting.
St Mary Magdalene Church rises from the grassy, slope below the canal. Built in 1872, it was originally squeezed into a narrow site between streets, its needle spire soaring above the parish it served. It is widely recognised as architect, George Edmund Street’s gothic masterpiece in London. Two boys on wobbly scooters are racing each other down the slope past the church. I step out of the way and, looking down, see some flowers chalked on the tarmac.
The path continues up to a footbridge over the canal. We’re less than 500 metres upstream of Little Venice and Rembrandt Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 11) and just over 500 metres downstream of Meanwhile Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 18). This was the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal (now part of the Grand Union), opened in 1801, built for the same reason as the Westway: improved access into the city, for all kinds of goods, but especially heavy cargoes like coal, timber or building materials, which were difficult and costly to transport any other way. The downside in the 19th century was the transporting out of the city of rubbish, cinders and horse manure, much of which was dumped in sites next to the canal. This wasn’t a pleasant place up until the 1950s: dirty, smelly, rubbish and rat infested. But, opened up during the slum clearances and redevelopment and after years of clearing and restoration it has been transformed into today’s idyllic wildlife corridor.
A line of narrowboats are moored alongside the towpath. These are serious, lived in boats, with piles of logs on top, and gardens in buckets and growbags. I stroll towards the western end and, under a sycamore tree start another drawing looking along the canalside towards the Harrow Road bridge. On the wall across the water is a mural made from recycled scrap: a giant dragonfly, swans, kingfisher and frog, reflected into multicoloured ripples below. In front of me a beautiful metal fence with swirly circular design. More of a long, curving sculpture than a barrier, but separates me from the flow of runners and walkers, cyclists and skaters. A little girl walking home with her mother runs her lunchbox along it to make clink clunk metal-plastic music.
A sycamore seed twizzles down and flips onto my sketchbook.
(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 )
Westbourne Green, Harrow Road, Paddington, London W2 5ES
Google earth view here