Concerto for clanking scaffolding and saxophone (Wednesday 3 November 2016)
Back in the heat of August, while wandering this area after drawing St Mary Aldermanbury; St Mary Staining and St Olave Silver Street for Sticks in the Smoke 27, I came across this little pair of sainted green spaces, just a street’s width apart, also created in the footprints of churchyards devastated by the Great Fire in 1666. Extraordinary to imagine that 400 years ago, these 5 churches all stood so close to each other within an area of only about 200 x 200 metres. But I guess, in these heavily populated city streets and alleys, there would need to be enough pew space, when most people, devout or not, attended church. The chorus of ringing must have been deafening on Sunday mornings. (The bells of St Anne and St Agnes church are immortalised in a verse in the traditional nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons‘: “..Kettles and pans, Say the bells at St. Annes..”)
So I return today and, as I approach the junction of Noble and Gresham Streets, trees seem to be leaning out and shaking their autumn foliage at the glass and steel of the surrounding blocks, flinging showers of leaves with every shake. Many scarfed and wrapped office workers rush by quickly to escape this easterly breeze, chill as a blade.
This area was on the northwest edge of Roman Londinium. A fort was built here in AD120 to house the official guard (over 1000 men) of the Governor of Britain. Wartime bombing uncovered sections of its foundations, including a square sentry turret. From the edge of St Anne and St Agnes you can look down over a wall at the excavations and can clearly see the stone square foot of this turret and stretches of wall, topped with layers of masonry and brickwork from medieval to Victorian. These two churches were built before the 12th century, just outside the site of the fort.
St Anne and St Agnes Garden
Around the corner a scaffolding lorry is being unloaded. Temporary barriers have closed off the gardens! Steel poles and planks are encasing the church in preparation for essential restoration work; hammers clang and ring as the structure builds towards the roof. I ask one of the scaffolders if I can stand just inside their temporary barriers to do my drawing and he shrugs his permission.
In earliest Norman records the church that stood here was confusingly referred to either as St Agnes or ‘St Anne in the Willows’s. By the 15th century, these names had been brought together in its double dedication. As with the neighbouring churches, mentioned above, this was also engulfed and destroyed by the Great Fire. Only the lower section of its tower stood above the charred rubble. But within 20 years, this had been incorporated into a new and elegant brick church, designed by Wren, based on a Greek cross plan. It was severely damaged again in an air raid in 1940. Postwar reconstruction was funded by the Lutheran church, and reopened in 1966 for use by London’s Estonian and Latvian communities. Since 2013 it’s taken on a new identity, as the Gresham Centre: the exciting home of the musical educational charity, VCM Foundation, inspiring and engaging young people through song and sound.
These third of an acre gardens were laid out on the old churchyard in the 1970s, a variety of trees planted, including maple, lime and catalpa, plane, ash and cherry. They wrap an L shape around the south and east of the church, sections of which are shrouded behind tangled and mingled branches and twigs of autumnal and evergreen foliage. I draw the complex leafy lacework in front of scaffolded walls (see drawing at top)
. At the southern end a rowan is a gold yellow flame, the most intense hue in view. People stream in and out of Lloyds Bank Head Office
, just up the steps. Some stop to smoke, leaning on the wall overlooking the ruins. One of the scaffolders comes over to have a look at my drawing. He shouts up to his mate: “ere Kirk! e’s drawn a picture of you up there!….. Not very flattering!”
In fact I haven’t drawn Kirk. He wouldn’t keep still long enough!
St John Zachary Garden (The Goldsmith’s Garden)
On the opposite side of Noble Street, St John Zachary Garden is shaded by two massive plane trees, which compete in height with the sheer steel and glass Lloyds bank building
which looms like a cliff over the garden. Walk under an ironwork arch with golden leopard’s heads on either side and at the apex. This garden is on two levels. Past beds of evergreen shrubs and exotic plants, some late lillies still in ragged flower, and up five wide steps into a small paved and gravelled garden, with ancient gravestones laid. Here the gnarly plane tree trunks. Simple benches sit amongst ferns and spreading shrubs and low, feathery trees around the edge. There’s no-one here but I’m on the same level as the ground floor of the adjacent Lloyds building, and have a commanding view of multifarious and hectic office activity through the grid of windows. This is on the site of the churchyard of St John Zachary (aka John the Baptist
), which dates from before the 12th century. It too was heavily damaged in the Great Fire, after which it remained as ruins until pulled down in the 1800s.
A flourishing fig tree overhangs as I take the steps down to the sunken level. More golden leopard masks on guard, fixed to the walls. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths have owned land hereabouts, dating from 1339. After the buildings here were destroyed in the war, this little garden (less than quarter of an acre
) was laid out in 1941 by firewatchers
(in 1950, it won the Best Garden on a Blitzed Site
) The lower garden is the site where the earliest
recorded Livery Hall was built. In 1300 Edward I
decreed that quality of gold and silver should be standardised across the country, assayed by the Goldsmith’s Company
and marked with the leopard’s head- the first ever hallmark. Today, assaying is carried out in the current Goldsmiths Hall
, a solid Victorian edifice which sternly overlooks these gardens from the other side of Gresham Street.
Down here, a simple path around the edge, a square, well tended lawn with pedestal fountain in the centre, a few small trees and shrubs around the edge and climbers up the brickwork. In the far corner, a sculpture by Wilfred Dudeney
of three printers, showing the whole newspaper process from editor to printer to newsboy (originally commissioned in 1957 for New Street Square, but moved here when it was being redeveloped
). I look for a suitable spot to draw and set up on the lower path close to the Lloyds building, where warm air is wafting from a heating vent. A laurel in the foreground and a red- leaved Japanese Maple (I think
) spreads out from the upper
beds (see drawing above
) Not many people in the garden; a businessman with his coat collar pulled up, gripping a steaming cup and murmuring into his phone. A young couple come down the steps hand in hand and sit on a bench in the view I’m drawing, hold each other closely and kiss. I look up from my sketchbook and we accidentally make eye contact a few times. A bit awkward.
Calls of crows echo loudly between the buildings: the song of the fast approaching autumnal gloam. And, to add to the effect, for a few minutes there’s the halting howl of a saxophone from the direction of St Anne and St Agnes Gardens.
(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 )
St Anne & St Agnes, Gresham Street, London. EC1A 4ER
St John Zachary (The Goldsmiths Garden), Gresham Street, London. EC2V 7HN
Google earth view here