“As I was walkin’ ’round Grosvenor Square. Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air..”* (Thursday 10 November 2016)
The Ronald Reagan statue gleams at me as I cross the road on the southwest corner of the square. I walk past the modernist US Embassy
building (designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1960
. Although I think it’s been used as a model for countless multi storey car parks since it was built!
). A powerful statement in an otherwise predominantly Georgian and neo- Georgian part of London, spanning the whole west
width of Grosvenor Square. Its great gilded eagle, spreading wings on the roof, ready to soar over the luxury hotels and other embassies standing around these 6 acres. Debris and crumpled placards from last night’s protests against Donald Trump’s election lie discarded amongst the fallen leaves.
There’s been an American presence in Grosvenor Square since the 18th Century, when John Adams
became the first American ambassador to Britain and, from 1785 -88, lived in a house on the north east corner of the square (ten years later he was elected the second president of the United States
). The US Embassy and other departments have been here since the 1930s (Eisenhower had his HQ here during World War 2, when the Square was popularly known as ‘Little America’
). In 1968 there were large anti war protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War
and, over the years, this square has been the focus for the venting of feelings about American international policy. Security has become a huge issue since 9/11
and the road in front of the US embassy was closed permanently to traffic in 2001, and defensive barriers put in place. However, partly because of continuing security concerns, and partly out of a need for a 21st Century upgrade, USA is now building a new high security embassy
across the Thames, sitting close to the old Battersea Power Station
. An energy efficient glass cube, due for completion in 2017.
Sunshine as I enter the park (and definitely a nip to the air!
), speckled shadows over golden orange leaf litter under a grove of plane trees. This is a broad and airy space, which feels like a piece of ancient land. Which indeed it is; just like Berkeley Square, down the road (see Sticks in the Smoke 13
), this was a piece of original pasture retained within a fine square of elegant houses when Mayfair was first being developed by the Grosvenor family
in the early 1700s. It was laid out as a private garden to serve the residents of the square. Oval in shape, enclosed by railings, with hedges and elm trees. Formal gravel and grass
paths and a pattern of shrubberies around a central statue of George 1
in a commanding position on his horse. It was redesigned in the 19th century, made less formal and with tennis courts and children’s swings, and the elms were replaced with plane trees, which could better cope with acid fallout from the smoke of the city’s hundreds of thousands of coal fires. George 1st’s statue had fallen into disrepair so was removed.
Heavy slate purple clouds are building from the west. Rain was forecast. I take the perimeter path, past the tall Eagle Squadrons Memorial
, erected in 1985 at the southern end of the main paved axis of the gardens. The bronze eagle sculpted in 1985 by Dame Elisabeth Frink
sits on its peak, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It commemorates the 244 Americans and the 16 British fighter pilots who served in the three Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons before the US officially joined the 2nd world war.
On to the far end, where the September 11th 2001 garden
faces the American embassy across the lawns. A semicircle of colourful and textural planting, symbolic of love,
friendship and remembrance, including lilies, rosemary, ivy, lavender and roses. A wide green oak pergola, inscribed with the words ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’
, houses memorial plaques for the 67 UK citizens who lost their lives in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on that awful day. An anonymous sleeping bundle is swaddled in a blanket on a bench under the pergola.
There’s the smell of approaching rain, so I walk across the lawn and make a speedy start on drawing the view towards the Stars and Stripes on the US embassy flagpole, twisting and furling through bare oak twigs (see image at top
). Many well dressed people stride past, talking earnestly, with a serious and important air. A jaunt of smart suited men with scarves talking Italian (the Italian embassy is behind me on the east flank of the square
). Two high vis clad workmen stop to watch me draw. They’re taking a break from conservation work on one of the older houses in the square. Replacing cornices. One comments that drawing must be such a relaxing thing to do. I reply “Hmm, yes, it is sometimes!”
, while consciously trying to unfurrow my brow and loosen the tight grip on my pen.