“Don’t you go taking our sunshine away with you!” (Thursday 1 December 2016)
A perfect blue hangs over this first day of winter as I take the turn into the park. I hear yells of schoolkids from the tennis courts and sharp shouts of encouragement from the teacher. Sounds of scuffing on tarmac and a ball bouncing hard. The air prickles with cold. In front is a wide expanse, 2 acres or so; shadows stretch long stripes from a regiment of bare Lombardy poplars alongside the path. They catch the sunlight and light up like skeletons of flames. I sit on a bench for a while and watch dog owners, scattered across the field, throwing balls for an assortment of breeds, who hare across the roughish grass to retrieve. The nearest dog, a kind of terrier, yaps enthusiastically as it bounces after the ball then leaps and catches mid air every time!
Rising behind the row of housebacks on the north, like the ghost of a drum, is the empty framework of one of the, now disused, Kensal Green gasometers.
Two hundred years ago this was still farmland, which had been carved out of the original Forest of Middlesex in Saxon times. Marshy pastures watered by the springs below Notting Hill, which gently seeped down to Counters Creek, just beyond the west flank of this park (Counters Creek now mostly underground until it drains into the Thames as Chelsea Creek). Grazing cattle knee deep in mud. This was known as Notting Barns Farm and had been inherited by the St Quintin family of Scampston Hall, Yorkshire, who grandly elevated its status to Notting Barns Manor. The farmhouse (or Manor House as the St Quintins preferred!) was only a couple of hundred metres south of here and still standing at the end of the 19th century. It was only after the 1860s, when the new Hammersmith and City railway opened up these fields to the city, that Colonel Matthew Chitty Downs St Quintin, in need of funds, leased the land to the entrepreneur Charles Henry Blake for housing development. To his credit, Colonel St Qunitin specified a high quality of housing design and amenties, which prevented these streets slumping into slumland, as happened in other parts of North Kensington by the mid 1900s. The family name endures in St Quintin Avenue and St Quintin Estate, south of the park.
It’s a busy afternoon despite the cold. Processions of schoolchildren to the sports fields. Trains of steamy breath. A few mums and toddlers in the large playground. Bright coloured space rocket skelter slides and climbing frames and springy animal bouncers (in summer, the waterpark opens for colourful cooling water play, with pools and fountains and waterjets and aquaslides). I stroll past the refreshments kiosk, shuttered like an off season seaside cafe, and up into the formal gardens. Shrubberies, lawns, a tall tree palm, central to circular beds, just planted out with winter bedding. At the top a pergola. A young couple entwined together on a bench. The girl sits across the boy’s knees, pummelling his shoulders with her fists and laughing! He impassive. In the middle of the lawn, an olive tree is silver blue in the sunlight, its trunk twisting like a knurled torso out of the thickness of a lavender bed. I want this in the foreground of my drawing, so set up my easel on the damp grass (see drawing at top).
After the 1st World War, this 7 acre piece of land was bought by the Kensington War Memorial Committee for £8,800 and handed over to the London County Council in 1923 to be laid out as much needed recreation land in this built up area, with children’s playground and sports fields. In 1925, part of the site on the south west corner, behind where the waterpark now stands, was sold off for the building of a children’s hospital, much supported by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. It was a paediatric hospital for 40 years or so until the ’70s when it switched to geriatrics. Now the Princess Louise Nursing Home..
A group of teenage boys arrive piecemeal and gather under the pergola at the top of this formal garden. Loud and high spirited. I think it’s a regular hang out. Two of them arrive on motorbikes and have kept their helmets on. They walk over the grass to look at my drawing, a muffled: “nice, nice, really sick, man!” The young girl is shrieking and jumping up to reach her mobile phone that her boyfriend is holding out of reach..
The future of this park is uncertain for these informal park visitors, dog walkers, picnickers and school PE sessions; earlier, on the way in to the park my eye was caught by a laminated poster reading “PLEASE HELP SAVE OUR PARK”. A plan by Kensington and Chelsea Council to replace half the grass here with an artificial football pitch would make this space less of an attraction for most of the people I’ve seen here today. The consultation period ended the day before my visit and the proposals are now being considered. I’d love to be able to come back here in 5 or 10 years time and still watch dogs chasing balls through those long poplar shadows stretching across real rough green grass.
My fingers are getting numb with cold and I have a serious need to wrap them around a hot chocolate. As I pack my things, a broadly smiling park attendant in yellow hi-vis coat is cycling slowly around the paths on an inspection tour. He wobbles over on his bike and calls over cheerily: “How ya doing Bruv? Bee-utiful day! Don’t you go taking our sunshine away with you!”
(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 and early 2017, 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 the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.) www.nickandrew.co.uk
Kensington Memorial Park, St Mark’s Road, London. W10
Open every day 7.30am – dusk
Google earth view here