Sticks in the Smoke 46: St James’s Park, London

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Ice and fireworks (Wednesday 18 January 2017)

I push my hands deeper into my pockets as I leave Queen Anne’s Gate and cross Birdcage Walk. Brr! Feels like the coldest day! The air is crisp and glistening above these 57­ acres of frosted grass, rolling out northwards to the The Mall, which cuts, as straight as a march, from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty Arch. The sun is melting stripes of green between the shadows of random clumps of trees.
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St James’s Park is the oldest Royal Park in London. It takes its name from a women’s leper hospital, which was built in the 12th century and dedicated to St James the Less. The views southwest from here, where the park lies today, were across marshy meadowland on the banks of the River Tyburn, grazed by cattle and wallowed by pigs. And further, towards the towers of the original Westminster Abbey against the watery gleam from the Thames beyond. In the 1530s, Henry VIII acquired all this land. He had the hospital demolished and built the redbrick St James’s Palace  as his hunting lodge retreat from the stress of Whitehall 046acourt life. He had the meadows drained and fenced as a deer park. This provided him with an almost unbroken 2 mile gallop of royal hunting grounds, from here, westwards through what is now Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
I make my way towards the lake’s Blue Bridge  (the lake was originally spanned by an ornate Chinese inspired structure, built for national celebrations of victory against Napoleon in 1814. It had a tall pagoda rising from the middle but this was destroyed in a blaze during the firework festivities. It was replaced by an elegant iron suspension bridge in 1857, which itself was replaced by this one in 1957. It looks incongruous here, better suited to link a multi storey car park with a shopping centre). The lake courses the whole length of the park. On a map it looks like a giant claw, clutching at the seat of government in Whitehall. Today the middle part of the lake is frozen in a great sheet. Two confused coots are tottering tentatively and gulls appear frozen to the surface, but a pair of swans are determinedly breaking a winding channel through the ice. Tourists and park visitors line the bridge, fascinated and clicking pictures. As the swans push ahead, the ice flexes for a moment with an eerie doink doink sound until it shatters. 046bThe dull and waxy lustre of willow ginger in the ice suddenly replaced by sharp reflections of sunlit gold.
In the early 17th century, the park was landscaped and the drainage improved. The deer made way for the royal menagerie, which included camels, crocodiles and an elephant. Also a row of aviaries which housed the royal collection of exotic birds (hence Birdcage Walk). The Tyburn wound through the park at the foot of a vineyard, to the eastern end where pools and reedy islands lured ducks which were shot for the royal table. In 1660, Charles II celebrated the return of the monarchy with a bold redesign of St James’s Park in the formal French style, under the direction of Andre Mollet, the French landscape gardener. Avenues of chestnut trees and limes with a central feature of a straight ‘canal’ half a mile long. It would freeze hard in those little ice age winters and Londoners would flock here with their skates. In the summer, visitors could take a boat along the Canal (there were even a pair of gondolas from Venice, given by the Doge). Or promenade and maybe even meet the King (sometimes accompanied by his favourite mistress, Nell Gwynne). In the evenings, though, the park gained a reputation as a place for moonlit trysts, especially at the western end, 046caround a small lake called Rosamond’s Pond (thought to be named after the tragic and romantic heroine, Rosamond Clifford).
I follow the lakeside path with the sun warm on my left cheek and the chill from the lake on my right. The banks are bustling with all kinds of water birds trumpeting, screeching, piping and calling. Then, as I walk, there’s the thud thud of a marching band pulsing the chill air. As I get closer, try as I might, I can’t stop myself stepping in time to the drumbeat. I arrive to watch as, with Buckingham Palace in the background, the bearskinned and grey- coated Foot Guards bandsmen stride as one trumpeting, piping, umpahing and thumping body round Spur Road and into their home in Wellington Barracks.
From here the path drops down to the sunken area below the balustrade of the Queen Victoria Memorial Garden. The waters of the Tyburn are gushing from an ornamental outflow to feed the lake, which keeps this end ice free. I unpack my things to draw the view down the lake (see drawing at top). The West Island hangs just there, a magical fragment of wilderness with a weeping willow draping like a golden string curtain towards the water. At the far end, the towers and domes of Whitehall twinkle like a Disney fairytale palace. The Ice Queen’s?
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In the 1820s, George IV commissioned the renowned landscape architect John Nash to remodel the park. Nash cast aside formality and straight lines to transform St James’s to pretty well its current, more pastoral appearance, with naturalistic lake, undulating lawns, winding paths and informal shrubberies and trees, which mingle up towards more formal tree lines at the edges of the park
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046dAs I finish my drawing, a rat purposefully scurries through the bank side undergrowth. Probably kept fat by the thousands of handfuls of bird seed thrown every day. A woman in a parka walks past, pigeons clinging to her shoulders and one on her hat. I think they know her. She probably comes every day with a Tupperware box of bird food.
It’s so very cold. I walk the lake path. A mass of waterbirds. And there in the quivering blue violet ripples, overlooked by the curvilinear and turf- roofed ‘Inn the Park’ cafe, is a host of coots, like a cluster of clergymen shivering in the water. I buy a steaming coffee and grip it tightly to defrost my drawing hand. My eye is caught by the sparkling spray of the Swire Fountain (installed in 2007, the jets reach over 4.5 metres high, helping to oxygenate the water), with the bright backdrop of Horse Guards Parade and WhitehallReedbeds fringe the banks at this end, fostering wildlife. And just across is Duck Island, a wild reserve for waterfowl, including a colony of pelicans (first introduced when a 046epair were donated by a Russian ambassador in 1664), which are publicly fed every day between 2 and 3pm. It’s also home to the London Parks & Gardens Trust charity.
I meander across the hard ground, my shadow stretching long, up towards The Mall. A glimpsed band of bleached white elegance between the trees. But here, at a junction in the path, stands a cherry tree, abundant with early pink blossom, ignited by sunlight. I set up my easel and start to draw (see below). On a nearby bench, a man in a khaki jacket and close cropped hair is holding a can of Special Brew. And more in a plastic bag. He calls over “excuse me my friend, what are you doing?” I tell him I’m drawing. “When did you start doing that?” I say about half an hour ago “no I mean when did you start doing art?” I tell him about a century ago. He comes over and joins me and introduces himself: “Paddy”. His face has lived and there’s a scar under his left eye. Tells me he came down from Leicester. He’d lost his mother and sister in the past 6 months and things not going too well for him up there. He came down to London to “be somewhere that no-one knows me”. Been sleeping rough; slept last night under a bush in Vauxhall. He wants to talk. Needs to tell his stories. As we chat I keep drawing the cherry blossom. It’s a burst of fireworks. Or neurons sparking in a busy mind.
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The long shadows grow longer. We share my sandwiches and he tells me that last time he was in London was in the 80s, bricklaying at Canary Wharf and he earned a packet “and I mean a packet, Nick!” And he tells me how at the age of 7 he watched his drunk Dad attack his mother with a hammer. He had to call an ambulance.
As the sun sinks the earth chill rises through the soles of my shoes. I give Paddy money for a cup of tea. He picks up his cans and rucksack and says he knows where he can go and ask for a room “I mean they’ve got about 50 bedrooms, they can spare one for the night!” and weaves off in the direction of Buckingham Palace.
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(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.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

St James’s Park, London. SW1A 2BJ
Unrestricted opening
Google earth view here

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4 thoughts on “Sticks in the Smoke 46: St James’s Park, London

  1. Wow, this was great…I was looking for something to spectacular to read…The way you described every detail was amazing – If I could close my eyes now I can almost feel the serenity it may have felt like to be in such a beautiful place…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nick, both your drawings are beautiful, but I especially love the first one across the lake. I can almost feel that cold, rippling water. And I do love the sparkling cherry blossom in the second sketch. You’ve captured it so well. Incidentally, you could write a separate book about the people you have met on your trips!!

    Liked by 1 person

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