Sticks in the Smoke 47: Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair

mount-street-gardenGiraffe in the mist (Wednesday 25 January 2017)

I can feel the damp cold pressing down as I walk past expensive restaurants, polished hotel entrances and luxury shoe shops in this, one of the most well-heeled parts of London. With my scuffed walking boots and rucksack I feel like an intruder. Through 19th century lanterned gates into this old churchyard garden, hidden from the surrounding streets.
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A ride of a mile or so out of the medieval city, these open meadows were on the northern edge of the Manor of Ebury (named after the Eye Bourne, the stream which became known as the Tyburn). For centuries, a quiet backwater. But during the English Civil War, this piece of land was in a strategic location. In 1642, fears that the Royalists were planning to invade the Parliamentarian City prompted the building of defences and fortifications. A structure was built nearby, called Sergeant’s Fort, but nicknamed Oliver’s Mount (giving it’s name to Mount Street).
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‘Into the Wind’ by Nic Fiddian -Green
Defensive ditches and ridges were built right through where the present day gardens lie. They were manned by voluntary militia known as the Trained Bands. No Royalist attack on the City happened and little evidence is left of these defences.
After the end of the Civil War this area was livened up by an annual fair that took place for a fortnight at the start of May. It began as a livestock market but by the start of the 18th century had developed into a large, unregulated, sprawling event with food sellers, beer stalls, street entertainers, gambling booths, acrobatic and wrestling shows, comic theatre and lots of other attractions. Inevitably, however, as it grew it attracted thieves, pickpockets and troublemakers. Drink ran freely and the nights became rough and noisy, which didn’t go down well with local residents. Since being acquired by the Grosvenor family in 1677, this was now becoming established as a fashionable district for the gentry and aristocracy, with its grid of elegant streets and squares being laid out. So the event’s days were numbered and, following a riot in which a police constable was killed, it was brought to an end in 1709, but is still preserved in the name of the district: Mayfair.
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I follow the path past the entrance to the Neo-Gothic Church of the Immaculate Conception (built in the 1840s, designed by Gothic revivalist architect J.J.Scoles, with magnificent altar by Pugin), guarded by the densely twisting branches of an ornamental pear tree, an unnatural grey purple in this weakly light.

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Bronze giraffe presented by Italy

Lawns of threadbare winter grass are neatly enclosed with metal edging into round cornered triangles and lozenge shapes, which roll to the rim of the basement drops of the surrounding Victorian mansion blocks. These tall red brick and stone buildings, both hem in and protect the garden. There are several exotic trees planted here, such as an Australian Mimosa and a huge Canary date palm, which wouldn’t survive without the windbreak of these walls. The paths are lined with benches, only a few occupied today by hardy lunchers (there are roughly 90 benches here, many of them with dedications sponsored by Americans due to the close proximity of Grosvenor Square and the US Embassy).

At the southeast entrance, a little bronze giraffe is grazing the ornamental grasses in a wide stone planter, inscribed with: ‘A gift to the City of Westminster from the Italian Republic 20th November 1987’.
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A dense mist sits on the rooftops like a shroud, seemingly supported by the twisted branches of several massive plane trees. The garden feels slightly eerie in this gauzy light. Sounds of traffic from outside are muffled. People’s voices ring and echo around the space. Decorators are stripping paint from a grand first floor balcony window. Tapping and scraping a constant theme. A scatter of paint fragments like a light sprinkle of snow on evergreen shrubs below. I set up to draw eastwards along the garden (see top), towards the giant verdigris horse’s head on a black cube plinth, which dominates the garden (‘Into the Wind’ by Nic Fiddian-Green), its neck and mane deeply and expressively grooved. The submissive downward thrust of its head somehow adds to the melancholy air of this space.
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Grosvenor Chapel spire and Mayfair Library
In 1710 an Act of Parliament was passed, set up to relieve the pressure on overcrowded inner London churchyards. Sites were purchased to build a ‘necklace’ of churches and cemeteries around the city. This space was bought in 1723 to be used as a burial ground for the newly built St George’s Hanover Square (about quarter of a mile northeast of here). A few years later, the Grosvenor Chapel, simple and puritan (design inspiration for many New England churches), was set up here, a sentinel, its gravestone shaped east window watchful over the garden. Today, its stocky copper bluegreen spire dissolves coldly up into the mist.
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At about the same time, the parish workhouse was built on the garden’s northern flank. The local jobless and roofless were provided with hard work, board, and lodgings, their outlook over this dark and shabby cemetery. In the 1870s they were moved to a larger institution further west in Chelsea, and the workhouse was swept aside to make space for the grand apartment houses which stand here today.
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In the 1850s, these burial grounds were closed by Act of Parliament, like all others in central London, due to concerns about the health risks caused by overcrowding. In 1887, the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act allowed ‘open spaces and disused burial grounds in the Metropolis for the use of the inhabitants thereof for exercise and recreation’.

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Drinking fountain. Church of Immaculate Conception in the background

It was laid with lawns and flowerbeds, and trees were planted. The layout has stayed almost the same since then. In 1891 a bronze drinking fountain, with lions head spouts and topped with rearing horse, was designed by architects, George and Petocommissioned by a local estate agent (in 2005 it was restored to full flowing order after falling into disrepair).

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Towards the western entrance are four cherry trees, full with blossom, light and whippy against the majestic planes behind them. A scatter of pink on the grass, not fallen petals but, on closer inspection, confetti: fallout from weddings held regularly at the registry office above the Mayfair Library.
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Several school processions excitedly cross the diagonal path between St George’s Primary School on the southeast corner of the garden, and the Library. Both are impressive redbrick cakes, with Portland stone icing, built in the early 1890s in Jacobean style. One class of animated children is touring the garden with clipboards making nature notes and drawings. I hear the teacher’s stern voice: “Kyle! What did I say about keeping off the grass? AND not pulling leaves off the shrubs?”  My inner schoolboy shrinks and I hastily start packing my things, hoping she doesn’t spot me standing on the grass.
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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. These will be shown in a forthcoming London exhibition)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair, London. W1K 2TH
Open 8am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

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5 thoughts on “Sticks in the Smoke 47: Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair

  1. I love your sketch, Nick. It’s the depth to it which is so strong. and you’ve got the colour of the buildings spot on! As always, I really appreciate the London history you pack into your pages. I was born and bred in London, but I’ve learned more from your journal than I ever knew before!

    Liked by 1 person

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