The deep desire for a piece of the Earth to call your own after you die has saved many acres of original London soil and clay from being paved, concreted or tarmacked over. Just like several of the other public gardens I’ve visited in this project, Paddington Street Gardens owes it’s existence to an earlier incarnation as burial ground.
The sky today is a slab of slate. I feel a few flicks of rain but turn up my collar and follow the paths which trace a tapering rectangle around the garden and a curving ‘X’ across the middle. As I walk I try to imagine this landscape about 280 years ago, dank and misty this time of year, a line of wintery willows in the west which mark the line of the stream, or bourne (the village name was originally St Mary le Bourne). And in the sky to the southeast, a bruise black shroud hanging over the City. Sometimes for days on end. Smoke from the 30,000 coal fires of Georgian London. Getting ever closer each winter. And a couple of fields away the stubby stone spire of the village church, with rooks clamouring and circling. By the 1730s, the church sexton was struggling to find space for new graves, so this 2.5 acres of land I’m visiting today was donated to the parish as a new burial ground by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford (a politician and major London landowner; Harley Street and Oxford Street were named after him).
Forty years later, an additional acre of land was acquired on the opposite side of the street, which has now become Paddington Street Gardens North: a square of lawn with shrubs and beds and edged with old gravestone remnants, overlooked by a smart apartment block; its plate glass reflecting and fragmenting the crooked tangle of tree twiggery.
The garden is well tended, abundant shrub foliage is a mix of hues, from shiny blue laurels to the brightest yellow choisya, singing out through the light rain. Planted terracotta pots line the paths. A symmetrical pattern of lawns with embellishments of geometric beds evenly pricked with yellow and blue flowers. Winter worn grass has been taped off and reseeded. A flock of pigeons pecking their way across. The north lawn has a series of segmented beds planted with different rose varieties. At the moment all are simply woody stems, well pruned and spiky, tiny buds of new growth just emerging. I have to content myself with the colourful pictures on the labels at the head of each tranche. Overhanging the northwest corner a towering structure is rising, scaffolded and plastic sheeted: the Chiltern Place apartments will look down onto the broad canopies of mature plane and lime trees which fringe these gardens. And on, over the roofs and chimneys of the surrounding Victorian streets.
In the second half of the 18th century, two workhouses were built to the north and south of these burial grounds (just as in Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair. See Sticks in the Smoke 47). Perhaps it was thought that a view of a cemetery would be a constant reminder to the inmates of their own mortality. Sure to make them feel better about being poor! A little stone sculpture of a boy gutter sweeper was placed here in 1943 (sculpted by the Milanese artist Donato Barcaglia), maybe a reminder of the once less fortunate occupants of this place.
The burial grounds were officially closed in 1814. The roots from these trees and shrubs are twining their way through the remains of around 80,000 graves.
The rain comes and goes raggedly. Thankfully there are two hexagonal shelters in the gardens. Ideally, I wanted to draw from inside the north one, through its glass windows, which would frame the view of a bright metal astrolabe, perched on the top of a drinking fountain, the rose beds and tree branches interrupting the hard lines of sixties housing blocks in the background. But its ironwork gates are padlocked today, so I hurry to the far end, where the other shelter, without glass, squats in front of the twists and coils and primary colours of the children’s playground. Its gates are open and welcoming. Half lined with benches, a scent of musty damp and tobacco mix to create an atmosphere of stale incense, like in an ancient chapel. I set up to draw across the lawns, back towards the other shelter whose roof moss glows an acid yellow. And in the distance, at the end of Luxborough Street I can just about see the frontage of Madame Tussauds on Marylebone Road. A huddle of hardhatted and hoodied workmen are in here too on lunch break. They’re cackling and jeering at a video on a phone. From their remarks and the loud soundtrack, it seems to be footage of a noisy and sweary argument between the wife of one of them and a neighbour. Voices ricochet off the hard surfaces of the building. I peer closer at the garden through the hoops of the decorative ironwork grille that clads this structure but find it difficult to focus on my drawing. A sharp shower rakes the park and rattles the roof, a bead curtain of drips sparkling in front of me. The shelter fills with people. Sheltering.
In 1885 the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) took on the task of developing these sad and neglected acres for the recreational use of the local community. Their landscape gardener, Fanny Wilkinson (designer of over 75 public gardens in London, many of them disused burial grounds), created the design and the garden was opened by Princess Louise the following summer. The original plan has stood the test of time, changing little over the years. It has always been a popular and well used space, a focus for community events, including live music in the summer. The shady plane tree canopies providing a leafy auditorium roof.
The rain stops as quickly as it started and the building empties. Sunshine glistens the paths as the garden begins to fill for school lunchtime. Yells and excited screams and hoots fill the air. A group of girls enter the shelter and sit on the benches. A sound of quiet murmuring and crinkle of crisp packets. A hi vis park keeper with litter stick and bin liner picks up discarded cans and cartons and sheets of newspaper. He glances at my drawing (see top) and nods at me as he leaves.
I pack my things and follow the east path. Bunches of schoolkids bustle around an elegant block of weathered Portland stone with classical arches and a square dome. Inscriptions on carved drapery have been eroded into illegibility. A stone urn sits high against the gathering sky, adorned with slightly sinister cherub heads that stare down at you with hollow eyes. This is the Fitzpatrick Mausoleum, erected by Richard Fitzpatrick as memorial to his wife Susanna who died in 1730. His daughter Anne, was later also interred here.
Garden of Rest
Before I leave Marylebone I want to visit the original site of the parish church which was served by this ground, so walk the wet pavements up to the little courtyard space on Marylebone High Street. The chapel was built in 1740 (replacing one which was portrayed by William Hogarth in the marriage scene from ‘The Rake’s Progress’ in 1735). An inscribed slab lists some of the notable people who were buried here, including Charles Wesley in 1788. A memorial obelisk marks the site of his grave, and a round tablet set into the paving, with spirally inscription. The chapel was used until 1926 but was demolished after suffering damage in 2nd world war bombing. Now this ‘Garden of Rest’ sits within its footprint.
Conscious once more of impending rain, I quickly set up to draw the garden’s length (see below). A gnarled and twisting locust bean tree spreads its tortured branches in front of the Victorian flank of the adjacent St Marylebone CE school. Zigzag brickwork like arches of electric shocks above its windows. Much of the paving slabs are worn and cracked gravestones. Today puddle dappled.
A couple, hands full of large bulging bags are holding a heated exchange in Russian. Their words accentuated in a bizarre dance of waving white and blue plastic. A strident bell from over the wall. The air bursts with the sound of excited girls’ voices rising to crescendo. Spots of rain pock my drawing and I realise I’m not going to get a chance to put paint to my drawing. I quickly pack and haul my rucksack onto my back just as the shower breaks.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is 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 London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly) www.nickandrew.co.uk
Paddington Street Gardens, Marylebone, London. W1U 5QA
Garden of Rest, Marylebone High Street, London. W1U 5BA
Open 7am – dusk
Google earth view here