Month: June 2017

Sticks in the Smoke 57: St George’s Square and Pimlico Gardens

st-georges-gardenRose bed to riverbed (Thursday 18 May 2017)

A couple of minutes walk from Pimlico tube station, St Georges Square is more of a long rectangle, the proportions of a school ruler, jabbing at the Thames to the south (Pimlico Gardens is the southern continuation of this rectangle to the river’s edge, see below). As I approach, exuberant yells and cheers from Pimlico Academy sports enclosure bounce  and rally across the square. Background accompaniment for the whole time I’m in the gardens.


Pimlico’s early history of marshland and riverside grazing is described in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 29: Bessborough Gardens, just 250 metres to the east. This unpromising land was acquired wholesale in the 17th century by the Grosvenor family through marriage. After substantial drainage and embankment schemes, it was subsequently developed into grand squares of stuccoed terraces, elegant streets and avenues by surveyor and architect Thomas Cubitt. By the 1850s, St George’s Square had been built and laid out. Take up was brisk, residents moving in to enjoy private access to these gardens, stretching 240 metres down to the Thames,  its own pier for river steamers.

I walk the park’s perimeter path, following its long, straight tarmac paths still bordered with Victorian stone barley sugar edging. Plane trees with occasional sycamore, ash and horse chestnut cast floods of shade. Abundant shrubberies dense and dark to my right. Damp soil scent after yesterday’s rain. On a bench some roses are tied with a ribbon. Also two balloons. Red and blue. The brass plaque says the bench is dedicated to someone who died last year. Far too young.


Wide lawns, open and sun streaked on my left. In the centre is a fountain pool and rose beds. A family follow their toddler’s wobbly circuit of the pool and lunge forward as she lurches towards the water’s edge. Benches occupied by a handful of concentrating newspaper readers.

Kindergarten sports are happening on the grass. As I walk past, most children are hopping towards the bench where a teacher is waving and encouraging. But one little boy ignores her and spins on the spot while looking up at the sky. A dizzy twist of branches, clouds and vapour trails. That would’ve been me.


The path follows through the gate at the southern end and turns around an area of rough grass that’s reserved for the use of dog walkers (and their dogs). I traipse the long path back up the east side of the park. Sun reflects and dazzles through the trees from the square’s cream stucco terraces. At the top end is a rounded box hedged rose garden, flower beds with perennials. Lilies, hellebores. A herbaceous border. Sunbathing ducks don’t even move as I walk by. Definitely the place to draw. I set up easel and unpack drawing things. Behind me stands St Saviour’s Church (designed in the early 1860s by Thomas Cundy the Younger, surveyor for the Grosvenor estate)

This is a surrogate back garden for lots of mothers and toddlers. One pushes her buggy to the middle of the lawn and spreads a rug. Her young daughters scuttle a bee line for the bench with the flowers and try to pull the balloons off. The mum goes over and unties them and gives them to her little ones, who run around gleefully, balloons bobbing, but let go when snacks are offered. A gust bounces the balloons over to the bushes.

Beautiful lilting blackbird chorus from a high up tree branch. I see him silhouetted, the sun bursting through the foliage like a supernova. A glimpse of a plane above making a diagonal trail. The blackbird flits to a wheeliebin in the service yard behind me and stages a chirruping contest with an unseen rival. As I draw a bee buzzes against my nose and rebounds away. Then a robin’s tik, tik, tiktiktik!


Blue uniformed little schoolchildren pour onto lower lawn. They run about excitedly. A moment later I look back across and they’ve all taken their blazers off in the sunshine and are now little white specks darting about. A mother and teenage daughter are throwing a red frisbee. The daughter is bored and listless and deliberately makes wide throws to force her mum to run extra far. A policeman and policewoman in shirtsleeves patrol the path and come to look at my drawing. She nods and says “very nice”. He says “better than I could do!”. I take that as a compliment (see drawing at top).

Thick slate clouds scud across from behind the amber nib of the church steeple. I start to pack my drawing things. A woman strides over to the bush where the balloons have caught. She retrieves them and takes them back across the lawn to the bench. She reties them and stands for a moment watching them. Bumping against each other, alive in the breeze.


Pimlico Gardens

I hurry the length of the gardens and cross Grosvenor Road, I want to beat the inevitable downpour.  A 1½ acre pocket of lawn and paths, butting up against the Thames. Just as I  enter the park, the leading edge of the cloud blanket blots out the sun. Tall mature planes and evergreen shrubberies add to the dimness. Peering down over the high embankment wall, thick tree boughs swing towards the grey ripples. The tide is low, revealing a stranded riverbed strewn with rocks, bricks, timber and mud. Reflections from buildings on the Nine Elms bank opposite shiver and splinter.


On the eastern lawn, John Gibson‘s 1836 statue of William Huskisson MP in draped Roman robes (but which look more like he’s just got out of the bath), is a spectral marble whiteness against the dark foliage behind him (photo 5). Despite a glowing political career, Huskisson is best know as the first ever person to be killed by a railway engine, having been fatally struck by Stephenson’s Rocket during the 1830 opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway . 


On a pole at the other end of the park is Andre Wallace‘s ‘Helmsman’: a bronze sculpture of a helmeted sailor at the helm of a stylised ship. Unveiled in 1996 to celebrate London’s rich maritime history. I set up to draw this powerful piece (see drawing at bottom), with my back to a tree trunk for shelter. Across the river behind it is the glass honeycomb cube of the nearly completed US embassy, due to be opened later this year.

The park is empty, darkening. The breeze, a chill contrast to this morning’s warm sunshine, brings a light spatter of drizzle. I work on, swiftly, and raise my umbrella. I try to continue under heavier rain but, with my sketchbook page soaked I have to abandon painting and drag my things under the fire escape shelter of the Westminster Boating Base (a charity teaching sailing, canoeing and watersports to adults and children). The downpour rattles and pings on the metal steps above me.


(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. 

St George’s Square Gardens, Pimlico, London. SW1V 3QW
Pimlico Gardens, Grosvenor Road, Pimlico, London. SW1V 3JY
Open daily 8am – dusk

Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 56: St Pancras Gardens, King’s Cross, London

st-pancras-gardensWeaver of dreams and Mad Day Out (Thursday 11 May 2017)

From Camley Street Natural Park (‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 55) its a 2 minute scurry under the railway bridge and up the steps into St Pancras Gardens and into the contemplative air of a rural churchyard. Everything slows. Evidence of its former function as a burial ground is everywhere: wonky gravestones and subsiding memorials. One of which, enclosed within a circular enclosure, is architect Sir John Soane‘s family tomb (photo 1), which he designed in 1816. Its unusual squared dome roof was inspiration for Gilbert Scott‘s design for the K2 red telephone box in 1926.

There are a good many trees, mostly planes. Leafy canopies flittering in the light breeze, each one different and distinctive, as if possessed by the spirit of those individuals once buried beneath, distorted, stretched, twisting, leaning.

And over there, through the branches, stands the unassuming old St Pancras Church (photo 2), parts of it 1000 years old.  Over the centuries it’s been patched and rebuilt, with its tower, much of the exterior and its striking Norman entrance porch created in the 1800s. It stands on the site of one of the most ancient sites of Christian worship, dating back to the 4th century. The River Fleet flowed just below, where now runs the busy St Pancras Road.


As with many London churchyards, population growth in the 1700s led to overcrowding and the need for more space. St Pancras churchyard was expanded twice. It butted against another burial ground which was created to serve the church of St Giles in the Fields. The parish was encroached by Victorian suburbia and absorbed by the city. Grimy industry grew. Streets spread out under the hulk of the gasworks, with its suffusing noxious stench.

These resting spaces were eventually closed to burials in the 1850s to the relief of locals, unhappy about the caved- in graves, bones and coffin fragments scattered all over. Plans in the 1860s to bring the Midland railway line through here to St. Pancras Station meant that tombs and bodies had to be disinterred and moved before the embankment was built. A team of apprentice architects, including Thomas Hardy (later famous as poet and novelist) was delegated to oversee this grisly task. The bodies were reburied in the new Kensal Green and Highgate cemeteries. Two of Hardy’s later poems: ‘In the Cemetery’ and ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ were partly inspired by the black comedy he found in this early experience. Many of the recovered headstones were laid against walls. Some were arranged against each other in a circular stack. The trunk of an ash tree which grew up through the stack has now fused with the stones, becoming a melded memorial, known as the Hardy Tree (photo 6).


These were among the first former burial grounds in London to be converted  into public gardens. Many of the gravestones and memorials were moved to make way for lawns, trees, shrubberies and a web of paths, much as it appears today. It was opened in 1877, with the unveiling by banking heiress Baroness Burdett- Coutts of a grand gothic sundial (photo 3), designed by architect George Highton. Here it still stands, its three pedestal tiers bursting with varieties of perwinkle and other perennials. I freely admit to a love / hate reaction to neo Gothic design; as I approach it stands there like a gargantuan and mouldy wedding cake. But as I get closer and start to take in the colourful mosaic panels of wild flowers (photo 4), the intricately worked carvings of St Pancras (the saint, not the station) and figures representing night and morning, and the guardian statues of lions and dogs, and the curlicue rails, pillars and finials, I’m seduced. I realise that here is a structure that keeps on giving: a teller of stories, a provider of imagery and pattern, and a weaver of dreams, if only you have the time to take it all in. Looking down, I notice a single ballet shoe, stained and twisted and discarded at its base. I wonder about its partner.


As I stroll these dappled paths, an insistent bright cobalt blue keeps catching my eye and draws me to the axis of the gardens, where a blue painted cast iron drinking fountain stands. Commissioned by the Church warden, William Thornton in 1877 from Andrew Handyside at the Duke Street Foundry in Derby, inspired by Corinthian columned monuments, topped off with a strange blue cherubic water carrier. I notice that someone had threaded ‘offerings’ of daffodils into its chain rings. Now dried and wilted. This supply of fresh water, once so essential, is now sealed off, but a 1968 publicity photo shows the Beatles, all four of them gargling their own little spurts of fountain water on their Mad Day Out while recording the White Album (photo 5).


I decide to set up to draw this landmark, with the Soanes memorial behind, against the backdrop of the railway embankment and the looming drum structures of the Gasholder Park development (see drawing at top).

People meander the crisscrossing paths. Dog walkers. Staff from St Pancras Hospital which overlooks the park’s northern edge (partly housed in the original Victorian buildings of the St Pancras Workhouse, it now specialises in geriatric and psychiatric medicine). Voices and traffic noise are softened by the plentiful foliage and dry earthy lawns, so it feels tranquil with a sense of being alone despite the muted presence of other park occupants.

Sunshine comes and goes. Dapples across the dipping, root- rucked paths. Blackbird song trills down across the park like a fountain. A few spatters of rain pock the ground. I gather my things and run to the shelter of the church porch as a shower drenches the gardens. The rising perfume of rain wetted earth.

As the rain stops a white van enters the park and pulls up at the church side gate. 3 young guys in black t-shirts hop out and start unloading amps and loudspeakers. Laughing and joking. Since 2011, the church has taken on a seperate evening identity: as London’s smallest and most atmospheric music venue, opening it’s doors to up-and-coming and established rock, folk and indie artists (such as Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno and Laura Marling). Tonight, well established singer songwriter Charlie Dore is launching her latest album, ‘Dark Matter’ here.

I set up again to finish my drawing. Across the lawn, two tracksuited men are exercising and practising boxing under a tree with an ironwork seat circling around its trunk. One of them jogs over and asks “do you smoke?” And I shake my head and hear myself saying “no, sorry”. And as he goes off to ask someone else, I’m left wondering why I apologised that I don’t smoke.


(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. 

St Pancras Gardens, Pancras Road, Kings Cross, London.  NW1 1UH
Open daily 7am – dusk

Google earth view here