Month: July 2017

Sticks in the Smoke 60: Allen Gardens and Nomadic Community Gardens, Spitalfields


Jugged hare and a marriage proposal (Thursday 29 June 2017)

Round the corner from vibrant, messy, noisy and exciting Brick Lane, into these scrub bedded, patch lawned and bottletop strewn 4 acres. Every available surface, 2D and 3D, is graffitied. On the park sign, someone’s carefully scraped away a section of paint from the second ‘L’ of ‘Allen Gardens’. Changing it to ‘Alien Gardens’.


I stroll the tree lined perimeter of the park, around the large square of grass. A few people lounging, children playing on the zip wire. A line of poplars partly screens off the railway. Around their bases, long grasses and wildflowers grow. Some of the trees have boots and shoes dangling by their laces like strange fruit.

In medieval times and up until the 18th Century, much of the area where this piece of ground lies was fields and open common land called Hare Marsh where wild flowers and herbs were abundant. Folk from the smoky, stinky city could walk and picnic and breathe fresh air, play sports and trap hares to be slung in a sack, lugged home and hung for jugging (today, one tiny dead end street, just to the north on the other side of the railway tracks, still bears the name Hare Marsh, but there’s nothing marshy about it. And not a hare in sight!).


Allen Gardens lies just below where London overground railway crosses above the eastern main line (originally the Eastern Counties Railway, which was cut through here in the 1840s, severing the community in the process). We’re at the northeast corner of Spitalfields, just below the southern edge of Bethnal Green and bordered by Shoreditch, originally hamlets and villages which speckled the rural landscape (they were some of the settlements that were part of the “Tower Hamlets” from the 16th century, which contributed to the Tower of London militia).

From the 17th century, waves of immigration surged into the area, attracted by cheap housing and work in the growing industries such as brick making and brewing in and around Brick Lane. French Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution were welcomed to England. Many came here and set up their weaving workshops- the origin of this area’s most prominent and longest lasting industry: textiles and clothing. Over the next century or so with such a surge in the population, this land was transformed by suburban development. By the start of the 1800s new streets had been driven across the fields and meadows as part of Mile End New Town. The parish workhouse was built on this spot, its occupants labouring in the yards and gardens.


I walk across to the eastern flank of the park. A school field sized flatness of grass, inviting a sprint, a long jump. Or cartwheels. Two girls in sports gear are exercising, skipping and doing handstands. Further over, a pair of yapping dogs are chasing each other in circles as their owners chat, both brandishing plastic ball throwers as though they are weapons. In front of the northern path is a patch of wild meadow. Long grasses have been swished and wind swirled by yesterday’s heavy showers. Knapweed, field scabious and yarrow are stabs of brightness and colour. I set up to draw towards the walls on the south side, solidly decorated with graffiti murals which act together to create a powerful multi- coloured statement (drawing at top).


The buildings behind these graffitied walls are all that’s left of educational and ecclesiastical establishments here, dating back to the early 19th century. A school for poor children of the area was opened in 1811, sponsored by chemist and philanthropist, William AllenAllen was a prominent anti- slavery campaigner and had also been a leading member of the ‘Spitalfields Soup Society’ formed  to provide relief to unemployed weavers. The Church of All Saints was built where this large lawn is now, on the site of the old workhouse. It was left derelict after wartime bomb damage and was eventually demolished in the 1960s. The vicarage still stands, a tall chimneyed, gothic red brick building surrounded by exotic gardens, shrubs, palms and climbers which you can see bursting through the barbed wire topping of the wall. The next door buildings, now apartments, were part of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic school, originally set up in early Victorian times to serve the children of Irish immigrants who escaped the potato famine and settled in this neighbourhood.

The park was laid out by London County Council in the 50s and 60s on land made available when post-war temporary housing was demolished. It was expanded after the demolition of All Saints Church and slums bordering the railway and was named in honour of William Allen.


My final brush marks are accompanied by rooster calls and donkey brays from Spitalfields City Farm to my left. Behind me the hum and rattle of trains clattering between the great iron triangles of the overground truss bridge. I pack my things and walk through the underpass beneath the bridge, which is like a portal to another universe, to a triangle of wasteland between the railway lines, a kind of no- mans land. But now everyone’s since its transformation into Nomadic Community Gardens.


Bright graffiti iconography, giant indecipherable orange and violet text and a cheshire cat smile in multi blues draw me through the entrance into this space. A huge red clenched fist thrusts out of a buddleia bush. Everywhere is colour and imagery. Even the air is painted with impromptu music. Clapping, singing, a guitar.

Nomadic Community Gardens was set up by James Wheale and Junior Mtonga in 2015 as a not for profit organisation, dedicated to transforming disused spaces into urban gardens where people can grow their own produce, create art, share skills, and discover what it means to build their own community from the bottom up. The lease of these two and a half acres was negotiated at a peppercorn rent on a ‘meanwhile’ basis, until the the landowners have decided what they’re going to do with it. I hope they’ll take their time (I remember my visit to Meanwhile Gardens in North Kensington on a hot day in June 2016, see  Sticks in the Smoke 18. That was founded in the mid 1970s and still going strong!). The organisation is funded by money raised from events and donations. The site is maintained by volunteers. No mains power or water supply, so drinking water has to be brought in, rain collected in barrels for watering and electricity is generated from solar panels.


I buy a coffee from the Roving Cafe, a little 3 wheeler Citroen truck, converted into kitchen and bursting with vegan- friendly foodie delights. Hayley, the owner has been based here since the gardens’ inception. She tells me about ‘Meeting of Styles’: London’s largest street art festival which happens in the gardens (1 and 2 July). Graffiti artists from far and wide gravitating here for a painting bonanza! I take my mug of coffee with me to explore and hunt for somewhere to make a drawing to somehow sum up this extraordinary visual feast.

There’s so much activity. People fixing shelters, tending plants, hauling buckets of compost, chatting, laughing, shouting. And preparing hoardings and walls for the graffiti festival by blacking or blueing over all the previous imagery. Everything is wonderfully ramshackle and makeshift. Woodchip paths snake haphazardly between sheds, greenhouses, cafes and meeting spaces built from old doors, pallets, building timber and reclaimed window frames. Sculptures made from junk, old cars and shop dummies. A playground with an old boat, overlooked by a huge, leaning giraffe- like creature.


Everything is built to be temporary and easily movable, so all plants are in pots, containers, baths and tyres. Decorated plank- built planting boxes are bursting with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. This is like a cross between a shanty town, a music festival and allotments. I start my drawing, looking through assorted structures and plants towards the large wall which dominates the space. A multi faceted painting includes a bus being torn apart by a giant octopus. To my left are some beehives and beyond is a glimpse of the gold domed Perle Opera House (with it’s combustive roof declaration of: “timing” “temperature” “turbulance”), a focus for the space, where music festivals, performances and community activities take place. I smell a waft of smoke, curling fragrant from the wide campfire pit in front of it.

Everyone who walks past stops to talk and look at my drawing, or at least says hello or smiles. I feel so welcomed. A woman with big sparkly earrings and a rattle of necklaces comes by and proclaims exuberantly in a french accent: “I LOVE artists! Marry me!”, gives me a hug then swoops her bags of veg away before I get a chance to reply! One guy keeps coming over to look at my drawing and gives me thumbs ups from further away. When he comes back I ask him if he has a plot here “Yeah, I do” he says, “Well, it’s me Mum’s really. She looks after it”.


I did start drawing the large wall with its painted bus and octopus, but halfway through, it had been blacked out too! Frustrated, I turned round and drew a different background instead (see drawing above).

Created by and for the community, a complete mix of ages and cultures and ethnicities tending their little patches or meeting friends. Perfect green neighbourliness and cooperation. Even if you come simply as a visitor or observer and stay only a little while, it’s easy to feel part of what’s happening here as though you have a deeper involvement. In all the green spaces I’ve visited over these past 18 months, for all their perfect trimmed box hedges and rose beds. For all their fountains and scrolled ironwork. For all their noble statues and grand vistas, I’ve never felt so much like I belong than I do here.


(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. 

Allen Gardens, Buxton Street, London E1 5EH
Opening times: unrestricted

Nomadic Community Garden, Fleet St Hill, London E1 5ES
Opening times: Open Tuesday- Sunday, 9am to sun down (except for evening events)

Google earth view here


Sticks in the Smoke 59: Margravine Cemetery, Barons Court

View from near Field Road entrance. Mixed media sketchbook drawing

Stone angels and butterfly wings (Thursday 22 June 2017)

At the Margravine Road entrance to the cemetery a pair of gothic arches and gateposts stand like helmeted sentinels, staring across the road at the austere 1970s blocks of Charing Cross Hospital (relocated here from central London over forty years ago, standing on the original site of the Fulham Union Workhouse).


It’s another warm day, but less severe than the searing summer heat of the past week. The central axial drive advances away in perspective straightness. A busy progress of people cutting through, perhaps students and staff from the hospital escaping after the end of shifts, or about to start. Workers on lunchbreak, making for their favourite spot in the sun or shade. I meander the grassy paths either side of the central avenue. Wild flowers and sun bleached grasses surround subsiding memorials and praying angels at precarious angles, preparing to take flight on their stone wings.

Apart from the chapel and cemetery lodges, the ground enclosed within these cemetery walls have never been built on. Originally part of Fulham Fields, which for centuries had been a patchwork of market gardens and orchards, laid out across this fertile flood plain loam, providing fruit and vegetables for the ever growing city to the east.


Following the 1850s Burial Acts, which prohibited further interments in the overcrowded city churchyards, the Hammersmith Burial Grounds Committee spent fifteen years searching for suitable local sites. In 1866, a local outbreak of cholera injected an urgency into the search. Ten acres were purchased for £600 from the estate of Sir William Palliser (politician and armaments inventor). Tenant farmers with plots here were ordered to leave after the following year’s harvest. Margravine Cemetery opened for business 3 years later with space for 12,000 occupants. (The name derives from playwright, Margravine of Brandenburg-Anspach, formerly Lady Craven, who lived in the nearby riverside Brandenburg House at the end of the 18th century). Lodges and chapels were designed by local architect, George Saunders, including a unique octagonal mortuary, where bodies of paupers in coffins were stored until their families could afford to pay for a funeral (see photo below).


Octagonal mortuary


At the top of the central drive, a circular box hedged bed, colourful with a mix of herbaceous and wild flowers. Lavender, pelargonium, hemp agrimony. An axle for paths leading into the eastern section.

Suddenly a distant amplified voice booms out from the right and then is borne away on the breeze. I walk in that direction and then, there’s the voice again. But the words are muffled. All I can make out is an eager enthusiasm. Then I realise they are announcements from over the wall, where the AEGON tennis championships are taking place at The Queen’s Club,  (Established in 1886, The Queen’s Club was the first multipurpose sports complex ever to be built, anywhere in the world. Named after Queen Victoria, its first patron).

Walking south towards the Field Road entrance, I find myself in front of the old nonconformist’s chapel, now a gardener’s store (there was another chapel for the Anglicans, but this was demolished in the 1930s after falling into disrepair). The rounded wings of a child’s chalked butterfly are barely visible on the tarmac forecourt (see photo below).


The sun scorches through the clouds and I seek out the parasol cool of a nearby maple’s spread to open my sketchbook and make a start (see drawing at top). My eye is caught by a shock of lady’s bedstraw, a yellow gold glow beyond the shade of a horse chestnut tree. And further: hosts of trees, windswept swathes of grasses, beech hedges. Gravestones stand dark like punctuation marks. Or like fleeting figures. A gentle warm breeze shooshes the foliage above me. The scrit scrit of a grasshopper just to my left. Commentaries blare again from behind. A peck of pigeons rise en masse, disturbed by the arrival of a gardeners cart in front of the chapel. The sound of their massed wings merges with another swell of tennis applause. Animated groups of tennis spectators stride the shortcut from Queens Club to Barons Court tube station.

By the 1920’s, the cemetery was seven times oversubscribed and bursting at the seams, prompting complaints from local residents. This definitely wasn’t the place for a fresh air meander or picnic; every available piece of ground, including some of the paths, had been dug up for burials. It had taken on a further 6 acres at the turn of the century but, now hemmed in by terraced housing, railway tracks, roads and sports club, there was no room to expand further. So a new piece of land was acquired 3 miles away in Kew, opening in 1926. After then, the only burials here were in private spaces, reserved for eminent members of Hammersmith society. By the Second World War, Margravine had fallen into sad disrepair. Wartime bombing left it gruesomely cratered and dilapidated.

Central drive, with buildings of Charing Cross Hospital in the background

Between the 50s and 60s, Hammersmith Council resuscitated the space, removing or burying damaged memorials and tombstones. Areas were cleared and laid to grass. Trees, shrubs and hedges planted. Only privately owned graves, war graves and significant memorials were left remaining, such as the ornately gothic Young Mausoleum, near the south entrance, now in a fairly rickety state. And a sober stone memorial was erected close to the entrance, listing all the Commonwealth War graves in this cemetery.

The Young Mauseleum

I walk the eastern track. There are fewer stones here. It has the forsaken feel of a wild and overgrown walled garden. Buddleia and clumps of willowherb, alive with flickers of butterflies. Dead trees are left limbless for nature’s undertakers to deal with and insect boxes have been fixed to tree trunks by the Friends of Margravine Cemetery to encourage invertebrates (see photo below).


At the north corner a patch of oxeye daisies shine out, bright stars in the wilderness. I set up for my second drawing (see below) near the base of the high cemetery wall. On the other side are the backs of Palliser road businesses and houses. Clattering of crockery and busy chattering from the building behind is presumably a cafe. From over the ivy clad wall to my right, snippets of conversation and laughter from people walking to Barons Court station. The screech and rattle of rolling stock over points. A sky streaked with cloud wisps behind 60s high rises and roofs of Victorian back terraces.

It’s almost hot now. There’s a hint of perfume, a waft of honey. The whole time I’m drawing only 2 people pass. Dog walkers. A place for seclusion like the quiet corner of a country meadow.

A pair of chittering squirrels chase each other along the wall top, crash down through a rowan tree then continue the pursuit, arched jumps through the long grass.

margravine 2
Baron’s Court corner. Mixed media sketchbook drawing

(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. 

Margravine Cemetery, Barons Court, London W6 8HA
Opening times: Various throughout the year, but you can guarantee it will be open between 10am – 4pm

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 58: Leathermarket Gardens and Guy Street Park

Leathermarket Gardens rose beds. Mixed media sketchbook drawing

Skins and bounces (Monday 12 June 2017)

Leathermarket gardens

From the end of the 17th century, after the Great Fire of London, noxious and unpleasant activities such as tanning and leather working were banned from the tightly populated streets of the City of London.  These industries found their way over the river to Bermondsey where they thrived with less regulation, a plentiful supply of fresh water from tidal streams and the River Neckinger (today flowing entirely through underground culverts and sewers) and close to the oak wooded slopes just to the south: sources of the tannin- rich oak bark used in the tanning process. By the 19th century, every possible aspect of the leather process happened in this square mile, from skinning to saddle making. It’s estimated that a third of the country’s leather came from here.

I walk towards the gardens, through streets where old brown bricked warehouses stand tall and narrow, many still adorned with winches and chains. Now mostly loft apartments, studios and offices. One bears the painted trace of ‘LEATHER FACTORS’ on its brickwork. I try to imagine passing through here a century and a half ago: laden carts clattering on filthy cobbles. Sweaty aproned workers, shouldering piles of hides. Shouting, whistling, hammering from all sides. Steam and coal smoke. Dust and detritus. But above all, the powerful stench, a foul mix of the smell of putrefication and the ingredients used in the tanning process, which included lime and urine to remove hairs and dog faeces to soften the leather. Dark and dismal alleys wound between miserable housing and rat infested storehouses.

East end of Leathermarket Gardens and Morocco Store

Thankfully that squalid vision ruptures and dissipates as I turn in at the garden’s gate. Although pretty cloudy today, there’s still a vibrant punch of colour from the rose beds which fill this eastern segment of the park. Overlooked by the redeveloped warehouses of the Morocco Store (named after Morocco leather made from goat skin, which was soft and used to make gloves, uppers of shoes and for bookbinding). I’m led along brick edged paths, one or two sunshine glances to dapple the tarmac, between hedges and around the more intimate central circular garden. A woman sits on the lawn, on an African rug, surrounded with bags and suitcases. Looking lost. Rose bushes bursting behind her like fireworks.  I meander towards the western hummocky lawns, past stands of trees, cherry, laburnum, maple.  From various angles the Shard (only 350 metres northwest of here), glints like a sharpened blade between bright white birches, thrusts out of the roofs of the neighbouring Guinness Trust buildings, or rises into the clouds like a blue ladder above the Bermondsey Village Hall.

The Shard behind the Guinness Trust Buildings

The gardens are named after the Leather and Skin Market, which was opened in the 1830s, on Weston Street, a short dash to the south (now home to Workspace which offers studio and office space for start up businesses). Up to 50 salesmen would trade their hides and raw animal skins here in noisy and hectic surroundings. Later, in the 1870s, The more elegant London Leather, Hide and Wool Exchange was opened next door, where business could be conducted in more affable surroundings. The building’s frontage displays five stone reliefs (see below) that depict stages in the leather making process. There was even a pub, which still stands here (now called The Leather Exchange) looking across to the park’s southern gate.

Stone reliefs of leatherworking process on the Leather Exchange building

The turn of the century saw a decline in Bermondsey’s dominance of the leather industry. Changes in the process, cheaper rents and labour costs away from London saw other centres, such as Liverpool and Leeds taking over. And, after the First World War, the rise in motor transport over the use of horses led to a drop in the demand for saddles and harnesses. Heavy bombing of this industrial district during the Second World War brought many tanneries to ruin and the postwar rise in synthetic plastics reduced leather making to a specialist industry. The last working tannery, S.O.Rowe & Son moved out of London in 1997.

Bed of salvia and Bermondsey Village Hall

I return to the eastern garden segment, to draw the view across the rose beds (see drawing at top). This was the first part of these gardens to be opened, in the 1930s, as a garden square to serve the neighbourhood. The rest of the gardens were recovered in the 50s from postwar bomb sites, where once were warehouses and sheds, and laid out to lawns and shrubberies.

The garden is busy, with many people strolling through. Some walking dogs. Others eating lunch on green park benches or under a shaded pergola. A terrier runs up and down the grass paths between the beds. It’s owner calls “Datsun!” I think I’ve misheard until I hear again- “c’mon DATSUN!” Hmm, maybe a Japanese Terrier?

Gusts of breeze set rose heads nodding. Alive like a bright hatted audience, swaying to a beat. Their heady perfume wafts in aerosol bursts.

Leathermarket Gardens looking east

Guy Street Park

Drawing finished, I walk back through and cross over to Guy Street Park. These two green spaces almost connect, point to point, across Weston Street. In spring, a trail of crocuses decorate a colourful winding trail from Leathermarket Garden over to this open, diamond shaped flatness of lawns. A path, straight as a stripe, cuts across. Other, curving paths lead past beds and around a small pergola, heavy with clematis and honeysuckle. A shrubbed squeeze up some shaded steps into an upper level, with playground and basketball court. Closely overlooked by a multi storey car park and the scaffolded shell of an apartment block under construction.  A glimpse from the northwest corner, up Kipling Street to the primary colours of the newly opened, state of the art Cancer Centre at Guys Hospital.

Guy Street Park with Leathermarket Gardens in the background

Guy’s Hospital was founded in the 1720s by entrepreneur and benefactor, Thomas Guy. Until the mid nineteenth century this piece of former grazing land was used as the hospital’s burial ground for deceased patients. In the 1890s it was bought by London County Council, refurbished and laid out as Nelson Recreation Ground (with tennis courts, lawns and swings). Much needed in this heavily populated and, at the time, industrialised district.

I struggle for a suitable drawing location so decide to go up to 6th floor of the multi storey NCP car park. From here I have a birds eye view of the park (see drawing at bottom). I’m up amongst the shivering plane tree tops. Looking down, a group of basketball players are clustered around one end of the court, practising shots at the net. Shouts and laughs. A satisfying metallic clang when the ball goes through the hoop. One player is kicking another ball through the opposite posts, clashing it against the chain fence behind. Hammering from building works to my left adds to the percussion.

Guy’s Hospital on left. NCP car Park on right with Mark Haywood lightboxes

The recreation ground suffered bomb damage during the 2nd World War. It was restored but deteriorated through the latter half of the 20th century through neglect and vandalism. Its unlit corners perfect for dealing and using drugs. In 2000, tenants groups campaigned as the Friends of Guy Street Park. They succeeded in getting funding to redevelop the park to its current plan, with support from Southwark Council and the Pool of London Partnership. As a way to improve lighting, artist Mark Haywood was commissioned to produce a series of large lightboxes which were hung on the side of the car park to display artwork from artists, schools and community groups.

Squeals of tyres and engines revving echo around the concrete cavern behind me. A pigeon struts along the wall close to where I’m drawing. He cocks his head and blinks at me. Then flaps noisily away into the tree when I move to rinse my brush.

A yell from below! A basketball escapes the court and bounces once into Kipling Street, once on the wing of a parked car and rolls in front of a woman pushing a buggy on the opposite pavement. She retrieves then expertly lobs it in an arc to the approaching player.

Guy Street Park basketball court. Mixed media sketchbook drawing


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in 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. 

Leathermarket Gardens, Weston Street, Bermondsey, London. SE1 3RG
Guy Street Park, Weston Street, Bermondsey, London. SE1 3SH
Unrestricted opening.

Google earth view here