‘Circles of Sun and Pools of Shade’ (Thursday 19 July 2018)
Ravenscourt Park occupies land that was once part of the estate of Pallenswick in the Manor of Fulham, and at its greatest extent covered around 100 acres. By the 13th century the manor house was surrounded by a moat fed by the Stamford Brook (the lake in the centre of the park is the only remaining evidence of the original moat).
Over the next few hundred years the estate was owned by various private owners, including Alice Perrers (Edward III‘s mistress), in the 14th century. In 1650 the house was demolished and a new mansion built to the west of it. It was bought in 1747 by Thomas Corbett, Secretary to the Admiralty, who changed its name to Ravenscourt (a pun on his own name, ‘corbeau’ being French for raven, a feature of his coat of arms).
I enter the park from the south at the King St gate and follow curving paths which cut through tired lawns of parched grass. Red oaks, plane trees and sweet chestnuts are oases of cool. A line of railway arches separates this small quiet space from the rest of the park (Hammersmith and City railway was brought through here and opened in 1869). Only one of the benches is occupied; an elderly man reading his newspaper. He has a bright white handkerchief in the top pocket of his jacket. As I walk under one of the arches into the main park a group of yellow shirted nursery children are walking through the adjacent arch with their teachers. They all stop and the teacher counts “one, two, three. NOW!!” And they all shout and scream wildly, their voices ricocheting and pinging satisfyingly off the curving brickwork.
In 1812 Ravenscourt House and estate, which still consisted mostly of fields and meadows, were bought by builder and philanthropist George Scott. He employed leading landscape gardener Humphry Repton to lay out the estate, with flower gardens, lawns and orchards. A variety of trees were planted, and an ice house built to store winter ice cut from the lake. By this time Hammersmith had grown to be an important and growing settlement on the Great West Road (originally a Roman road, leading west from London to Bath), so Scott encouraged building on the fringes of his estate to meet the growing demand for good quality housing, endeavouring to ensure that they were well-designed and well built. By the 1850s there were over 330 houses.
North of the railway arches are children’s playgrounds, sandpits, paddling pools. Teeming and lively. The park opens into a wide open field, crossed with long straight, tree lined walks (grand avenues of elm and chestnut trees planted in the 18th century stood until the 1920s, but became dangerous and had to be cut down by the LCC, and were replaced with sweet chestnuts and flowering cherries). Further north, around where the manor house would have stood (its site visible as a mound by the lake), the park takes on a timeless and traditional feel, with stands of cedars, planes, shrubberies, flower beds, paths sweeping and curving through. Railed and rolling lawns, filled with family groups and friends, playing, relaxing in the sun, laughing, lounging.
The lakeside confines are railed. Once there were boats for hire but now the lake is reserved for wildlife. Canada geese graze and moorhens waddle across the grass. A flock of pigeons pick lazily at the hard dry earth until they’re flurried into the air by a yipping golden spaniel off the lead. It’s owner on the path ineffectually yelling “Margo! Margo! MAARGO!! COME BACK! From the bridge I can see the lake surface is covered with a slimy skin of blue green algae, prolific in this heat. Some ducks dabble lazily at the edge. I decide not to draw here but walk on, past more playgrounds and ball courts towards the walled garden at the north end of the park.
In 1887 the estate was sold by the Scott family for development with much needed workers’ houses. However, this scheme was blocked by local residents and the land was sold on to the Metropolitan Board of Works who established a public park, laid out by Lt Col J. J. Sexby, in the 32 acres of land surrounding the house. It was opened to the public in 1888 and soon attracted visitors. The main house became Hammersmith’s first public library, opening in 1890. An Old English Garden, later known as the Scented Garden, was created in the former walled kitchen garden. You enter through recently restored original 18th century ornamental iron gates.
A rose covered pergola is a circlet around the centre of the walled garden. An orrery sundial floats here in this space orbited by box hedged ball planets and wooden benches. Symmetrical with radiating paths, yews and beds and herbaceous borders. Wooden shelters at the edges, brick walls hidden behind thicknesses of trees and climbers. On this baking morning I step into pools of shade, eventually finding a cool leafy spot to set up my easel, behind a firework explosion of day lilies. Something on the ground catches my eye: a child’s pencil drawing of a lily (see below). From just over the wall, the continual backdrop sounds of children’s excited screams and hoots. Effervescent energy. And the playground gate a continual squeal and clang. At first I am one of the only occupants of this beautiful and fragrant space but lunchtime brings more people to sit and wander. And breathe in the perfume. For a few minutes the sound of someone at the opposite corner sneezing continuously.
I’m finishing my drawing and notice a man in a dark t-shirt meandering through the garden, looking and poking into every bin. He reaches into the nearest one but comes away empty handed. As he leaves he stoops down to sniff a crimson rose.
During the two world wars the park was the venue for fundraising and events such as concerts and other entertainments. In WW2 trenches were dug and lawns dug up for allotments, but on the night of 21 January 1941 incendiary bombs destroyed the big house. All that remains today is the stable block which is home to the park café.
Behind the cafe are two glasshouses that have now been converted into Community Greenhouses by Hammersmith Community Gardens Association, which provide a busy programme of events and classes.
I walk across to the cafe to fill my water bottle and buy a cup of tea. In the full sun the air is hazy hot. Figures stretch out in delicious shade. Glorious inactivity. But the park is also heaving with activity. Alive and energetic with the run and jump and roll and kick and hit and bounce and yell and cheer of many sports.
I take my tea over to a splash of shade under a ring of ageing limes and sit on a log. I watch as a pair of gardeners park their tractor by a wall behind the ball courts where 5-a -side football is happening. They start to listlessly hack and pull at an over abundant ivy but very soon stop to wipe their brows and watch the game. I walk over to the busy basketball ground and set up to draw under a line of cherry trees which make dark frames for the bright view. Basketball nets are supported on strangely bent trees on red padded posts. Occasional missed balls bobble past me chased by eager players.
People walking along the nearby path are decorated with flickering fragments of dappled light.
After the war additional facilities were built in the park: a bandstand, tennis courts, a bowling green and pavilion. Further additions more recently include the basketball circle, ball courts, all-weather pitches and an ecology area with a pond.
A cluster of teenage boys are straggling over some benches. Bags and bikes spilling over the ground. Their music hops and pounds across the hard ground: “tak, tak, takka, takka..” And all the leaping, reaching basketball players seem to be dancing to the pulse.
In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018. www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.
Ravenscourt Park, Paddenswick Rd, Hammersmith, London W6 0UA
Opening times: 7.30am – dusk
Google earth view here