This morning was my daughter, Millie’s graduation ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank. A celebration of achievements. She mounts the stage and takes her award and follows her fellow gowned graduates as they swish back down. So the world moves and she moves with it. And as the parade continues on in this packed and stuffy auditorium my thoughts drift away towards air and sunlight and green spaces. And drawing.
After the event and photos and lunch I check my drawing things out of left luggage and push through the tumult of Waterloo Station and on down the Spur Road slope towards Waterloo Green.
Down here, with the massive glass and steel roofs of the station looming to the north, this is a busy community of cafes, pubs, small independent shops and the daily Lower Marsh Street Market. Now all but cleared away. Just scatterings of papers, battered boxes and spills of bruised fruit. But the name gives a clue to the origins of this area. Once mostly marshy floodplain south of the Thames. Banks of clay and stone were raised close to the river, possibly during Roman times, to keep the tidal washes at bay. Also a raised road called Broad Wall was built through as a southern route to London. The small settlement of Lambeth Marsh grew up around this road and spread sporadically as the marsh was drained over the centuries.
I walk into the park. On this warm afternoon, parched and scuffed lawns still show the ravages of the early summer’s drought and heavy use. Shadows sweep across undulating ground and dapple under clusters of trees. Cherries and mountain ash. Stands of silver birch shade the ring of ponds and rills. Sadly today there’s no flow, no water. Many of the park benches are occupied, people in conversation. Groups of friends sitting on the grass, eagerly talking. A busy social space. The community’s back garden.
By the end of the 18th century Lambeth Marsh was still a predominantly rural area, with smallholdings and market gardens, providing produce for the ever demanding City of London across the river. Until the beginning of the 19th Century Lambeth Marsh was surrounded by open fields, with a windmill in the Cut (remembered in The Windmill Pub, just 100 metres east of here).
By the time Waterloo Station was built in 1848 all the fields and market gardens had been built over. Grimy streets crammed with poor quality housing butted up against the railway noise and smoke. This was not a place that respectable Londoners would have ventured in the latter part of the 19th century. In “Twice Round the Clock“(1859), George Sala wrote of the New Cut: “It isn’t picturesque, it isn’t quaint, it isn’t curious. It has not even the questionable merit of being old. It is simply Low. It is sordid, squalid, and the truth must out, disreputable..”
The water feature looks like it’s been empty for some time; drifts of leaves and litter. And there’s a mattress, complete with bedclothes and pillow, laid out in one of the channels. Its owner sits nearby, surrounded with bags and rucksacks, a woman wearing several coats, a scarf and headdress. She’s intensely reading a book. It’s difficult to tell her age.
At a higher point in the park some curving benches wrap around tree trunks, overlooking the space. I set to draw the view down towards the north park gate and up to the complexity of Waterloo station walls, roofs and windows. A chinking of glass to my left; through the trees I catch the sunlit flash of a barman’s shirt as he collects empties from the tables outside the Duke of Sussex pub. To my right I glimpse two of the round arches on the side of The Old Vic, like raised eyebrows, echoing the ironwork arches in the station canopy. And behind, the hazy semicircle of the London Eye, slowly turning. (The Old Vic Theatre was founded here in 1818 as the Royal Coburg Theatre, later renamed the Victoria Theatre after Queen Victoria’s mother).
In the 20th Century, many of the run down streets around here were cleared and redeveloped. The area was heavily bomb damaged during the second world war. Waterloo Green, alongwith the ball courts and play area, was opened in 2001, created from a piece of wasteland of just less than 1 hectare. Its development was led by local people who wanted somewhere to enjoy the outdoors and nature. Now managed by BOST (Bankside Open Spaces Trust)
The afternoon creeps towards evening and I’m running out of time so don’t get around to opening my paint box.
The homeless woman hasn’t moved. She reads on.
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.
Waterloo Green, Baylis Road, Lambeth, London, SE1 7AA
Opening times: unrestricted
Google earth view here