Sticks in the Smoke 80: Parliament Square, Westminster

‘Palace and protest‘ (Saturday 23 March 2019)

We join a host, marching their hopes and demands for a people’s’ vote and protesting with banner and song and chant and passion against Brexit. An exciting festival atmosphere but with the turnout of many hundreds of thousands, the march makes glacial progress from Park Lane towards Westminster. Tanya and I furl our euro flag and shortcut through Horseguards Parade to Parliament Square.

Sadly we arrive too late to listen to the speakers, but well placed to witness this massive gathering, with more people arriving all the time to swell the numbers, waving placards, signs and flags. The gargoyled gothic edifices of the Palace of Westminster loom over this space although, due to restoration works, much adorned with scaffolding and sheathed in white plastic. A large screen is above the stage, an intense yellow rectangle, which masks across the eastern flank of St. Margaret’s Church.

I wrote about the early and medieval history of this part of Westminster in my post about Victoria Tower Gardens (Sticks in the Smoke 50) and Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey (Sticks in the Smoke 39). Parliament Square covers the site of a once crowded district with narrow streets, small houses and a host of small alleys near the medieval Palace of Westminster and St Margaret’s Church. In the early 1780s the buildings were demolished and the churchyard was cleared and grassed over, the cleared space becoming known as ‘the Desert of Westminster‘.

In 1834, following a fire which destroyed a large portion of the medieval Palace of Westminster, Sir Charles Barry won the competition to redesign a new home for the Houses of Parliament. Work began in 1837 and the new buildings were pretty well completed by the end of the 1850s. The area in front of the Palace was opened up around a central railed enclosure. However this wasn’t considered a grand enough approach to the Palace of Westminster. The opportunity arose to rethink the space in 1868, after major excavations had been completed to drive the new Metropolitan District underground railway diagonally through the square. The garden redesign was by Barry’s 3rd son, Edward Middleton Barry, who had taken over after the death of his father in 1860. With plane trees, sweeping lawns and simple planting schemes, the new garden formed an elegant green foil to the precincts of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

In 1950 Parliament Square was again reconfigured to improve traffic flow for the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition. Architect George Grey Wornum was appointed. He came up with a simple and dignified scheme, incorporating the line of existing London plane trees on the west side of the square and the six existing statues placed on new pedestals (Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln, George Canning, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby) and Lord Palmerston) with a terrace garden, flower beds and large stone jardinières. The remainder of the square was laid to turf, except for a paved walk with catalpa trees on the north side. The plan was intended to set aside open space for future public monuments. Wornum received the Royal Institute of British Architect’s Gold Medal on the strength of his achievement which was vaunted as a ‘New Look for the Hub of Empire’ by The Sphere newspaper.

Since then the square has undergone relatively few modifications. Recent additions have been the statue of Mahatma Ghandi (sculpted by Philip Jackson in 2015) and Nelson Mandela by Ian Walters in 2007). They gaze down from their plinths and across the crowds with beneficence. Other bronzes include Field-Marshal Jan Christian Smuts by Sir Jacob Epstein (1956). In 1973, the statue of Sir Winston Churchill by Ivor Roberts-Jones was added, and in 2007 a bronze statue of David Lloyd George was unveiled.

Westminster is well used to marches and protests of this kind. Sitting opposite one of the key entrances to the Palace of Westminster, it has traditionally been a common site of protest against government action (or inaction!). On May Day 2000 the square was transformed into a giant allotment by Reclaim the Streets guerrilla gardening action. From 2001 – 2011 activist Brian Haw staged a continual one- man campaign there , with his sign- emblazoned peace camp, protesting against UK and US foreign policy.

From my viewpoint on the low surrounding wall I watch as a forest of banners and flags are caught by the breeze, fluttering and swirling. Small groups of protesters form and then disperse. Rain over the previous few days has left the grass damp. Many feet churning patches into mud. Paper flyers scatter across and are trampled into the ground like fallen leaves.

So much else has been demanding my time and attention since I started writing this post. Six months have rolled away. Spring and summer have come and gone. March and this march seem like a distant memory. My little action the tiniest scratch on the Brexit monolith that continues to cast its deep and all consuming shadow across the country. Its ugly and battered face a bloody mess of scratches.


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. It is planned to publish the first two sketchbooks as a book. www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.


Parliament Square, Westminster, London, SW1P 3BD
Opening times: unrestricted
Google earth view

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