Tag: Architecture

Sticks in the Smoke 75: Joseph Grimaldi Park

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‘Clown and Crocodiles’  (Thursday 11 October 2018)

Half a mile of the dusty, grey concrete and glass blocked, wide worn, perspective straight, whitelined rise of Pentonville Road brings me to the iron railed and gated Joseph Grimaldi Park. It occupies the former churchyard of St James’s, built in 1787/8 as a chapel to serve the newly laid out suburb of Pentonville (named after Henry Penton who, from 1773, developed this 66 acres of rural farmland into a grid system of streets and squares).

Where the chapel once stood, dead centre to its grounds now stands Grimaldi Park House (built in 1990 as offices, a pastiche of the original chapel design which had fallen out of use and was demolished a few years before). Its facade catches today’s warming autumn sun and tree shadows scribble across.

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I push open the stiff gate into a shady rectangular area and weave the shady paths between rust leafed chestnut and plane trees, humped and rounded privet hedges hugging the base of their trunks, past stone banana- shaped benches. Only one occupied- a worried young woman rummaging through her bag. Ancient gravestones, words eroded, stacked like ill matched teeth against the walls, separating this quiet treecast area from the bright, active, yelling, cheering, clapping sports courts and children’s playground beyond.

The park is symmetrically divided into four rectangular segments, more or less following the divisions of the original burial ground. It is named after the famous actor, comic performer and dancer, Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) who was buried here, his grave sits enclosed with curlicued railings in the southeast segment. A pair of metal tragi- comedy masks hang at the foot. The comic mask grins up at the dappled sunshine turning leaves to gold; the tragi mask frowns down at the grave, choked with drooping plants and weeds. A string of (fake) pearls has been draped around the headstone, paper streamers wind through the ironwork.  Grimaldi lived in this area for most of his life. He performed at Sadlers Wells Theatre and in Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and is best known and celebrated for developing the role of the white faced clown, and is revered as forerunner of the modern circus clown.

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In the far corner a pair of coffin- shaped bronze installations are set into the ground: an interactive musical artwork by Henry Krokatsis. One is dedicated to Grimaldi and the other to Charles Dibdin the Younger (composer and proprieter of Sadlers Wells theatre, who worked closely with Grimaldi. He was also buried in this churchyard). Stamping your feet on these produce clanging musical notes which, when in the right order will play the tunes of a couple of  Grimaldi’s popular songs, written by Dibdin. I do a hesitant (and slightly self conscious) tap dance on the coffins and make some discordant clanks but my unmusical feet produce nothing close to a melody!

I set up to draw where I can just glimpse the Grimaldi grave through a gap in the wall. It’s a warm autumnal October morning but gusty bursts of breeze rattle the lime tree foliage and send scatters of contorted bronze amber leaves, maple, lime, plane across the grass. Cascades of virginia creeper drape the stone walls. Red as a passing bus, a traffic light. Or a clown’s nose.

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The leaf strewn length of this segment erupts in grassy bulges. Like giant underground bubbles ready to burst out of the lawn. A father and young daughter run up and over the hummocks. Squeals from the little girl as they race back down. Buses, lorries, vans, cars growl as they start stop on the Pentonville Road. Bright coloured rectangles flickering left to right behind the trees.

A constant turnover of parties of schoolchildren arriving in clusters and crocodiles to do sports in the ball court and on the grass. A background canticle of screams and laughs and whoops with teachers’ shouts and whistles.

A crow cackles from the high top of a plane tree.

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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.



Joseph Grimaldi Park, Pentonville Road, Islington, London, N1 9JE
Opening times: 8am – dusk

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Sticks in the Smoke 69: Charterhouse Square, Smithfield

Charterhouse-Square.-03-05-18‘Plague and Confetti’  (Thursday 3 May 2018)

Away from frenetic Aldersgate and Barbican high rise blocks, Carthusian Street leads me to this piece of medieval monastic London on this mild May day of brisk bright clouds and broken blue. Most of the lawns in this 2-acre (0.8 ha), 5 sided square are roped off today and the grassy perimeters allowed to run to spring abundance. But the wild flowers and herbage hide the grim past of this piece of former ‘No Man’s Land’ (beyond the City walls). Beneath are the remains of a large 14th century plague pit, known as Pardon Churchyard, the largest mass grave in London during the Black Death from 1348 – 50, containing the bodies of tens of thousands of victims. It was uncovered during deep excavations for the Crossrail project  in 2014.

A nearby field called Spital Croft was acquired by Sir Walter de Manny in 1349 on which he built a chapel and later founded the Charterhouse as a Carthusian priory to commemorate the ‘Great Pestilence’.

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I find a park bench under an apple tree, where broken shadow mottles the ground, sprinkled with fallen blossom. Above me, sunshine pierces the canopy and edges the silk pink petals with light. Every slightest puff of breeze scatters pink confetti across the grass.

This is the largest of the 7 green spaces and courtyard gardens associated with the monastery and schools of the Charterhouse and the only one that allows free access to the public. I set up to draw and try to make sense of the complexity of roofs and chimneys and ragstone gables, chequered walls and mullioned windows of the mostly Tudor and Stuart Charterhouse buildings to the north of the square (restored in the 1950s after being devastated during the London Blitz in 1941). The museum entrance with overhanging cherry tree and a sinuous contemporary ironwork entrance gate (I’m told later that this was recently commissioned, was only installed last week and is still waiting for its lantern). And to the right is the Thackeray cafe (named after William Makepeace Thackeray who was a student at Charterhouse School in the 1820s), its outdoor tables full of people lunching in the shade of flapping parasols.

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Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a substantial Tudor mansion was built here in 1545, the London home of businessman and philanthropist Thomas Sutton. After his death in 1611, the house was endowed as almshouses for 80 poor gentlemen and a school for 40 scholars, becoming Sutton’s Hospital in the Charterhouse. The almshouses remain on the site, although now providing accommodation for 40 residents. Charterhouse School moved away in 1872 to its present site in Godalming.

Construction workers in orange hi- vis stride to and fro across the park. One sits on the bench just behind me and for 10 minutes the crackle and crunch of crisps being eaten is an accompaniment to the sporadic scree of drill and grinder from the Crossrail site just to the south where a new ticket hall for Farringdon Station is being built.

Flies are busy and insistent today, annoyingly pattering my head and dive bombing my sketchbook, maybe made a little mad by the apple blossom scent. My daughter Millie joins me (she’s taken a break from exam revision) and brings me a coffee. And birthday presents and cards (for tomorrow!). We chat for a while. Then she takes out a book to read and I return to drawing.

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In the 16th century, handsome houses were built around the Square but it did not take shape as a formal residential square until the 17th century when it was laid out with diagonal walks lined with lime trees, bordered on three sides by fine mansions and on the north by the old priory buildings.

The Charterhouse opened its doors to the public for the first time in January 2017. You can visit the museum and chapel and take tours around other parts of the complex, including the Tudor Great Hall and the Great Chamber. The Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Queen Elizabeth II Infirmary care home are also on the site.

Several people, each holding long phone conversations, walk past and carry on around the square, to come back round a couple of minutes later and repeat the circuit several times. A crumpled looking businessman with equally crumpled Tesco bag. A man in a pink jacket. A blue suited girl with knee high boots. All of them walking anti- clockwise around the garden. I watch as they are momentarily enveloped by scrawly shadows cast by the mighty mature plane trees.

The afternoon warms and settles and lulls us. A pair of pigeons amble along the path as if they own it. My drawing is drawing to a conclusion. But then from nowhere a sudden gust of wind riffles our pages and sends a blizzard of blossom across the lawn. The pigeons fly off and, in front of the cafe the yellow umbrella has been thrown upside down against the park railings and tableware sent crashing.

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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.



Charterhouse Square, Carthusian Street, London EC1M 6AN
Opening times: Tues-Sun 11am-5pm

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Sticks in the Smoke 68: Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park (Imperial War Museum), Southwark

Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park 1‘War and Peace. And heat!’  (Thursday 19 April 2018)

Today a sudden shock of summer in spring. The streets are shimmering with heat haze. I explore the wide, tree- picked lawns either side of the museum. Teeming with visitors, sweltering school groups sheltering in the broken shade of trees just budding. Dazed coach parties straggling to the entrance. I meander to the east fields, the clatter of mower cutting stripes across the lawns of the Samten Kyil or Tibetan Garden of Contemplation and Peace (opened in 1999 by the Dalai Lama). In its central circular court a mandala hovers, surrounded by sculptures by Hamish Horsley representing the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. The dazzling white stone slabs reflect the heat and the air vibrates. There’s a scent of jasmine mixed with cut grass.

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This was marshy grazing land where spring fed ponds and streams drained into the Neckinger Brook, a tributary of the Thames (its watery past still remembered in Brook Drive, to the south of the park). The area was used for military exercises, assembles and, in 1537, the Guild of Fraternity of St George was granted a charter by Henry VIII allowing them to practice archery here (after which it became known as St George’s Fields). Forts were built during the Civil war to house Roundhead soldiers. Over the following 100 years, drainage was improved, roads and rough settlements spread. The fields were used for fairs, pony races and other public entertainment. In the 18th century the old Dog and Duck pub, which stood here, was upgraded to accommodate a growing numbers of visitors, attracted by nearby mineral springs. Renamed St George’s Spa, it provided tea rooms, a music gallery, ladies’ and gentlemen’s baths, skittle grounds, bowling green, but over the years became notorious and rowdy and was closed in 1799.

My priority today is to find some cool shade to set up and draw in, and eventually in desperation step over railings into a shrubby bed where a tree (which I’m struggling to identify) with thick dark foliage is the parasol I need. Over there, a stand of mature plane trees are just leafing, their green yellow fizz at the ends of long twisting branches, through which I can see the museum’s copper green dome set against the perfection of today’s sky. The great naval guns at the entrance gleam greenblue through the trees. On the grass, families, lunching office staff and students picnicking. Dogs chase and tumble. Sunbathers exposing winter skin and turning pink. The ‘Peace’ tree sculpture (carved from a diseased plane tree by mORGANICo) stands twisty- sinewy in the sunlight.

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From the sports courts to my left come sporadic shouts and screams from 5 a-side football and a netball match. The frequent clash of ball against wire fencing.

In 1810 plans were agreed for The Royal Bethlem Hospital (known colloquially as Bedlam) to move to this site. Its governors had been offered 12 acres of St George’s Fields in exchange for the site it had outgrown at Moorfields. The new neoclassical building was completed in 1815 and patients moved in. Expansion over the following years brought new wings and blocks, including the copper dome, designed by Sidney Smirke. In the mid C19th, the care of the mentally ill improved, largely as a result of the work at Bethlem Hospital by Dr Charles Hood and his colleagues. Their more compassionate approach brought about better furnishings, books, art and music introduced as well as the laying out of lawns and flowerbeds, ornamental and kitchen gardens and the planting of trees in the land around the hospital.

The day heats more. Stifling even in this shade. But then briefly, a welcome gust of cool air. A silvery lilt of birdsong (maybe a blackcap?) streams from the dense foliage above. A man cycles past on the path and calls across, laughing “hey, Mr Artist, save yer trouble and get yourself an iPad and stylus..” I smile back and carry on scribbling but within seconds my pen runs out!

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I walk back past the museum frontage and linger in its shadow. A tall chunk from the demolished Berlin Wall is a big grafitti mouth shouting “CHANGE YOUR LIFE”. Opposite is an ice cream van and I think that at this moment my life would change for the better with the addition of a cold cornet. But, deterred by the long queue, I opt for tea from the cafe and carry it to the far west corner, where busy picnic tables submerge into dappled tree shade (hornbeam and english oak, part of the Ice Age Tree Trail around the park). I set up my drawing things, looking across a raised flower bed. Large fatsias, laurel, tulips and gone over daffodils are a foreground fringe. Beyond, seated figures at the tables are ever changing silhouettes against the brightness of the field beyond, punctuated by many trees, lampposts and in the middle: the Soviet WW2 Memorial is a hunched soldier- bell tower (sculpted by Sergei Shcherbakov and unveiled here in 1999).

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In 1926 Bethlem Hospital moved to Bromley and the existing patient wings were demolished. The land and buildings were purchased by Viscount Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, who presented it to the London County Council for use as a public park for the ‘splendid struggling mothers of Southwark‘; and named in memory of his own mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. The Imperial War Museum was established in the remains of the hospital in the 1930s (the collection previously housed in South Kensington).

Sudden loud laughing from The Tankard pub on the corner, behind me (it was built in 1825, and had a large roof terrace so customers could look over the high wall into Bedlam and gape at its residents!).

For a while there is the low thrum of a guitar from a man sitting on a rug, his back against the wide belly of an oriental plane tree. As he plays, on this day of the turning of the seasons, I’m sure I can actually see the unfolding of leaves.

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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.



Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, Kennington Rd, London SE1 6HZ
Opening times: unrestricted

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Sticks in the Smoke 67: Sussex Gardens Open Space.

Sussex-Gardens-Open-Space..‘Castaway in a box- hedged island’  (Thursday 12 April 2018)

A morning meeting in Newbury means I don’t get into Paddington until 3.00pm. But my
destination isn’t far. The air has been chill and watery all day and as I turn the corner, the spire of St James’s church is just a rising spike of denser mist above Sussex Gardens Open Space.

Originally farmland, part of the Bishop of London’s Tyburn Estate, the meadows here were overlaid in the 1830’s to a plan by  Samuel Pepys Cockerell, with long straight streets and grand squares of elegant stuccoed town houses. Renamed Tyburnia, it was to attract London’s prosperous classes away from fashionable Belgravia and Mayfair. This half acre triangle was intended as a private garden for occupiers of the surrounding homes. But it was also designed to give a semi- rural setting and foreground to St James’s Church. Built in the early 1840s, this church was the last project by John Goldicutt, architect and artist traveller, whose original neo classical design, based on his visits to Italy, was given a Gothic makeover after his death by George Gutch (Cockerell’s surveyor).

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A three- way intersection of roads meet and circumnavigate and swoop off into long tree lined boulevards, turning this garden into an island. I’m a castaway, wandering alone the paths around and across this small triangle of lawns, box-hedged rose beds, potted bays trees and tall plane trees, bare limbs stretching up and making lacework of this afternoon’s meagre misty daylight.

An apple (or pear?) tree in full blossom lights up the southern corner and I set up to draw where it’s branches reach across and obscure the church’s dingy facade.  A constant clamour of traffic from all sides and scree of brakes at the traffic lights. Horns are being hooted. Nerves are frayed. Someone toots for a full 30 seconds. Someone shouts “lunatic!” Someone else yells something (!) back. Diesel fumes fill my breath and I feel them thick in my head. I struggle with the drawing and my lines straggle frustratingly out of my control. Now and then the sun just flirts above the low cloud but doesn’t break through.

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As the afternoon turns and the light dims even more I begin to relax with my drawing. A slight breeze brings a snow of blossom petals over my page. Over the road, the forecourt of the church is guarded by a trinity of cherry trees, only a slight glimpse of faded red blossom in their foliage.  On the pavement below there’s a constant backwards and forwards of walkers. But in this garden / island the only company I’ve had the whole time have been a pair of fat thrushes and a blackbird picking at the grass amongst a scatter of discarded party poppers.

Until later, an overcoated man walks in and hunches on a bench at the garden’s boxhedged hub and holds a loud phone conversation in Italian. And another man enters and sits on a bench opposite. He takes out a crumpled paper bag and starts swigging from it and watches the daffodils droop in front of him.

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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.



Sussex Gardens Open Space, Paddington, London W2 2RL
Opening times: 8am – dusk

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Sticks in the Smoke 63: Hammersmith Park, Shepherd’s Bush.

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Crane and Turtle. And Rat (Thursday 17 August 2017)

Until the mid 1800s, Shepherd’s Bush was mostly rolling pasture and woods. Tight growing thickets on common land here were regularly used as makeshift enclosures by weary shepherds on the trek to London’s Smithfield Market, to corral their flocks overnight. From the 1840s, railway lines were driven through these fields with Shepherds Bush station opening in the 1860s, making this prime for development and transformation into Victorian commuter belt.

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The paths are wet from earlier showers as I walk through the South Africa Road entrance into this six acre green space, past football and basketball and tennis courts and on, between lawns and cherry trees, a suntrap seating spot where 3 runners rest and an old man in a cap peers into a newspaper on his daily bench. And there ahead, the rounding metal bows of Tim Fortune‘s sculpture, ‘Three Arches’ appear to launch and swoop above the central shrubbery (above). Beyond this point, the park opens out its wings and takes on a different identity: Japanese peace garden, overshadowed by the massive, white tarpaulin clad curving hulk of the old BBC Television Centre (now being converted into flats, offices restaurants and film studios).

At the turn of the 20th century, 140 acres of land here, including brickworks, market gardens and still undeveloped pasture was chosen for the site of the Franco-British Exhibition which took place from May to October 1908, organised jointly between the UK and France as celebration of the Entente Cordiale agreements signed in 1904. It was overseen by Commissioner General, Imre Kiralfy. This was the largest ever international fair held in the UK, visited by 8 million people during that summer.

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An artificial lagoon was surrounded by a grand array of 140 buildings (above) in an eclectic range of ornate international styles but all uniformly white (which gave this district its nickname of White City). Pavilions, palaces and exhibition halls, linked by a grid of roads, bridges and canals, were designed by a team led by architect John Belcher, to represent the world’s nations and cultures, but also to highlight the achievements of British and French industry, achievements and empires. Viewed from today’s perspective they demonstrated imperialistic high- handedness and superiority, with ‘colonial villages’ including the Irish village and Senegalese ‘native village’, with imported inhabitants demonstrating arts and crafts and scenes from everyday life. There were also cafés, restaurants and funfair rides, including the Flip Flap on which, for sixpence, you’d be gently lifted up on a platform, from where you could experience dramatic views right across London to Crystal Palace, and west to Windsor Castle. Not exactly a white knuckle ride but still attracting tens of thousands of passengers.

The Olympic stadium was a last-minute addition to the White City site when London took over the 1908 Olympics from Rome (which had been due to host the event but had to pull out due to the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 1906).

In the years before the First World War, more big exhibitions took place here, including the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910, which brought awareness of Japan to the general public and ran for 6 months. A Garden of Peace was created by a group of Japanese and British gardeners in 1909, part of which forms the heart of this park and is all that now remains of the exhibition.

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I walk through the gate into the Japanese peace garden. Abundant with trees, chestnut, willow, red oak and cherries. A tumble of rocks form the bed for a waterfall (a meagre trickle today), feeding the pond (above) which cuts in an arc through the lawns. The curve completes in a dry rock garden playground (below), a recent addition, which has boulder arrangements on shingle representing the story of crane and turtle on their voyage to Shangri La. A plaque on the site explains the design of this garden was inspired by dry gardens found in Zen temples:

“All dry gardens have a story behind them and each group of rocks plays a part in the story. Ours is a story of the Crane and the Turtle in their voyage to the Island of Shangri-La, a place of eternal happiness floating in the Ocean which takes the shape of the Chinese character for ‘heart’. The ocean is ‘Magatama’ a symbol for good luck. The Crane lives for 1000 years and the Turtle walks the world for 10,000 years. They both symbolise long life. This garden is a metaphor of a child’s journey though life, a materialisation of a desire for it to be happy and that is why it is a playground.”

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I unpack my sketchbook and set up to draw. The day is breezy and, with every gust sissing through the still rain-wet maple leaves above me, a scatter of drops dot my page. An orange plastic bag sweeps across the grass and slaps into turtle rock, clinging fast. I retrieve it and drop it into a nearby bin. Sunlight breaks through the slate grey clouds and dazzles on the white pea shingle.

White City was commandeered for training troops during WW1 then gradually fell into disrepair. Much of the site was flattened in the 1930s to make way for the White City housing estates (the street names of Canada Way, Australia road and India Way are now the only reminders of the 1908 Exhibition). Some of the remaining halls were used for manufacturing parachutes during WW2, but were themselves replaced by the BBC television centre in the 1950s. At the same time Hammersmith Park was laid out below the dramatic modernist curve of the new building, with tennis courts and playground, and accommodating the remnants of the original Japanese peace garden.

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The garden of peace was improved for the Japan 2001 Festival and was restored to a more traditional Japanese aesthetic by Yoshihiko Uchida, Japanese landscape architect, and Satoru Izawa, an engineer and expert in traditional Japanese gardens and a team of volunteers, Funded by the Japan-British Exhibition 100 Committee, the local council, and numerous other supporters. Laid out along the lines of a Japanese Strolling Garden, similar to the Kyoto Garden at Holland Park, which I visited and drew in March 2017 (for Sticks in the Smoke 51) but with a more relaxed feel and freedom to wander. The restoration was completed in 2010, the centenary of the original festival.  In addition a new Japanese- themed natural and adventurous play area has been installed to provide a continuous play trail across the whole site. Other attractions include a maze, a climbing forest and three large play mountains.

The air weighs warm and humid. I wander down to the rock arch bridge and stand aside for a moment while a group of  chatting mums cross over with their children. I stumble back along the rocky ‘beachside’ through the cooler shade and set up to make a second drawing (see below). A notice has a description of the philosophy behind this piece of the garden landscape:

“Japanese gardens try to capture the essential spirit of nature. At the beach, where the pond represents a rocky seashore, the solid, yang element provided by the rocks meet the balancing yin element, the water.”

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The pond has a thick pea soup blanket of duckweed. Green ice where twigs are caught along with other debris, juice cartons, cigarette packs and an empty scotch bottle. Blue shadows spread across the surface. Noise from the construction site, drilling, hammering, shouting. The continual hum and rattle of builders’ lifts. For a moment a the high pitched metallic screech of a drill rakes across the park.

I sit for a while to eat my apple. A dark movement catches at the corner of my eye. I glance across to see the silhouette of a rat under the nearest shrub. Stretching down for a drink.


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.


 

Hammersmith Park, South Africa Road, Shepherd’s Bush London W12 7RW
Opening times: 7.30am – dusk

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 61: Finsbury Square Garden, London

A busy and full- on August has meant less London drawing visits and frustratingly little chance to get down to writing, so I now have a backlog (or Backblog? Or Blogjam?) of posts to write!  Please forgive the erratic production; hopefully a near normal service will resume in September. Maybe!

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Mercury and the disappearing deckchairs (Thursday 13 July 2017)

A few of the original engraved copper plates still survive for one of the earliest printed maps of London dating from 1558, known as the Copperplate map’. One of the plates shows the area to the north of London Wall (see below. The green rectangle roughly indicates where Finsbury Square is today), much of which was owned by St Pauls Cathedral. A patchwork of marshy fields such as Moor Field, open meadow land such as Fynnesburie Fields and enclosed paddocks alongside Bishopsgate Street. Little drawings of figures engaged in everyday activities: walking dogs, hauling sacks, tending cattle, laying washing out to dry. Where the modern Finsbury Square now lies are a couple of figures with longbows raised, ready to shoot. At that time, young men were strongly encouraged to practice their archery for possible conscription into the army. Over the fields just north of here were the Finsbury Marks, a network of metre- high roughly carved tree stumps and stone markers, a kind of golf course for archers to sharpen their aim and hone their skills.

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Finsbury Square is a double blank domino of 2 grass squares, each about a third of an acre. I enter at the City Road (northwest) corner. Stretched taut and sprinkler green in front of me is one of the grass squares, the bowling lawn. A white chain around its edge declares it out of bounds. The benches all around are chock full of lunchtime refugees, staring pensively across the empty flatness as they munch their steak wraps (from the ‘PopUp at the Patio’ street food cafe on the central terrace of the garden).

I stroll the perimeter of the bowling green and up to the cafe and push between the crush of lunchtime office workers. I’m served coffee by a smiley Irish girl who tells me about the Barefoot Bowls events which happen here regularly (www.barefootbowls.co.uk). She says it’s pretty cool and you don’t have to take your shoes off. Or your socks! I look back out at the green. A pair of starlings are its only occupants today, bickering over a piece of pizza crust. I feel an irrational urge to pull off my boots and take my coffee to the middle of the pristine green. But I don’t.

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During the Great Fire of London of 1666 many people fled through London wall’s Moor Gate into the sanctuary of these damp fields. A sizeable shanty town community grew here for weeks afterwards made up of those who’d lost their homes to the blaze until many were found accommodation in regional towns and cities.

Barbecue aromas from the Pop Up cafe drift through the clutter of bright coloured deckchairs which litter the crowded south lawn. Most of them occupied. Intermittent sunshine makes head-and- shoulder shadows come and go on the canvas backs. This space a contrast to the other face of the domino: sun scorched grass, worn and foot hardened bare earth. But at one end is a large puddle, presumably from the heavy rain the day before yesterday. A smart businesswoman in a tawny suit walks her little Pomeranian over to the puddle. The dog drinks and paddles while it’s owner chats into her phone. Then it shakes itself free of muddy water and the woman shrieks and flinches and hauls the little creature away while dabbing at her skirt.

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Facing the incessant and noisy intersection at the square’s southwest corner is a quiet and simple black memorial settled in a flowerbed, wreathed in rosemary and lavender and black eyed susan. Installed in 2013, it lists in gold the names of the 43 who died in the tragic 1975 Moorgate tube disaster.

As London began to stretch out beyond its walls in the 1700s, plans were drawn up by the City surveyor, George Dance the Elder, to develop this as a residential area where the city still flirted with the open Middlesex landscape. Finsbury Square was eventually laid out by his son George Dance the Younger between 1777-92, with grand houses and fine Georgian terraces, aiming to attract the burgeoning professional classes who were already making the new west end streets and squares around Mayfair fashionable.

The central gardens were circular and for the exclusive use of residents but were opened to the public in the early 1800’s so that everyone could enjoy and wonder at the new gas lighting, the first to be installed in a London public square.

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I walk to the southeast corner, where the Martha Smith drinking fountain stands (in the form of a Gothic tower, presented to the parish by her sons). A couple of massage tables have been set up nearby by urbanmassage.com for the benefit of the needy stressed.

I set up my drawing things under a robinia tree. I take a view across the busy lawn towards the grand and imposing art nouveau Alphabeta Building (formerly Triton Court) on the opposite flank of the square, its facade rising majestically like an angular mountain face. Poised precariously on a globe at the pinnacle of the summit is the tiny triumphant figure of Mercury, the messenger and God of trade and merchants (inset in photo below). Since the building’s major refurb of 2014 the exterior has hardly changed but its interior has been opened up into a light 21st century space of glass, floating meeting spaces and greenery-filled atrium. All the large blocks which range around this square date since the last century, replacing every one of the original Georgian town houses. The most recent arrival, the undulating glass and steel facade of 10 Finsbury square (see photo at bottom).

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I think I’ve parked myself in smokers’ corner; from behind me billows of smoke waft over my shoulder. By the time the drawing is finished (see top) I feel like I’ve inhaled a whole packet of cigarettes! I’m standing close to one of the entrances to the subterranean car park, where people have to insert their tickets to gain access. The huge prewar growth of car ownership meant that parking in central London’s business districts was becoming a pressing issue. Plans were drawn up to create a car park under this space, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that Finsbury Council were able to start excavating. It was completed in the early 60s, the first under a London square, and the shabby and war worn gardens were redesigned in the form they are today, with bowling green, lawns, flowerbeds and cafe. But it’s good to see that two Victorian stone horse troughs have survived the upheaval (below. Donated by Martha Smith’s daughters. Now filled with bedding plants), one of them just streetside of where I’m drawing. Reminders of the predominant transport system 120 years ago, before the need for underground car parks was even imagined.

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There’s continual activity. People getting up from deckchairs, people sitting down (I notice that almost everyone has the need to move or adjust the deckchairs before sitting in them. Taking ownership maybe). A woman in a long green dress sits and stretches out. She slips off her trainers to reveal Union Jack socks. A lunchtime party is happening within a conclave of deckchairs. Silvery birthday balloons bob above.

At 3.00, park attendants begin to collect deckchairs, crashing them closed and loading them, clattering onto a trolley. They beckon the sitters off with a flicked thumb (as if saying “Go on you, back to work!”). The displaced occupants resigning themselves to sitting on the ground or slinking back to the office. Or moving off to the park benches or playing ‘musical chairs’ until the number of available deckchairs get fewer. And fewer, until all are gone.

The empty lawn breathes and a slash of sunlight rakes across.

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(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 which will be shown in a future London exhibition.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Finsbury Square Garden, London EC2A 1RR
Opening times: 8am – dusk

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 59: Margravine Cemetery, Barons Court

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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).

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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.

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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).

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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..
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.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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(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.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 54: Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel, London

Altab-Ali

“The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly” (Thursday 6 April 2017)

It’s already warm as I step out from East Aldgate tube station and make my way across Whitechapel High Street towards the entrance to Altab Ali Park, not noticing the cycle lane before almost getting mown down by a cyclist who glares at me as I jump back.

Since about 60AD, when the Romans built a road to link London with Colchester (the original Roman capital of Britain), this thoroughfare has been traversed by a whole host of humanity over the millennia, from units of legionaries, peasants with oxcarts, livestock herders, merchants and messengers to today’s van drivers, office workers, cycle couriers, ambulance paramedics and bus passengers. I’m at the point where Whitechapel High Street becomes Whitechapel Road and the busy northeast bound A11 trunk road.

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By the 13th century, wayside taverns and inns became established along this road to serve and accommodate travellers to and from the City. A jumbling village of wood and thatch dwellings grew. A church was built, a chapel of ease called St Mary Matfelon (‘Matte Felon’ was the medieval name for knapweed, a common treatment for sores and wounds; it’s possible that the chapel also served as a place for healing injured travellers). Constructed from chalk rubble brought from Kent, sunlight would bounce from its rough surface making it shimmer brightly like a beacon above the surrounding hovels, hence the village name ‘White Chapel‘.

Being a good half mile outside the city walls, Whitechapel attracted many of the less sociable crafts and industries that were nevertheless essential to City life, such as slaughterhouses, horse skinning, horn working, brewing, tanning and foundries (the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a few steps up the road from here, was established in 1570. It cast Westminster’s Big Ben and Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, but sadly has founded its final bell and is closing their doors this May). Just to the north, Brick Lane (and its popular Sunday market), is where brick and tile manufacturing took place from the 15th century, using local brick earth deposits.

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A diverse mix of trees line the park’s perimeter: planes, birches, Scots pines. A line of twisty trunked robinias, newly decorated with delicate yellowgreen leaflets, the sun making them fluoresce against the neutrals of background buildings. A pair of starlings  chase each other, sweeping twice around the park around and through the tree canopies, chirrking crossly before landing on a 6th floor balcony in the apartment block which looms over the southern edge. Above them the cloudless sky is a summery blue.

In the late 1600s the crumbling church was rebuilt in NeoClassical style. But by the mid 19th century this was considered pagan and ugly so was replaced with a fine Gothic revivalist church (photo 2). It had an exterior pulpit for al fresco summer preaching and was famous for its clock which projected out over the street (replicated by a modern clock, fixed to a lamppost, ticking in roughly the same position as the original). The churchyard was no longer used for burials and was planted with trees and shrubs. Today the only reminders that this was once a burial ground are a few eroded gravestones standing in sad rows at the edges of the park, and a prominent chest tomb built in the early 1800s for the Maddock family who were local timber merchants.

I set up near the central path to draw towards the northwest entrance, the ‘Maddock’ tomb in the foreground and the glassy blues of the Gherkin and city skyscrapers behind, glimmering through the warm air. A busy flow of people to and fro along the path. (see drawing at top).

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Lunchtime fills the park. Bodies sit in sun or shade. The day heats up, I begin to regret choosing such an exposed spot. A family picnicking nearby seem to be celebrating a young daughter’s birthday. A sudden sparkle catches the corner of my eye- an eruption of bubbles blown by dad soar into the air and fly past me and up over the lawn.

St Mary’s church was firebombed in the 2nd World War and left in ruins. After the war it doubled as a precarious playground for local children and a nocturnal hangout for the homeless. After local complaints the ruins were cleared (sections of the churchyard walls alongside Marylebone Road and the entrance gate stonework still remain) and London County Council landscaped the grounds which were opened as St Mary’s Gardens in 1966.

With every century, the population of Whitechapel has increased in diversity. Like a tapestry on a loom, with successive wefts of immigration adding to its sumptuous and richly detailed substance. In the 17th century Huguenot refugees from France set up their weaving workshops, the origins of this area’s most prominent and longest lasting industry: textiles and clothing. Workers were attracted from across the world by the availability of jobs: Irish, European Jews and, from the mid 20th century, immigrants from Bangladesh (formally East Bengal) all wove their distinctive cultures into the fabric of Whitechapel’s community.

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As immigration grew, so did far right extremism in the east end of London. With marches and banners and slogans, the National Front were fuelling resentment on these streets. Incidents of racial violence were increasing. On the evening of 4 May 1978, Altab Ali (a 25 year old mechanic, who’d recently arrived in London from Bangladesh) was walking to his bus stop after work at a textiles factory in Brick Lane, when he was chased and attacked by three teenagers who stabbed him to death in Adler Street, just to my right. This horrific murder was a huge shock. On the day of Ali’s funeral, thousands took part in a demonstration against racial violence, marching from here to Whitehall. The local Bengali population were mobilised and, through their campaigning, were able to rid Whitechapel of the National Front and, in doing so, became more cohesive as a community. In 1989, St Mary’s Gardens was renamed Altab Ali Park to honour Ali and all victims of racial violence. In 2010 the Altab Ali Foundation was founded which, every 4th May holds Altab Ali Day to commemorate all victims of racism.

Rising from just behind the original churchyard gateway is a sculptural arch (photo 4) created by Welsh blacksmith sculptor David Petersen. It was commissioned in 1989 as a memorial to Altab Ali and other victims of racism. The design combines elements from Bengali and western Gothic architecture, but is woven together with playfully draped ironwork ribbons, symbolising the coming together of these two cultures in East London. At its opening, children processed under the arch wearing headdresses inspired by the arch and carrying red carnations (it is a Bengali tradition to pass under an arch at important events such as at weddings and funerals). An extract from a poem by Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was carved along the park’s central park, reading “The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly” (could be a slogan for all public green spaces). Sadly this text  was subsequently tarmacked over during relandscaping in 2011.

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The southern section of the park is undulating hummocks adorned with sculptural tree stumps and large boulders and planted with stands of birches and pines. Also a viewing platform across to the Shaheed Minar monument (photo 5), a smaller replica of the one in Dhaka, Bangladesh, representing a mother and her martyred sons. Erected in 1999, it commemorates students from Dhaka University and activists of the Bengali Language Movement who were  shot and killed by Pakistani police during a demonstration in 1952 demanding official status for their native tongue. Today, geometric shadows rake across its platform and over a heaped collection of dried flowers and wreaths and banners in Bengali script: decaying remnants from Martyr’s day on 21 February: the anniversary of the massacre (activities which take place on this day include traditional Bengali Alpana painting on the paved areas of the park, using starch paste paint to create motifs and patterns).

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The front section of the park, bordering Whitechapel Road, is as flat as a floor, where once the churches stood (see photo 2). In 2011, this was landscaped by students from the nearby Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design. Stone architectural blocks were carved based on pieces uncovered in an archaeological dig. These are embedded in the lawn, along with fragments of tiled flooring, a surreal hint at the ghost of the 17th century church (photo 6). A congregation of lunchers are sitting on or amongst this stonework, relaxing and chatting and letting today’s sermon of sunshine wash over them. Zigzagging through is a raised terrace (photo 3) which follows the outline of the Victorian church and also acts as seating, picnic table, impromptu bar, children’s play wall and performance stage.

In need of shade I close my sketchbook and walk across to sit on the edge of the raised walkway. Further along, a man with curly white hair (in ageing rock star fashion), leather jacket and croc shoes is strumming a guitar. At my feet the ground is scuffed soil imprinted with shoe sole patterns. There’s a litter of beer bottle tops, cig ends, plane tree twigs and a scatter of dropped smarties. Just next to me a man lifts his daughter down from his shoulders to sit on the edge and she drops her fluffy toy lamb face first into the earth. The little girl cries and, for a second or two, before dad snatches it up, the lamb has a bent cigarette stuck to its stitched mouth.

I look up. Shadows across the blank walls of Adler Street seem like painted Alpana patterns. Over the roofs and treetops the moon hangs like a hazy bubble, hanging flimsy in the sapphire sky. A Virgin jet climbing steeply cuts across it.

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(The Altab Ali Story by Julie Begum is being performed by Richmix on 4th May 2018. Go to https://www.richmix.org.uk/events/theatre/altab-ali-story for details.)


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.



Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel Road, London E1 7QR
Unrestricted opening
Google earth view here

Line drawings of churches reproduced from London Borough of Tower Hamlets Information panel (photo 2).