Tag: Bird life

Sticks in the Smoke 55: Camley Street Natural Park, King’s Cross, London

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The surge of nature (Friday 28 April 2017)

I wasn’t planning to come here today. To my shame I didn’t even know about Camley Street Natural Park! I was on my way to St Pancras Gardens but took the wrong turning out of the maelstrom of St Pancras Station, walked up the street and found myself standing in front of these elegant curlicued iron gates, restored from their former use as Victorian coal yard gates (photo 1). A green thickness and abundance is bursting out from its streetside boundary, clearly waiting for an opportunity to engulf the paving. I’m intrigued and decide to investigate what lies through the gates.

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This is a narrow 2 acre strip, squished between the Regents Canal which laps its north edge and Camley Street to the south (originally Cambridge St), which runs below the Eurostar rail line.

St Pancras Gardens are only 80 metres to the west, on the other side of the raised railway embankment. I’ll make it the subject of the next post so I can bring both spaces together (like long lost siblings), as they were originally part of the same fields, which surrounded the church in a farming village on the banks of the River Fleet called Battlebridge (supposedly named after a major battle between Queen Boudicca‘s Iceni army and the Roman army in around 60AD, fought on this important river crossing point. There’s an urban myth that Boudicca’s grave is said to be nearby, under a platform of Kings Cross station! Hmm).

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Next door, construction work is going on: power drills and hammers, dust and debris. A footbridge is currently ring built to cross the canal to link with the impressivenew Granary Square and Gasholder Park developmentI walk up under the creaky wooden veranda of the visitors centre. The park is run by the London Wildlife Trust. Here are offices, information boards, exhibition space, cafe and teaching rooms. I notice plans for a new state of the art building to replace these tired and ramshackle structures, to open next summer. I step out into a tranquil natural space, tangled twiggery and fresh spring growth. Through the hedges are glimpses of the canal; coal dark and chrome light ripples tremor at the bank. Woodchip paths wind up and down between low rustic hazel hurdles (photo 2). Past blossoming fruit trees, flourishing meadow, thick with grass and wildflowers, bluebell and cow parsley. Sedged marshland and reedbeds. Natural pools and ponds, boardwalk bridges. And on, through young but dense woodland of hazel, alder, sycamore and more.

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At the southern end a line of beehives and, above are the towering Kings Cross office blocks. Down some earthy steps and you’re led round to the canal and onto ‘Viewpoint‘ (photo 3), a floating wooden platform, like a gently swaying deconstructed pyramid (designed by Finnish architects inspired by Nordic islands), a water level teaching and meeting space. Viewed from here, the canal is like a polished sheet, stretching away to the north and the east.  Opposite is the Fish and Coal building, Victorian offices which closely follows the canal’s sharp bend. At its foot, a temporary pontoon gangway has been fixed along the towpath. It resounds with a rattly clashy metallic rhythm whenever runners or cyclists pass along it!

Regent’s Canal was excavated  through here in the 1820s. The Prince Regent‘s architect in chief, John Nash designed a redevelopment of much of this area, which included this waterway, from the junction with the Grand Union Canal at Little Venice (see Sticks in the Smoke 11, Rembrandt Gardens), around the edge of Regents Park, turning this sharp bend just here and on through east London towards the salty docks on the Thames at Limehouse. Along its towpaths grew warehouses, wharves and grimy waterside industry which spread over former pasture and market gardens. This particular strip of land was used for coal chutes to supply fuel for the canal and later, after the 1860s, for the Midland Railway, which steamed through just a hoot to the west.

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I wander back through the woodland and find a place to draw over a reeded pool, brimming and skimming with invertebrates. Mallards dabbling at the fringes, moorhen and coot paddling (photo 4). Birdsong. The scent of damp leaf litter and breeze rustling reeds. So rural. It’s almost impossible to imagine this was once fouled ground and industrial wasteland. And yet reminders of where we are permeate from all directions. Sudden platform announcements from St Pancras Station bark through the foliage: “the 2.45 to Faversham will leave from platform 11”. The roar of trains. And now and then, the  sound of the Eurostar passing right behind, like a giant vacuum cleaner. Through the opening ahead the occasional narrowboat chugs along the Regents Canal.

This 2 acre site continued as a coal depot until the 1960s. It was then abandoned and left as waste ground. A rubbish dump. But nature managed to reclaim the space, surging through a century’s worth of accumulated coal dust and contamination. It became a wilderness, a natural sanctuary, much loved by local people. So, when threatened with a plan to turn it into a lorry park, a campaign ran by the local community with support from the London Wildlife Trustpersuaded the GLC (Greater London Council) to save the space and retain it as a community nature park. It was landscaped, the visitor centre built and opened to the public in 1985. It has become an important resource for visitors and especially local schoolchildren, whose experience of wildlife is often limited. It’s a similar space to Meanwhile Gardens in Kensington, which I visited last June: a community wildlife park next to the Grand Union Canal (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 18).

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A few park visitors pass by. One or two come across and make comments on my drawing, but in hushed tones as though they shouldn’t really be here. A couple of volunteers with clipboards, pointing at the pond with their biros and making notes, whisper ‘hello’ as they walk past. There’s something about this place. It offers a truce, a respite. I feel rooted, fixed. I know I’m overworking my drawing but I can’t seem to stop. I feel the need to stay and get everything in. To capture all this surging complexity.

There’s the “chip chip”, of a long tailed tit from above. I watch it flitting from twig to branch. A quick, quick tip of its head. And then, when I look down, a blackbird has hopped onto the bench where my paintbox lies open (photo 5). Inquisitive. Pecking and investigating with his beak.

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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 

Camley Street Natural Park, Kings Cross, London. NW1 0PW
Open daily 10am – 5pm
Google earth view here

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Sticks in the Smoke 51: Kyoto Garden, Holland Park, Kensington

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Looking for frogspawn (Thursday 9 March 2017)

I came to Holland Park last summer and made two drawings between the August showers from this green and multifarious mix of formal gardens, lawns, historic buildings and wild woodland (see Sticks in the Smoke 26). That day, on my way across the park I took a loop around the Kyoto Garden. But it was the height of the Pokemon Go craze and the paths were teeming with players excitedly brandishing their phones. So I resolved to return at a quieter time. So here I am today.
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This is the first warm day of the season. I stroll through Holland Park in the sunshine. Round a bend and a fox is lying there, stretched out and lapping from a puddle. It eyes me 051aas I slowly approach and only bothers to wearily raise its scruffy body when I’m as close as a tree shadow’s width. It drags its tail tip through the puddle and disappears around a laurel bush.
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I take the sun patch dappled steps up into the Kyoto Garden. Around the bamboo fence and this mini oriental landscape of water, rocks, trees and carefully placed ishi-dōrō (stone lanterns) is revealed. It was created in 1991 by the Garden Association of Kyoto (the original imperial capital of Japan) in collaboration with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and was opened by The Prince of Wales and The Crown Prince of Japan as a part of the Japan Festival celebrations. It was designed and laid out by a team of specialist gardeners from Japan as a traditional Kaiyushiki, or a pond- stroll garden, where the visitor walks in a clockwise direction around a small lake and is presented with a series of scenes intended to be viewed at aesthetically and spiritually significant points around the path. Benches are placed at some of these key points so that visitors can relax and contemplate.
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051eJust inside the entrance is a round stone tsukubai (a washbasin for visitors to purify themselves by rinsing hands); no water running today so I have to explore the garden in an unpurified state. I put my hands in my pockets and start my clockwise circuit. A stillness here, the pond is barely ruffled. Japanese willows fringed with magenta. Maples. Birches reflected, vertical bands. Rounded shrubs in blossom fringe the bank and their reflections complete circles in the water.
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Even after our wild and messy winter, this space seems perfect and tended with care. Ropes sling between bamboo posts; visitors are kept strictly to the paths. No straying onto lawns, which undulate up to and into the surrounding woods (where the technique of ‘shakkei‘ uses elements outside of the garden to create the illusion that the garden is more expansive than it is). I follow around and down towards the staggered granite slab bridge, which hangs over the water at the foot of a rocky waterfall. Normally the sound of running water trickles out across the whole garden but it’s not flowing today. A gardener tells me that the lake has recently been cleaned out and refilled. Which is also why the giant koi aren’t in the pond at the moment; they’ve been moved to an indoor pool for a mini break but 051dbeing returned next week. I wait for a knot of young Spanish tourists to finish taking group selfies on the bridge. Coins sparkle in the water.
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I complete my circuit and set up close to the entrance to draw across the pond back towards the bridge (see drawing at top). The sun warm on the back of my neck. Then almost hot, like summer.
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The garden fills with visitors but there’s a respectful and contemplative hush here. It’s not that you don’t hear sounds from beyond the space: traffic, sirens, dogs barking, planes and the strident calls of peacocks; it’s just that in this special space designed for meditation and reflection, they simply have no significance. The only time this reverence is disrupted is when a squadron of parakeets swoop over the garden, their shrill squawks piercing the peace.
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A pair of moorhens paddle like clockwork, trailing little shimmery wakes across the pond surface
   
The paths are narrow and I have to stand aside to allow room for mothers pushing buggies past. A little dark haired girl of about 4 is holding her younger sisters’s hand and squints at my drawing. She asks “Is there frogspawn in there?” And I reply I don’t think so. And she says they saw some frogspawn earlier in another pond in Holland Park and then tells me in detail the life 051cstory of tadpoles and frogs, almost without taking a breath. I say thankyou and their mother smiles indulgently as she steers her daughters away. A little later I look across and see them kneeling on the bridge and peering down into the water. Looking for frogspawn.
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A crescent of lawns and shrubberies wraps to the south. This is the Fukushima garden, opened in 2012 as an adjunct to the Kyoto Garden. Designed by famed Kyoto landscape gardener Yasuo Kitayama, this was a gift from Japan to honour the help and support of the UK following the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima. It’s a simple space, half hoops in bamboo fringe the pebble paths. Weeping birches trail their branches to the grass. Two girls drink tea and chat on a shaded bench. A path leads to the top of the garden and goes no further. Just some trees and rocks and an ishi-dōrō. And the glint of pond below.
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A pair of peacocks appear and begin to strut haughtily, owning the garden, tails swishing and flaring; posing for photographs, electric blue necks proudly plumped.
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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. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Kyoto Garden, Holland Park, Kensington, London W11 4UA
Open 7.30 am to half an hour before dusk
Google earth view here

 

Sticks in the Smoke 46: St James’s Park, London

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Ice and fireworks (Wednesday 18 January 2017)

I push my hands deeper into my pockets as I leave Queen Anne’s Gate and cross Birdcage Walk. Brr! Feels like the coldest day! The air is crisp and glistening above these 57­ acres of frosted grass, rolling out northwards to the The Mall, which cuts, as straight as a march, from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty Arch. The sun is melting stripes of green between the shadows of random clumps of trees.
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St James’s Park is the oldest Royal Park in London. It takes its name from a women’s leper hospital, which was built in the 12th century and dedicated to St James the Less. The views southwest from here, where the park lies today, were across marshy meadowland on the banks of the River Tyburn, grazed by cattle and wallowed by pigs. And further, towards the towers of the original Westminster Abbey against the watery gleam from the Thames beyond. In the 1530s, Henry VIII acquired all this land. He had the hospital demolished and built the redbrick St James’s Palace  as his hunting lodge retreat from the stress of Whitehall 046acourt life. He had the meadows drained and fenced as a deer park. This provided him with an almost unbroken 2 mile gallop of royal hunting grounds, from here, westwards through what is now Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
I make my way towards the lake’s Blue Bridge  (the lake was originally spanned by an ornate Chinese inspired structure, built for national celebrations of victory against Napoleon in 1814. It had a tall pagoda rising from the middle but this was destroyed in a blaze during the firework festivities. It was replaced by an elegant iron suspension bridge in 1857, which itself was replaced by this one in 1957. It looks incongruous here, better suited to link a multi storey car park with a shopping centre). The lake courses the whole length of the park. On a map it looks like a giant claw, clutching at the seat of government in Whitehall. Today the middle part of the lake is frozen in a great sheet. Two confused coots are tottering tentatively and gulls appear frozen to the surface, but a pair of swans are determinedly breaking a winding channel through the ice. Tourists and park visitors line the bridge, fascinated and clicking pictures. As the swans push ahead, the ice flexes for a moment with an eerie doink doink sound until it shatters. 046bThe dull and waxy lustre of willow ginger in the ice suddenly replaced by sharp reflections of sunlit gold.
In the early 17th century, the park was landscaped and the drainage improved. The deer made way for the royal menagerie, which included camels, crocodiles and an elephant. Also a row of aviaries which housed the royal collection of exotic birds (hence Birdcage Walk). The Tyburn wound through the park at the foot of a vineyard, to the eastern end where pools and reedy islands lured ducks which were shot for the royal table. In 1660, Charles II celebrated the return of the monarchy with a bold redesign of St James’s Park in the formal French style, under the direction of Andre Mollet, the French landscape gardener. Avenues of chestnut trees and limes with a central feature of a straight ‘canal’ half a mile long. It would freeze hard in those little ice age winters and Londoners would flock here with their skates. In the summer, visitors could take a boat along the Canal (there were even a pair of gondolas from Venice, given by the Doge). Or promenade and maybe even meet the King (sometimes accompanied by his favourite mistress, Nell Gwynne). In the evenings, though, the park gained a reputation as a place for moonlit trysts, especially at the western end, 046caround a small lake called Rosamond’s Pond (thought to be named after the tragic and romantic heroine, Rosamond Clifford).
I follow the lakeside path with the sun warm on my left cheek and the chill from the lake on my right. The banks are bustling with all kinds of water birds trumpeting, screeching, piping and calling. Then, as I walk, there’s the thud thud of a marching band pulsing the chill air. As I get closer, try as I might, I can’t stop myself stepping in time to the drumbeat. I arrive to watch as, with Buckingham Palace in the background, the bearskinned and grey- coated Foot Guards bandsmen stride as one trumpeting, piping, umpahing and thumping body round Spur Road and into their home in Wellington Barracks.
From here the path drops down to the sunken area below the balustrade of the Queen Victoria Memorial Garden. The waters of the Tyburn are gushing from an ornamental outflow to feed the lake, which keeps this end ice free. I unpack my things to draw the view down the lake (see drawing at top). The West Island hangs just there, a magical fragment of wilderness with a weeping willow draping like a golden string curtain towards the water. At the far end, the towers and domes of Whitehall twinkle like a Disney fairytale palace. The Ice Queen’s?
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In the 1820s, George IV commissioned the renowned landscape architect John Nash to remodel the park. Nash cast aside formality and straight lines to transform St James’s to pretty well its current, more pastoral appearance, with naturalistic lake, undulating lawns, winding paths and informal shrubberies and trees, which mingle up towards more formal tree lines at the edges of the park
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046dAs I finish my drawing, a rat purposefully scurries through the bank side undergrowth. Probably kept fat by the thousands of handfuls of bird seed thrown every day. A woman in a parka walks past, pigeons clinging to her shoulders and one on her hat. I think they know her. She probably comes every day with a Tupperware box of bird food.
It’s so very cold. I walk the lake path. A mass of waterbirds. And there in the quivering blue violet ripples, overlooked by the curvilinear and turf- roofed ‘Inn the Park’ cafe, is a host of coots, like a cluster of clergymen shivering in the water. I buy a steaming coffee and grip it tightly to defrost my drawing hand. My eye is caught by the sparkling spray of the Swire Fountain (installed in 2007, the jets reach over 4.5 metres high, helping to oxygenate the water), with the bright backdrop of Horse Guards Parade and WhitehallReedbeds fringe the banks at this end, fostering wildlife. And just across is Duck Island, a wild reserve for waterfowl, including a colony of pelicans (first introduced when a 046epair were donated by a Russian ambassador in 1664), which are publicly fed every day between 2 and 3pm. It’s also home to the London Parks & Gardens Trust charity.
I meander across the hard ground, my shadow stretching long, up towards The Mall. A glimpsed band of bleached white elegance between the trees. But here, at a junction in the path, stands a cherry tree, abundant with early pink blossom, ignited by sunlight. I set up my easel and start to draw (see below). On a nearby bench, a man in a khaki jacket and close cropped hair is holding a can of Special Brew. And more in a plastic bag. He calls over “excuse me my friend, what are you doing?” I tell him I’m drawing. “When did you start doing that?” I say about half an hour ago “no I mean when did you start doing art?” I tell him about a century ago. He comes over and joins me and introduces himself: “Paddy”. His face has lived and there’s a scar under his left eye. Tells me he came down from Leicester. He’d lost his mother and sister in the past 6 months and things not going too well for him up there. He came down to London to “be somewhere that no-one knows me”. Been sleeping rough; slept last night under a bush in Vauxhall. He wants to talk. Needs to tell his stories. As we chat I keep drawing the cherry blossom. It’s a burst of fireworks. Or neurons sparking in a busy mind.
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The long shadows grow longer. We share my sandwiches and he tells me that last time he was in London was in the 80s, bricklaying at Canary Wharf and he earned a packet “and I mean a packet, Nick!” And he tells me how at the age of 7 he watched his drunk Dad attack his mother with a hammer. He had to call an ambulance.
As the sun sinks the earth chill rises through the soles of my shoes. I give Paddy money for a cup of tea. He picks up his cans and rucksack and says he knows where he can go and ask for a room “I mean they’ve got about 50 bedrooms, they can spare one for the night!” and weaves off in the direction of Buckingham Palace.
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

St James’s Park, London. SW1A 2BJ
Unrestricted opening
Google earth view here