Tag: Church

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 054eHigh Street becomes Whitechapel Road and the busy northeast bound A11 trunk road.

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.

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 054geach 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)

Lunchtime fills the park. Bodies sit in sun or shade. The day heats up, I begin to regret 054achoosing 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.

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 054cand 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 054bBengali 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.

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).

054dThe 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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(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 

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).

Sticks in the Smoke 48: Paddington Street Gardens, Marylebone

paddington-street-gardensA Place in the Earth (Thursday 2 February 2017)

The deep desire for a piece of the Earth to call your own after you die has saved many acres of original London soil and clay from being paved, concreted or tarmacked over. Just like several of the other public gardens I’ve visited in this project, Paddington Street Gardens owes it’s existence to an earlier incarnation as burial ground.

048bThe sky today is a slab of slate. I feel a few flicks of rain but turn up my collar and follow the paths which trace a tapering rectangle around the garden and a curving ‘X’ across the middle. As I walk I try to imagine this landscape about 280 years ago, dank and misty this time of year, a line of wintery willows in the west which mark the line of the stream, or bourne (the village name was originally St Mary le Bourne).  And in the sky to the southeast, a bruise black shroud hanging over the City. Sometimes for days on end. Smoke from the 30,000 coal fires of Georgian London. Getting ever closer each winter. And a couple of fields away the stubby stone spire of the village church, with rooks clamouring and circling. By the 1730s, the church sexton was struggling to find space for new graves, so this 2.5 acres of land I’m visiting today was donated to the parish as a new burial ground by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford (a politician and major London landowner; Harley Street and Oxford Street were named after him).

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Fitzpatrick Mausoleum

Forty years later, an additional acre of land was acquired on the opposite side of the street, which has now become Paddington Street Gardens North: a square of lawn with shrubs and beds and edged with old gravestone remnants, overlooked by a smart apartment block; its plate glass reflecting and fragmenting the crooked tangle of tree twiggery.

The garden is well tended, abundant shrub foliage is a mix of hues, from shiny blue laurels to the brightest yellow choisya, singing out through the light rain. Planted terracotta pots line the paths. A symmetrical pattern of lawns with embellishments of geometric beds evenly pricked with yellow and blue flowers. Winter worn grass has been taped off and reseeded. A flock of pigeons pecking their way across.  The north lawn has a series of segmented beds planted with different rose varieties. At the moment all are simply woody stems, well pruned and spiky, tiny buds of new growth just emerging. I have to content myself with the colourful pictures on the labels at the head of each tranche. Overhanging the northwest corner a towering structure is rising, scaffolded and plastic sheeted: the Chiltern Place apartments will look down onto the broad canopies of mature plane and lime trees 048gwhich fringe these gardens. And on, over the roofs and chimneys of the surrounding Victorian streets.

In the second half of the 18th century, two workhouses were built to the north and south of these burial grounds (just as in Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair. See Sticks in the Smoke 47). Perhaps it was thought that a view of a cemetery would be a constant reminder to the inmates of their own mortality. Sure to make them feel better about being poor! A little stone sculpture of a boy gutter sweeper was placed here in 1943 (sculpted by the Milanese artist Donato Barcaglia), maybe a reminder of the once less fortunate occupants of this place.

The burial grounds were officially closed in 1814. The roots from these trees and shrubs are twining their way through the remains of around 80,000 graves.

048aThe rain comes and goes raggedly. Thankfully there are two hexagonal shelters in the gardens. Ideally, I wanted to draw from inside the north one, through its glass windows, which would frame the view of a bright metal astrolabe, perched on the top of a drinking fountain, the rose beds and tree branches interrupting the hard lines of sixties housing blocks in the background. But its ironwork gates are padlocked today, so I hurry to the far end, where the other shelter, without glass, squats in front of the twists and coils and primary colours of the children’s playground. Its gates are open and welcoming. Half lined with benches, a scent of musty damp and tobacco mix to create an atmosphere of stale incense, like in an ancient chapel. I set up to draw across the lawns, back towards the other shelter whose roof moss glows an acid yellow. And in the distance, at the end of Luxborough Street I can just about see the frontage of Madame Tussauds on Marylebone Road. A huddle of hardhatted and hoodied workmen are in here too on lunch break. They’re cackling and jeering at a 048cvideo on a phone. From their remarks and the loud soundtrack, it seems to be footage of a noisy and sweary argument between the wife of one of them and a neighbour. Voices ricochet off the hard surfaces of the building. I peer closer at the garden through the hoops of the decorative ironwork grille that clads this structure but find it difficult to focus on my drawing. A sharp shower rakes the park and rattles the roof, a bead curtain of drips sparkling in front of me. The shelter fills with people. Sheltering.

In 1885 the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) took on the task of developing these sad and neglected acres for the recreational use of the local community. Their landscape gardener, Fanny Wilkinson (designer of over 75 public gardens in London, many of them disused burial grounds), created the design and the garden was opened by Princess Louise the following summer. The original plan has stood the test of time, changing little over the years. It has always been a popular and well used space, a focus for community events, including live music in the summer. The shady plane tree 048ecanopies providing a leafy auditorium roof.

The rain stops as quickly as it started and the building empties. Sunshine glistens the paths as the garden begins to fill for school lunchtime. Yells and excited screams and hoots fill the air. A group of girls enter the shelter and sit on the benches. A sound of quiet murmuring and crinkle of crisp packets. A hi vis park keeper with litter stick and bin liner picks up discarded cans and cartons and sheets of newspaper. He glances at my drawing (see top) and nods at me as he leaves.

I pack my things and follow the east path. Bunches of schoolkids bustle around an elegant block of weathered Portland stone with classical arches and a square dome. Inscriptions on carved drapery have been eroded into illegibility. A stone urn sits high against the gathering sky, adorned with slightly sinister cherub heads that stare down at you with hollow eyes. This is the Fitzpatrick Mausoleum, erected by Richard Fitzpatrick as memorial to his wife Susanna who died in 1730. His daughter Anne, was later also interred here.

Garden of Rest

048fBefore I leave Marylebone I want to visit the original site of the parish church which was served by this ground, so walk the wet pavements up to the little courtyard space on Marylebone High Street. The chapel was built in 1740 (replacing one which was portrayed by William Hogarth in the marriage scene from ‘The Rake’s Progress’ in 1735).  An inscribed slab lists some of the notable people who were buried here, including Charles Wesley in 1788. A memorial obelisk marks the site of his grave, and a round tablet set into the paving, with spirally inscription. The chapel was used until 1926 but was demolished after suffering damage in 2nd world war bombing. Now this ‘Garden of Rest’ sits within its footprint.

Conscious once more of impending rain, I quickly set up to draw the garden’s length (see below). A gnarled and twisting locust bean tree spreads its tortured branches in front of the Victorian flank of the adjacent St Marylebone CE school. Zigzag brickwork like arches of electric shocks above its windows. Much of the paving slabs are worn and cracked gravestones. Today puddle dappled.

A couple, hands full of large bulging bags are holding a heated exchange in Russian. Their words accentuated in a bizarre dance of waving white and blue plastic. A strident bell from over the wall. The air bursts with the sound of excited girls’ voices rising to crescendo. Spots of rain pock my drawing and I realise I’m not going to get a chance to put paint to my drawing. I quickly pack and haul my rucksack onto my back just as the shower breaks.

garden-of-rest


(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 

Paddington Street Gardens, Marylebone, London. W1U 5QA
Garden of Rest, Marylebone High Street, London. W1U 5BA
Open 7am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 47: Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair

mount-street-gardenGiraffe in the mist (Wednesday 25 January 2017)

I can feel the damp cold pressing down as I walk past expensive restaurants, polished hotel entrances and luxury shoe shops in this, one of the most well-heeled parts of London. With my scuffed walking boots and rucksack I feel like an intruder. Through 19th century lanterned gates into this old churchyard garden, hidden from the surrounding streets.
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A ride of a mile or so out of the medieval city, these open meadows were on the northern edge of the Manor of Ebury (named after the Eye Bourne, the stream which became known as the Tyburn). For centuries, a quiet backwater. But during the English Civil War, this piece of land was in a strategic location. In 1642, fears that the Royalists were planning to invade the Parliamentarian City prompted the building of defences and fortifications. A structure was built nearby, called Sergeant’s Fort, but nicknamed Oliver’s Mount (giving it’s name to Mount Street).
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‘Into the Wind’ by Nic Fiddian -Green
Defensive ditches and ridges were built right through where the present day gardens lie. They were manned by voluntary militia known as the Trained Bands. No Royalist attack on the City happened and little evidence is left of these defences.
After the end of the Civil War this area was livened up by an annual fair that took place for a fortnight at the start of May. It began as a livestock market but by the start of the 18th century had developed into a large, unregulated, sprawling event with food sellers, beer stalls, street entertainers, gambling booths, acrobatic and wrestling shows, comic theatre and lots of other attractions. Inevitably, however, as it grew it attracted thieves, pickpockets and troublemakers. Drink ran freely and the nights became rough and noisy, which didn’t go down well with local residents. Since being acquired by the Grosvenor family in 1677, this was now becoming established as a fashionable district for the gentry and aristocracy, with its grid of elegant streets and squares being laid out. So the event’s days were numbered and, following a riot in which a police constable was killed, it was brought to an end in 1709, but is still preserved in the name of the district: Mayfair.
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I follow the path past the entrance to the Neo-Gothic Church of the Immaculate Conception (built in the 1840s, designed by Gothic revivalist architect J.J.Scoles, with magnificent altar by Pugin), guarded by the densely twisting branches of an ornamental pear tree, an unnatural grey purple in this weakly light.

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Bronze giraffe presented by Italy

Lawns of threadbare winter grass are neatly enclosed with metal edging into round cornered triangles and lozenge shapes, which roll to the rim of the basement drops of the surrounding Victorian mansion blocks. These tall red brick and stone buildings, both hem in and protect the garden. There are several exotic trees planted here, such as an Australian Mimosa and a huge Canary date palm, which wouldn’t survive without the windbreak of these walls. The paths are lined with benches, only a few occupied today by hardy lunchers (there are roughly 90 benches here, many of them with dedications sponsored by Americans due to the close proximity of Grosvenor Square and the US Embassy).

At the southeast entrance, a little bronze giraffe is grazing the ornamental grasses in a wide stone planter, inscribed with: ‘A gift to the City of Westminster from the Italian Republic 20th November 1987’.
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A dense mist sits on the rooftops like a shroud, seemingly supported by the twisted branches of several massive plane trees. The garden feels slightly eerie in this gauzy light. Sounds of traffic from outside are muffled. People’s voices ring and echo around the space. Decorators are stripping paint from a grand first floor balcony window. Tapping and scraping a constant theme. A scatter of paint fragments like a light sprinkle of snow on evergreen shrubs below. I set up to draw eastwards along the garden (see top), towards the giant verdigris horse’s head on a black cube plinth, which dominates the garden (‘Into the Wind’ by Nic Fiddian-Green), its neck and mane deeply and expressively grooved. The submissive downward thrust of its head somehow adds to the melancholy air of this space.
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047a
Grosvenor Chapel spire and Mayfair Library
In 1710 an Act of Parliament was passed, set up to relieve the pressure on overcrowded inner London churchyards. Sites were purchased to build a ‘necklace’ of churches and cemeteries around the city. This space was bought in 1723 to be used as a burial ground for the newly built St George’s Hanover Square (about quarter of a mile northeast of here). A few years later, the Grosvenor Chapel, simple and puritan (design inspiration for many New England churches), was set up here, a sentinel, its gravestone shaped east window watchful over the garden. Today, its stocky copper bluegreen spire dissolves coldly up into the mist.
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At about the same time, the parish workhouse was built on the garden’s northern flank. The local jobless and roofless were provided with hard work, board, and lodgings, their outlook over this dark and shabby cemetery. In the 1870s they were moved to a larger institution further west in Chelsea, and the workhouse was swept aside to make space for the grand apartment houses which stand here today.
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In the 1850s, these burial grounds were closed by Act of Parliament, like all others in central London, due to concerns about the health risks caused by overcrowding. In 1887, the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act allowed ‘open spaces and disused burial grounds in the Metropolis for the use of the inhabitants thereof for exercise and recreation’.

047d
Drinking fountain. Church of Immaculate Conception in the background

It was laid with lawns and flowerbeds, and trees were planted. The layout has stayed almost the same since then. In 1891 a bronze drinking fountain, with lions head spouts and topped with rearing horse, was designed by architects, George and Petocommissioned by a local estate agent (in 2005 it was restored to full flowing order after falling into disrepair).

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Towards the western entrance are four cherry trees, full with blossom, light and whippy against the majestic planes behind them. A scatter of pink on the grass, not fallen petals but, on closer inspection, confetti: fallout from weddings held regularly at the registry office above the Mayfair Library.
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Several school processions excitedly cross the diagonal path between St George’s Primary School on the southeast corner of the garden, and the Library. Both are impressive redbrick cakes, with Portland stone icing, built in the early 1890s in Jacobean style. One class of animated children is touring the garden with clipboards making nature notes and drawings. I hear the teacher’s stern voice: “Kyle! What did I say about keeping off the grass? AND not pulling leaves off the shrubs?”  My inner schoolboy shrinks and I hastily start packing my things, hoping she doesn’t spot me standing on the grass.
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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. These will be shown in a forthcoming London exhibition)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Mount Street Gardens, Mayfair, London. W1K 2TH
Open 8am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 42: Powis Square Gardens, Notting Hill

powis-square-gardns

Coco the Poodle and the Pantomime Donkey (Thursday 8 December 2016) 

A damp-chilly sort of December day. On the way I window shop the eclectic independent stores and artisan bakeries of Portobello Road and a quick glance at the Joe Strummer mural (“without people you’re nothing”), before heading for Powis Square. We’re merely a pigeon’s hop from Colville Square Gardens (which I drew back in February for ‘Sticks in the Smoke’2), an almost identical, half- acre rectangle. A slight slope down to the south.

Bare plane tree branches tremble over the garden. Accumulations of mulchy leaves on the rough ground. This is a space for play and activity; spread over most of the top half a tarmac ball court with basketball net and goalmouth. The lower end is a playground with swings and slide and climbing nets. Rough concrete sculptural crags with scramble- through holes rise from the undulating ground. And a quirky little bronze of two figures (no indication of the sculptor), constructed from pipes and tubing and machinery parts, an Adam and Eve of the industrial age; lower edges and corners polished to a gleam by years 042cof tiny stroking hands.

This was all farming land (part of the large Portobello Estate, that took its name in honour of the British naval victory at Porto Bello in Panama in 1739) until the mid nineteenth century, when improvements to roads and railway links meant that land values started to increase, luring speculating builders to bid for parcels of prime building land. In 1860, a young entrepreneur, George Tippett bought 25 acres which he reckoned would be most saleable as they were the closest plot to the City. This was quickly turned into a building site which became popularly known as Tippett’s Brick Fields. He built these streets of tall stuccoed terraces to a consistent design, aiming to cram as many properties as possible into the available space while still retaining a sense of elegance which he hoped would appeal to upper middle class families. The centre of the squares were laid out as private gardens with trees and lawns and gravel walks.

Tippett sold some of the houses he had built, but held on to the rest to lease out. His downfall came when, in the 1880s, he found it difficult to persuade many of the genteel leaseholders to renew: put off by the noise and bustle of the growing Portobello Street Market nearby and the influx of tradespeople, manual workers and immigrants which they 042dfelt ‘diluted the social tone of the neighbourhood‘. Poor George’s project ended in bankruptcy. His properties were taken on by Colville Estates, who started to subdivide them into flats or leased them as boarding houses or to institutions.

I balance my drawing things on the cross beam of a climbing frame and draw towards the upper part of the garden, and over the road to the Tabernacle Centre (originally an evangelical church built in the 1880s. Opened as the ‘Tab’, a Community Arts Centre and music venue in the 70s, since when it has staged acts including Misty in Roots, Joe Strummer, Brian Eno and Lily Allen). For much of the time there are only four other people in the garden: a father on his phone and his daughter in the playground; a young woman on a bench, wearing stripy fingerless gloves and matching hat, smoking and working at her laptop; and an older woman, dwarfed inside a big blue puffy coat, is throwing a ball for her little tartan jacketed poodle. She calls ‘C’mon Coco, fetch the ball!‘ But Coco ignores the ball and trots purposefully over and starts yapping up at me as I draw. Coco’s owner smiles nervously and apologises and drags the little dog away.

042aAs the 1800s rolled to a close, Powis Square became increasingly multicultural. The Wren College was set up here as an exam crammer, particularly for the Indian civil service. It’s students occupied many of the nearby boarding houses and, for a while, the square became nicknamed ‘Little India’. Over the next half century, waves of immigration increased the ethnic diversity of this district. Walking through these gardens in the 20s and 30s, you’d be very likely to hear Russian, Polish and Yiddish spoken. And English in accents ranging from Irish to West Indian. Many of these new residents became prey to greedy and unscrupulous landlords and subletters, leading to a high turnover of occupancy and a steady degeneration of these tenements, small flats and bedsits. In the 50s and 60s this became the heart of Peter Rachman‘s shady and squalid slum empire. Several houses hosted unlicensed basement clubs. Drug dealing and prostitution were rife. Racial tensions in the summer of 1958 led to race riots, ignited by attacks from local white youths, with pitched battles and cars burning here and in surrounding streets.
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The early 60s drew young political radicals, poets, artists and musicians into Notting Hill. Powis Square became a focus for hippy counterculture. The heady smoke of 60s idealism, dreams and passion wafted through this space. Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones, lived here. As did the beat poet Michael Horowitz and photojournalist John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and fashion designer Ossie ClarkDavid Hockney had his studio here. Scenes in the 1970 film Performance, starring Mick Jagger, were filmed in the square. The London Free School, a community action adult education project was set up here in 1966; foremost in the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival.
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Throughout this time, the garden remained padlocked and private, overgrown and poorly maintained. After a number of local children were knocked down while playing in the surrounding streets, there were campaigns of loud and colourful marches for the opening of the garden as a safe playground for ‘local kids to 042bgenerate more positive energy’. In the end the gates were forced open by activists dressed as gorillas, clowns and a pantomime donkey. Revellers poured in, celebratory bonfires were lit and the garden filled with festival fervour. This was viewed as more than just breaking into a private garden, it was seen as a small breach in the thick walls of the establishment (Poet and playwright Neil Oram decsribed it as ‘a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world). As a result of this direct action in 1968, Kensington and Chelsea Council compulsarily purchased the space and formerly opened it for the whole community. A playground was built, the gardens were landscaped and replanted. Since then it’s been the venue for music festivals and events, including the World Music stage for the Notting Hill Carnival.
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My eye is caught by a sudden flare of sunlight, breaking through the clouds and turning the Tabernacle’s tower spires momentarily to fire! As I scrabble in panic for my orange crayon, my cold, numb fingers knock the box off its precarious support and its contents scatter across the earth. I stoop to retrieve them. When I look back up the blaze of light has gone. The building settles back into its heavy Romanesque solidity as the day settles towards dusk. I look around and shiver. Apart from me the garden is empty.
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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. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Powis Square Gardens, Notting Hill, London. W11 2BN
Open 7.30am – ­ dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 39: Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey

deans-yard

Tranquility and Sanctuary and keeping off the grass. (Wednesday 16 November 2016)

Away from the tumult around Parliament Square and the Westminster tourist hubbub and forests of selfie sticks, push past packs of tour groups flocking The Sanctuary, then through the Deans Yard arch and gatehouse. Phew! Step back in time into this tranquil collegiate acre of lawn and mature trees. I slowly walk the lane around this ancient square, past a mixed collection of dignified buildings, dating from Tudor to Georgian, Victorian and prewar, pressed together like a well- thumbed collection of leather bound volumes around the walls of a hushed library. The north and east side are some of the oldest. They house abbey offices and parts of Westminster School. On the south is the majestic Church House, which is the headquarters of the Church of England. And the buildings on west side 039dcontain Westminster Abbey Choir School (founded in 1560, and still educating the 35 or so choirboys, aged 8 – 13, who sing in the Abbey). I walk under its oriel windows and the lilting and piping notes of flute and piccolo spill from an upstairs music classroom; a calming counter to the hoots and toots of relentless traffic beyond this square. There are 10 original Victorian iron lamp standards at intervals around the square. I try to imagine their weak greenish gas glow filtering through the thick smogs of 100 years ago.

The land that is now Westminster was once a teardrop shaped island of about 660 acres, called Thorn Ey (later Thorney Island), where branches of the River Tyburn (now underground in conduits and sewers) flowed into the Thames. Wild, inhospitable and overgrown (hence ‘Thorney’). A small Benedictine monastery was founded here in the early 900s. The land was laboriously tamed and cleared by the monks so that it became one of the most fertile and productive pieces of land in London, with fields, orchards and gardens. Deans Yard is roughly where the monastery farmyard was shaded by an elm tree grove (which gave this part of the monastery it’s popular name ‘The Elms’). In the 11th century Edward the Confessor built the original Westminster Abbey on adjacent land and his Palace of Westminster close 039bby. Two hundred years later, Henry III rebuilt most of the abbey in the new, elegant Gothic style, housing a shrine to the canonised Edward the Confessor. Over the centuries, many additions and changes were made; the twin western towers being finally completed in 1745.

I pause at the far end in the shade of Church House and look back across the lawn; swathes and scatters of leaves garnish the mowed stripes. There, rising above, are the magnificent towers. The Portland stone ethereal and gilded in the sunlight. Almost vanishing behind the canopies of plane and chestnut: hanging veils of crumpled gold. A birch tree is a slender, sinewy, pale blue pillar. A plump crow picks the ground around its base, hunting worms.  I put my rucksack down on the kerb edge of the lawn (a nearby sign reads ‘PLEASE KEEP OFF THE GRASS’), and set up my easel. Uniformed Westminster School students walk between lessons. They traditionally refer to this space as ‘Green’. I overhear odd snippets of teenage conversation: “…go on, just put your tongue behind it and pull!..” and “..hmm, not a bad film, I rate it approximately 6.75 out of 10…”.  A couple of hurrying boys take a shortcut across the grass.

039aWestminster school is one of the UK’s most esteemed public schools but has its origins as a small charity school provided by the abbey’s Benedictine monks in the 12th century. Following the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the school was allowed to continue. Today there are about 750 pupils from age 7 to 18 (mostly boys, although girls are admitted into the 6th form at 16). Traditionally they have the right to play football on Green.

Until the 17th century, pupils at the school had to share this space with a changing community of dangerous criminals and villains, who took advantage of ‘ecclesiastical sanctuary‘, which traditionally offered immunity from arrest within the abbey precincts. The area in front of the abbey is still called The Sanctuary, but I wouldn’t advise running here after robbing a bank and hoping you’ll be safe, you’re 400 years too late!

Today’s shifting sunlight dramatically changes the mood of  the abbey towers; one moment they seem to dissolve into luminescence; then a shadow passes over. Bringing weight and solemnity.

039cBehind me, a burst of sudden laughter and the sound of shoes clacking on the raised paved terrace of Church House and down the steps. Some pause to look at my drawing and one tells me she can’t even draw a straight line. I say I can’t either. They’re delegates taking a break from a local government conference being held today. Church House was originally built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and intended as a central meeting and administrative building for the Church of England. It was redesigned by architect, Sir Herbert Baker to provide more space and was completed in 1940. Only a year later it took a direct hit during the Blitz, but suffered very little damage. For this reason it was requisitioned to serve as a more secure, wartime Houses of Parliament. After the war, in January 1946, the newly created United Nations Security Council met for the first time in this building. Today it houses various departments of the Church of England, and hosts the annual General Synod meetings. It is also a prestigious venue for all kinds of events, from conferences to weddings.

I close my sketchbook and pack it away. Muffled piano notes float down from the music room window. A leaf lazily twists and gently drifts to earth, exactly in line with the birch tree trunk.

(There are three other original gardens within Westminster Abbey which are free to enter: the Garth, the Little Cloister and College Garden. I’m hoping to return to draw them in early spring.)

 


 

(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. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Deans Yard, Westminster Abbey, London. SW1P 3NZ
Opening times: 10-4 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Free entry
Google earth view here