Tag: Flowers

Sticks in the Smoke 60: Allen Gardens and Nomadic Community Gardens, Spitalfields

allen-gardens

Jugged hare and a marriage proposal (Thursday 29 June 2017)

Round the corner from vibrant, messy, noisy and exciting Brick Lane, into these scrub bedded, patch lawned and bottletop strewn 4 acres. Every available surface, 2D and 3D, is graffitied. On the park sign, someone’s carefully scraped away a section of paint from the second ‘L’ of ‘Allen Gardens’. Changing it to ‘Alien Gardens’.

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I stroll the tree lined perimeter of the park, around the large square of grass. A few people lounging, children playing on the zip wire. A line of poplars partly screens off the railway. Around their bases, long grasses and wildflowers grow. Some of the trees have boots and shoes dangling by their laces like strange fruit.

In medieval times and up until the 18th Century, much of the area where this piece of ground lies was fields and open common land called Hare Marsh where wild flowers and herbs were abundant. Folk from the smoky, stinky city could walk and picnic and breathe fresh air, play sports and trap hares to be slung in a sack, lugged home and hung for jugging (today, one tiny dead end street, just to the north on the other side of the railway tracks, still bears the name Hare Marsh, but there’s nothing marshy about it. And not a hare in sight!).

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Allen Gardens lies just below where London overground railway crosses above the eastern main line (originally the Eastern Counties Railway, which was cut through here in the 1840s, severing the community in the process). We’re at the northeast corner of Spitalfields, just below the southern edge of Bethnal Green and bordered by Shoreditch, originally hamlets and villages which speckled the rural landscape (they were some of the settlements that were part of the “Tower Hamlets” from the 16th century, which contributed to the Tower of London militia).

From the 17th century, waves of immigration surged into the area, attracted by cheap housing and work in the growing industries such as brick making and brewing in and around Brick Lane. French Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution were welcomed to England. Many came here and set up their weaving workshops- the origin of this area’s most prominent and longest lasting industry: textiles and clothing. Over the next century or so with such a surge in the population, this land was transformed by suburban development. By the start of the 1800s new streets had been driven across the fields and meadows as part of Mile End New Town. The parish workhouse was built on this spot, its occupants labouring in the yards and gardens.

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I walk across to the eastern flank of the park. A school field sized flatness of grass, inviting a sprint, a long jump. Or cartwheels. Two girls in sports gear are exercising, skipping and doing handstands. Further over, a pair of yapping dogs are chasing each other in circles as their owners chat, both brandishing plastic ball throwers as though they are weapons. In front of the northern path is a patch of wild meadow. Long grasses have been swished and wind swirled by yesterday’s heavy showers. Knapweed, field scabious and yarrow are stabs of brightness and colour. I set up to draw towards the walls on the south side, solidly decorated with graffiti murals which act together to create a powerful multi- coloured statement (drawing at top).

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The buildings behind these graffitied walls are all that’s left of educational and ecclesiastical establishments here, dating back to the early 19th century. A school for poor children of the area was opened in 1811, sponsored by chemist and philanthropist, William AllenAllen was a prominent anti- slavery campaigner and had also been a leading member of the ‘Spitalfields Soup Society’ formed  to provide relief to unemployed weavers. The Church of All Saints was built where this large lawn is now, on the site of the old workhouse. It was left derelict after wartime bomb damage and was eventually demolished in the 1960s. The vicarage still stands, a tall chimneyed, gothic red brick building surrounded by exotic gardens, shrubs, palms and climbers which you can see bursting through the barbed wire topping of the wall. The next door buildings, now apartments, were part of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic school, originally set up in early Victorian times to serve the children of Irish immigrants who escaped the potato famine and settled in this neighbourhood.

The park was laid out by London County Council in the 50s and 60s on land made available when post-war temporary housing was demolished. It was expanded after the demolition of All Saints Church and slums bordering the railway and was named in honour of William Allen.

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My final brush marks are accompanied by rooster calls and donkey brays from Spitalfields City Farm to my left. Behind me the hum and rattle of trains clattering between the great iron triangles of the overground truss bridge. I pack my things and walk through the underpass beneath the bridge, which is like a portal to another universe, to a triangle of wasteland between the railway lines, a kind of no- mans land. But now everyone’s since its transformation into Nomadic Community Gardens.

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Bright graffiti iconography, giant indecipherable orange and violet text and a cheshire cat smile in multi blues draw me through the entrance into this space. A huge red clenched fist thrusts out of a buddleia bush. Everywhere is colour and imagery. Even the air is painted with impromptu music. Clapping, singing, a guitar.

Nomadic Community Gardens was set up by James Wheale and Junior Mtonga in 2015 as a not for profit organisation, dedicated to transforming disused spaces into urban gardens where people can grow their own produce, create art, share skills, and discover what it means to build their own community from the bottom up. The lease of these two and a half acres was negotiated at a peppercorn rent on a ‘meanwhile’ basis, until the the landowners have decided what they’re going to do with it. I hope they’ll take their time (I remember my visit to Meanwhile Gardens in North Kensington on a hot day in June 2016, see  Sticks in the Smoke 18. That was founded in the mid 1970s and still going strong!). The organisation is funded by money raised from events and donations. The site is maintained by volunteers. No mains power or water supply, so drinking water has to be brought in, rain collected in barrels for watering and electricity is generated from solar panels.

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I buy a coffee from the Roving Cafe, a little 3 wheeler Citroen truck, converted into kitchen and bursting with vegan- friendly foodie delights. Hayley, the owner has been based here since the gardens’ inception. She tells me about ‘Meeting of Styles’: London’s largest street art festival which happens in the gardens (1 and 2 July). Graffiti artists from far and wide gravitating here for a painting bonanza! I take my mug of coffee with me to explore and hunt for somewhere to make a drawing to somehow sum up this extraordinary visual feast.

There’s so much activity. People fixing shelters, tending plants, hauling buckets of compost, chatting, laughing, shouting. And preparing hoardings and walls for the graffiti festival by blacking or blueing over all the previous imagery. Everything is wonderfully ramshackle and makeshift. Woodchip paths snake haphazardly between sheds, greenhouses, cafes and meeting spaces built from old doors, pallets, building timber and reclaimed window frames. Sculptures made from junk, old cars and shop dummies. A playground with an old boat, overlooked by a huge, leaning giraffe- like creature.

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Everything is built to be temporary and easily movable, so all plants are in pots, containers, baths and tyres. Decorated plank- built planting boxes are bursting with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. This is like a cross between a shanty town, a music festival and allotments. I start my drawing, looking through assorted structures and plants towards the large wall which dominates the space. A multi faceted painting includes a bus being torn apart by a giant octopus. To my left are some beehives and beyond is a glimpse of the gold domed Perle Opera House (with it’s combustive roof declaration of: “timing” “temperature” “turbulance”), a focus for the space, where music festivals, performances and community activities take place. I smell a waft of smoke, curling fragrant from the wide campfire pit in front of it.

Everyone who walks past stops to talk and look at my drawing, or at least says hello or smiles. I feel so welcomed. A woman with big sparkly earrings and a rattle of necklaces comes by and proclaims exuberantly in a french accent: “I LOVE artists! Marry me!”, gives me a hug then swoops her bags of veg away before I get a chance to reply! One guy keeps coming over to look at my drawing and gives me thumbs ups from further away. When he comes back I ask him if he has a plot here “Yeah, I do” he says, “Well, it’s me Mum’s really. She looks after it”.

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I did start drawing the large wall with its painted bus and octopus, but halfway through, it had been blacked out too! Frustrated, I turned round and drew a different background instead (see drawing above).

Created by and for the community, a complete mix of ages and cultures and ethnicities tending their little patches or meeting friends. Perfect green neighbourliness and cooperation. Even if you come simply as a visitor or observer and stay only a little while, it’s easy to feel part of what’s happening here as though you have a deeper involvement. In all the green spaces I’ve visited over these past 18 months, for all their perfect trimmed box hedges and rose beds. For all their fountains and scrolled ironwork. For all their noble statues and grand vistas, I’ve never felt so much like I belong than I do here.

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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 

Allen Gardens, Buxton Street, London E1 5EH
Opening times: unrestricted

Nomadic Community Garden, Fleet St Hill, London E1 5ES
Opening times: Open Tuesday- Sunday, 9am to sun down (except for evening events)

Google earth view here

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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.

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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 57: St George’s Square and Pimlico Gardens

st-georges-gardenRose bed to riverbed (Thursday 18 May 2017)

A couple of minutes walk from Pimlico tube station, St Georges Square is more of a long rectangle, the proportions of a school ruler, jabbing at the Thames to the south (Pimlico Gardens is the southern continuation of this rectangle to the river’s edge, see below). As I approach, exuberant yells and cheers from Pimlico Academy sports enclosure bounce  and rally across the square. Background accompaniment for the whole time I’m in the gardens.

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Pimlico’s early history of marshland and riverside grazing is described in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 29: Bessborough Gardens, just 250 metres to the east. This unpromising land was acquired wholesale in the 17th century by the Grosvenor family through marriage. After substantial drainage and embankment schemes, it was subsequently developed into grand squares of stuccoed terraces, elegant streets and avenues by surveyor and architect Thomas Cubitt. By the 1850s, St George’s Square had been built and laid out. Take up was brisk, residents moving in to enjoy private access to these gardens, stretching 240 metres down to the Thames,  its own pier for river steamers.

I walk the park’s perimeter path, following its long, straight tarmac paths still bordered with Victorian stone barley sugar edging. Plane trees with occasional sycamore, ash and horse chestnut cast floods of shade. Abundant shrubberies dense and dark to my right. Damp soil scent after yesterday’s rain. On a bench some roses are tied with a ribbon. Also two balloons. Red and blue. The brass plaque says the bench is dedicated to someone who died last year. Far too young.

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Wide lawns, open and sun streaked on my left. In the centre is a fountain pool and rose beds. A family follow their toddler’s wobbly circuit of the pool and lunge forward as she lurches towards the water’s edge. Benches occupied by a handful of concentrating newspaper readers.

Kindergarten sports are happening on the grass. As I walk past, most children are hopping towards the bench where a teacher is waving and encouraging. But one little boy ignores her and spins on the spot while looking up at the sky. A dizzy twist of branches, clouds and vapour trails. That would’ve been me.

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The path follows through the gate at the southern end and turns around an area of rough grass that’s reserved for the use of dog walkers (and their dogs). I traipse the long path back up the east side of the park. Sun reflects and dazzles through the trees from the square’s cream stucco terraces. At the top end is a rounded box hedged rose garden, flower beds with perennials. Lilies, hellebores. A herbaceous border. Sunbathing ducks don’t even move as I walk by. Definitely the place to draw. I set up easel and unpack drawing things. Behind me stands St Saviour’s Church (designed in the early 1860s by Thomas Cundy the Younger, surveyor for the Grosvenor estate)

This is a surrogate back garden for lots of mothers and toddlers. One pushes her buggy to the middle of the lawn and spreads a rug. Her young daughters scuttle a bee line for the bench with the flowers and try to pull the balloons off. The mum goes over and unties them and gives them to her little ones, who run around gleefully, balloons bobbing, but let go when snacks are offered. A gust bounces the balloons over to the bushes.

Beautiful lilting blackbird chorus from a high up tree branch. I see him silhouetted, the sun bursting through the foliage like a supernova. A glimpse of a plane above making a diagonal trail. The blackbird flits to a wheeliebin in the service yard behind me and stages a chirruping contest with an unseen rival. As I draw a bee buzzes against my nose and rebounds away. Then a robin’s tik, tik, tiktiktik!

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Blue uniformed little schoolchildren pour onto lower lawn. They run about excitedly. A moment later I look back across and they’ve all taken their blazers off in the sunshine and are now little white specks darting about. A mother and teenage daughter are throwing a red frisbee. The daughter is bored and listless and deliberately makes wide throws to force her mum to run extra far. A policeman and policewoman in shirtsleeves patrol the path and come to look at my drawing. She nods and says “very nice”. He says “better than I could do!”. I take that as a compliment (see drawing at top).

Thick slate clouds scud across from behind the amber nib of the church steeple. I start to pack my drawing things. A woman strides over to the bush where the balloons have caught. She retrieves them and takes them back across the lawn to the bench. She reties them and stands for a moment watching them. Bumping against each other, alive in the breeze.

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Pimlico Gardens

I hurry the length of the gardens and cross Grosvenor Road, I want to beat the inevitable downpour.  A 1½ acre pocket of lawn and paths, butting up against the Thames. Just as I  enter the park, the leading edge of the cloud blanket blots out the sun. Tall mature planes and evergreen shrubberies add to the dimness. Peering down over the high embankment wall, thick tree boughs swing towards the grey ripples. The tide is low, revealing a stranded riverbed strewn with rocks, bricks, timber and mud. Reflections from buildings on the Nine Elms bank opposite shiver and splinter.

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On the eastern lawn, John Gibson‘s 1836 statue of William Huskisson MP in draped Roman robes (but which look more like he’s just got out of the bath), is a spectral marble whiteness against the dark foliage behind him (photo 5). Despite a glowing political career, Huskisson is best know as the first ever person to be killed by a railway engine, having been fatally struck by Stephenson’s Rocket during the 1830 opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway . 

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On a pole at the other end of the park is Andre Wallace‘s ‘Helmsman’: a bronze sculpture of a helmeted sailor at the helm of a stylised ship. Unveiled in 1996 to celebrate London’s rich maritime history. I set up to draw this powerful piece (see drawing at bottom), with my back to a tree trunk for shelter. Across the river behind it is the glass honeycomb cube of the nearly completed US embassy, due to be opened later this year.

The park is empty, darkening. The breeze, a chill contrast to this morning’s warm sunshine, brings a light spatter of drizzle. I work on, swiftly, and raise my umbrella. I try to continue under heavier rain but, with my sketchbook page soaked I have to abandon painting and drag my things under the fire escape shelter of the Westminster Boating Base (a charity teaching sailing, canoeing and watersports to adults and children). The downpour rattles and pings on the metal steps above me.

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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 George’s Square Gardens, Pimlico, London. SW1V 3QW
Pimlico Gardens, Grosvenor Road, Pimlico, London. SW1V 3JY
Open daily 8am – dusk

Google earth view here

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

Sticks in the Smoke 53: Battersea Park (North), London

Peace-Pagoda-Battersea-Park

Pagoda and plinths (Thursday 30 March 2017)

I cross Chelsea Bridge on this perfect sunshine day and enter the park through Chelsea Gate. A meander westwards along the wide riverside terrace of lawns and enclosed shrubberies, stands of planes, chestnuts and limes. Bursts of blossom. Past the entrance to the Children’s Zoo. A glimpse of lemurs performing high- rope acrobatics. I wander across to the embankment path, dodging the many joggers and dog walkers. Then, when it starts to get hot, I escape back to the relative shade of the tree- lined North Carriage Drive, where cyclists whisk past on two wheels, and processions of riders on three- 053awheeled recumbent bikes (hired from londonrecumbents.com in the park). I soon realise that, at 200 acres, this is another huge green space that I’ll have to tackle in more than one visit. So today I decide to concentrate on the northern half of the park.

Originally the tidal Thames spilled across this low lying land. Mud banks and reedbeds were washed by tributaries and the now continuous south bank was once a strew of islands. Battersea is first written in Anglo Saxon as Badrices īeg (meaning the island of Badric). There was a manor here, presented by the King Caedwalla of Wessex to Saint Earconwald (Bishop of London 675- 693). It was used as a spiritual retreat by his sister, Saint Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking, whose memory is held in the names of a nearby street and community centre. These were marshy meadows to the east of the farming village, which was roughly where St Mary’s Church, Battersea now stands. Over the centuries, the riverbanks were raised, ditches dug to drain the land and streams channelled into culverts. Battersea Fields were some of the most productive in the district, with a patchwork of market gardens growing vegetables (including the famous ‘Battersea Bunches’ of asparagus) and herbs, including lavender to sweeten homes in the stinking City across the river.

The park is teeming- as well as the successions of runners and dog walkers and cyclists, 053b..there are tourists, families and parents with buggies. Toddlers lunge unsteadily across the grass arms held up and pudgy fingers spread. Groups of schoolkids on Easter holiday playing football, unruly piles of jackets and scooters.

And there’s the Peace Pagodalooming closer, its double roofs spread like bats wings, proudly commanding this stretch of the park. A beacon of serenity. Built by monks and followers of a Japanese Buddhist movement in 1985 to advance the cause of peace, its large gilt-bronze reliefs gleam out, depicting significant stages of Buddha’s life. Maintained by the saffron- robed monk, Gyoro Nagase, who spends his days in meditation within.  A sound of cheering from the grassy banks outside the pagoda momentarily breaks the calm: a group of about 20 excited students (?) are holding up giant polystyrene letters and posing for photos.

I set up to draw under the spread of a just budding oak tree, surrounded by a flock of daffodils and enclosed in a ring of ironwork fencing. A further outer ring of temporary 053gfencing is fixed with warning posters reading ‘BEWARE!, Processionary Moths and Caterpillars. KEEP OUT!’. (I look this up on my phone and read about the spreading invasion of these oak loving creatures, known to have toxic hairs which can cause rashes and skin irritation. Luckily it’s a bit early in the season). To the left of the Pagoda is the haze of Chelsea Bridge. My eye traces the opposite Chelsea riverfront upstream of the bridge. Almost entirely free of high rise or modern development. A progression of fine brickbuilt Dutch gabled townhouses behind a tree lined embankment.  I can see the treetops of Ranelagh Gardens, which I drew on that sultry day last August (see Sticks in the Smoke 28). River breeze softens the traffic noise to a gentle hum.

Back in the 1700s this was a popular place for day trips, for its mostly rural location by the river, a ridge of woodland to the south. Visitors would arrive here by ferry boat at the picturesque Red House Tavern and walk out across the fields, play sports and games or go pheasant shooting. However, by the early 19th century, the tavern had gained an infamous reputation for gambling, debauchery and theft. In the 1840s, the local vicar, Rev Robert Eden put together a plan to solve these antisocial problems. He proposed the creation of a large Royal Park and was financially supported by Property developer, Thomas Cubitt (who had an eye on the potential for building here!). This received Parliamentary 053eapproval in 1845, with a grant of £200,000 from the Commission for Improving the Metropolis to buy the land and develop the park.

The park and gardens were laid out by Sir James Pennethorne to have carriage drives running around its perimeter, plantings of trees and shrubberies. Terraces of tall town houses were built on surrounding avenues. Battersea Park was opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria. Chelsea Bridge was completed in the same year which made the park easily accessible (Albert bridge, at the west corner, opened 15 years later). The embankment wall was completed in 1877, giving the park this broad riverside esplanade.

The park became increasingly used for sports: the first FA rules football match happened here in 1864. Grounds for cricket, croquet and tennis were rolled and laid out. Today there’s a well used running track and tennis courts in the north east portion, all weather astroturf pitches, cricket ground and football pitches in the west. I look up from my drawing- a sweating runner has paused in the shade for a rest, hands on knees, panting at the ground.

During both World Wars, Battersea Park was roped into the war effort with the football pitches dug up for vegetable growing, shrubberies turned into a pig farm and the croquet ground used to site anti- aircraft guns. Great grey silver barrage balloons floated overhead like whales, to protect against air raids.

053fDrawing finished (see above), I pack my things and continue my walk, following the North Carriage Drive as it turns and becomes the West Carriage Drive. The day warms and park visitors lounge summerlike on the grass. I’m led by a leafy pathway into the Old English Garden, an idyllic sanctuary of rose beds and herbaceous borders laid out in 1912. Herringbone brick paths. Lilacs and blossoming fruit trees. A gushing fountain urn and cool shaded arbours. Old men on benches with newspapers seem as permanent as the surrounding walls. Today, I could easily and happily join them and take root here. But I leave and continue across the wide green expanses of the cricket grounds and busy football pitches. The long Central Avenue cuts through as straight as a throw, once lined with elms. Today strongly decorated with shadows from its parade of plane trees. I arrive at the central hub of the park, like a circular forest clearing, where the bandstand stands. An intriguing choice of six pathways lead away.

I take a path northwards, which brings me out into blinding sunshine. When my eyes get used to the dazzle I see that I’ve arrived in the 1950s. This was the site of the Festival Pleasure Gardens, one of the locations for the Festival of Britain, which took place across FoB-battersea-cover-smthe country in 1951, intended as a colourful and exuberant celebration after the devastation of war ravaged Britain. To lift people’s view out of the greyness of the postwar years, towards a more optimistic, exciting and brave new world of design, colour and technology. Here, colourful geometric planting displays by the garden designer Russell Page, were interspersed with theatrical sets, pavilions, tea terraces, a miniature railway and fountain pools by artists and designers including John Piper, Rowland Emett and Osbert Lancaster. One of the most popular features was the Guinness Clock which, every 15 minutes, gave a fantastical kinetic performance. After the end of the festival year, most of the structures were dismantled but some of the original landscaping remain, such as paved areas, lawns and the fountain pool. In recent years, some features have been restored or replicated in the 50’s ‘contemporary‘ style, to give a sense of the original festival feel: flower displays, a whimsical pergola, tea tent, restored fountains. The ‘sputnik‘ design railings remind me of a primary coloured 1950s magazine rack that my parents had (used to make a satisfying doinking sound when hit with a wooden spoon!).

I set up to draw at the edge of the rectangular fountain pool. It feels like a lido, the heat shimmering off the water. Foursquare groups of pollarded trees stand around the pool edge, alternating with oblong flower beds, planted with red and yellow tulips. A pair of brown and ochre Egyptian geese are very active, flying from the poolside and honking every time a dog or child gets too close, sometimes landing on one of the blue and white fountain podiums and strutting angrily.

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There was also a funfair which sat to the east of the Pleasure Gardens. This continued as Battersea Fun Fair for another two decades. The main attraction was the Big Dipper rollercoaster, but a tragic accident in which 5 children were killed led to the eventual closure of the funfair in 1974. From where I am I can just see the white roof of Battersea Evolution, which now occupies the funfair site. It hosts temporary events, conferences and exhibitions (including the Affordable Art Fair, where I’ve had work on show several times).

A group of excited schoolgirls, all wearing hijabs, form a lively sculptural arrangement on top of an empty plinth which sits above the fountain pool. Classmates keep arriving and, when that perch is full, run round, past me, and occupy the plinth on my side. Much laughing and calling and urging each other to jump in the water! But no one does.

It does look cool and inviting on this scorching afternoon. I’m tempted. But… Maybe another day!

Fountain-Pool-Battersea-Par


(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 

Battersea Park, Battersea, London SW11 4NJ
Open 8am – dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 38: Grosvenor Square Gardens, Mayfair

grosvenor-square-1

“As I was walkin’ ’round Grosvenor Square. Not a chill to the winter but a nip to the air..”* (Thursday 10 November 2016)

The Ronald Reagan statue gleams at me as I cross the road on the southwest corner of the square. I walk past the modernist US Embassy building (designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1960. Although I think it’s been used as a model for countless multi storey car parks since it was built!). A powerful statement in an otherwise predominantly Georgian and neo- Georgian part of London, spanning the whole west 038awidth of Grosvenor Square. Its great gilded eagle, spreading wings on the roof, ready to soar over the luxury hotels and other embassies standing around these 6 acres. Debris and crumpled placards from last night’s protests against Donald Trump’s election lie discarded amongst the fallen leaves.
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There’s been an American presence in Grosvenor Square since the 18th Century, when John Adams became the first American ambassador to Britain and, from 1785 -88, lived in a house on the north east corner of the square (ten years later he was elected the second president of the United States). The US Embassy and other departments have been here since the 1930s (Eisenhower had his HQ here during World War 2, when the Square was popularly  known as ‘Little America’). In 1968 there were large anti war protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War and, over the years, this square has been the focus for the venting of feelings about American international policy. Security has become a huge issue since 9/11 and the road in front of the US embassy was closed permanently to traffic in 2001, and defensive barriers put in place. However, partly because of continuing security concerns, and partly out of a need for a 21st Century upgrade, USA is now building a new high security embassy across the Thames, sitting close to the old Battersea Power Station. An energy efficient glass cube, due for completion in 2017.
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Sunshine as I enter the park (and definitely a nip to the air!), speckled shadows over golden orange leaf litter under a grove of plane trees. This is a broad and airy space, which feels like a piece of ancient land. Which indeed it is; just like Berkeley Square, down the road (see Sticks in the Smoke 13), this was a piece of original pasture retained within a fine square of elegant houses when Mayfair was first being developed by the Grosvenor family in the early 1700s. It was laid out as a private garden to serve the residents of the square. Oval in shape, enclosed by railings, with hedges and elm trees. Formal gravel and grass 038dpaths and a pattern of shrubberies around a central statue of George 1 in a commanding position on his horse. It was redesigned in the 19th century, made less formal and with tennis courts and children’s swings, and the elms were replaced with plane trees, which could better cope with acid fallout from the smoke of the city’s hundreds of thousands of coal fires. George 1st’s statue had fallen into disrepair so was removed.
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Heavy slate purple clouds are building from the west. Rain was forecast. I take the perimeter path, past the tall Eagle Squadrons Memorial, erected in 1985 at the southern end of the main paved axis of the gardens. The bronze eagle sculpted in 1985 by Dame Elisabeth Frink sits on its peak, silhouetted against the darkening sky. It commemorates the 244 Americans and the 16 British fighter pilots who served in the three Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons before the US officially joined the 2nd world war.
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On to the far end, where the September 11th 2001 garden faces the American embassy across the lawns. A semicircle of colourful and textural planting, symbolic of love, 038bfriendship and remembrance, including lilies, rosemary, ivy, lavender and roses. A wide green oak pergola, inscribed with the words ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’, houses memorial plaques for the 67 UK citizens who lost their lives in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on that awful day. An anonymous sleeping bundle is swaddled in a blanket on a bench under the pergola.
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There’s the smell of approaching rain, so I walk across the lawn and make a speedy start on drawing the view towards the Stars and Stripes on the US embassy flagpole, twisting and furling through bare oak twigs (see image at top). Many well dressed people stride past, talking earnestly, with a serious and important air. A jaunt of smart suited men with scarves talking Italian (the Italian embassy is behind me on the east flank of the square). Two high vis clad workmen stop to watch me draw. They’re taking a break from conservation work on one of the older houses in the square. Replacing cornices. One comments that drawing must be such a relaxing thing to do. I reply “Hmm, yes, it is sometimes!”, while consciously trying to unfurrow my brow and loosen the tight grip on my pen.
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The inevitable downpour arrives and I quickly gather my things together and beat a retreat under a tree. For a while it’s torrential. I stand under my umbrella for half an hour, 038cwatching figures scurrying by under their brollies, fragmented reflections in the paving. Trees and buildings fade in the rainy haze. My shoes are soaked.
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After the second World War, as the perimeter iron railings had been removed to support the war effort, it proved impractical to keep people out of these private gardens. And with so much surrounding devastation, access to green space was more important than ever. So it was decided to officially open Grosvenor Square Gardens to everyone. The garden was redesigned by architect B. W. L. Gallannaugh, with peripheral holly hedge, Portland stone axis path, pools, fountains and a bronze statue of Franklin D Roosevelt, sculpted by Sir William Reid Dick, high up on a stone pedestal (this intended as a commemoration to American support and sacrifice during the War and the relationship between US and the UK. It was 038eentirely funded by the British public). He stands tall and stately with cape and stick, above a seating area, flower beds and yew hedges. And pleached limes behind him.
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The rain eases and the sky begins to clear and I squelch across to look at the statue of Roosevelt, reflecting down into wet paving. A lone bouquet of white hydrangeas has been placed on his steps. The note reads: “THERE WAS NEVER A DEMOCRACY YET THAT DID NOT COMMIT SUICIDE” –JOHN ADAMS. As I draw the statue (see image below), set behind a bed of fading shrubs, those words bounce around my mind. And I think of last night’s protests and the discarded placards. And I think about the memorials here to the consequences of inhumanity. And humanity. The sky is now clear and pinky blue; the sun has dropped below rooflines. A crane alone is catching the light and glows a silver gold. My shoes are cold and damp and I stamp my feet.  A nanny, pushing a pram that’s almost as tall as she is, stops and watches me drawing and we talk. She tells me she loves to paint flowers and won the art prize when at school in the Philippines. I look in at the baby and wave my fingers at her and say “helloo there!” She just stares out at me with the brightest, steadiest, most intense eyes. Full of promise.
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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, 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 London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, London. SW1W 0AU
Google earth view here

 *From ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by The Grateful Dead

Sticks in the Smoke 34: Westbourne Green, Paddington

westbourne-green-1Flowers under the Flyover (Wednesday 12 October 2016)

A piece of land covering about 8 acres, mingling unevenly between thoroughfares ancient and modern and much shaped by their development. Overhanging this space is the elevated curve of the A40 Westway, which carries an endless stream of traffic east to west and west to east, and piggybacks the ancient route of Harrow Road. And then, a little further, crosses Edgware Road: the Roman Watling Street. The major westward railway tracks running from nearby Paddington Station are a musical score stretching just to the south. 034bOn the north edge of Westbourne Green, the Grand Union Canal bends like an elbow.

My shadow leads me away from Royal Oak tube station, over Lord Hill’s Bridge and then disappears under the colossal concrete slab of the overpass (Westway was built in the late 60s to relieve congestion into central London. The route closely followed the railway to minimise its impact on housing, but still resulted in the demolishing of a large number of buildings. There were campaigns and rooftop protests about the disruption and noise). I dash across the busy junction into the calm of these open, gently undulating grounds. The paths follow the dips and rises, between striped sweeps of mown lawn and oaks and poplars and shady stands of lime (It’s difficult to imagine that, 50 years ago, this was a demolition site and was then used to store the massive concrete sections of the flyover before being craned into place). To the west, the high rise housing blocks of the Warwick Estate are tall silhouettes but don’t overshadow, their stark verticals softened and broken by the billows of tree foliage, autumn tinged from bright golden yellows through to warm mauve greens. And further round: the red and white spire of St Mary Magdalene Church juts sharply between the tree tops. A handful of people, dog walkers, runners. A group of teenage boys stand chatting around a bench, leaning close towards each other as they talk. A man with orange work trousers lies on the grass and seems to be simply contemplating the tops of buses and lorries rushing over the flyover.

034aAt the eastern slope of the Green is a wildflower area: grasses and a mix of plants now dead, long white-pink stems and brittle seedheads waving stiffly in the breeze. But scattered amongst the dried herbage are bright dandelion- like flowers, very much alive. But not quite dandelions. Slightly bigger. I want to draw these exploding yellow stars in the undergrowth, with the thundering swoosh of the Westway above. So I set up my drawing things in the middle of this little bit of wildness and start scribbling in my sketchbook (see drawing at the top).

All around where I’m standing was once the hamlet of Westbourne, which dates back to well before the 12th century. Manor house, farm and cottages gathered around the green. The spring- fed River Westbourne winding through the surrounding fields. Over the following centuries, its well- watered and fertile meadows, orchards and nurseries provided produce for the growing population of London.  As I draw today, goods are being transported into London at speed from all over the country from right to left across my field of vision. And I try to picture weary carthorses 500 years ago, hauling heavy carts, creaking with sacks of apples and onions. Or livestock being shepherded onto the rutted Harrow Road, just in front of me, for the journey to the City markets.

Westbourne green remained largely rural until the mid 1800s when housing began to spread northwards after the new Great Western Railway line (Paddington to Taplow) was brought through in 1838. Building at first along Harrow road, but it wasn’t long before 034cnew streets of terraces pushed northwards towards the canal until, before the end of the century, this whole area was densely covered. The only green spaces were private gardens. The river was diverted underground into buried pipes and culverts, where it flows today

I close my sketchbook and walk out of the main park area and through the grove of oaks and planes, dappled shade across the path and grass. Past the lively Edward Wilson School playground and northwards towards the church and canal. With inter war neglect and wartime bombing, by the 1950s, this had become one of the most deprived and densely populated areas of London. This walk towards the church would have been through grimy streets, past tattered terraces, grubby kids playing hopscotch in the gutter. Despite the conditions, this was a thriving and close- knit community. But it wasn’t to last. In the 1960s, London County Council initiated a programme of major slum clearances which wiped the slate clean here. Many families were displaced to new towns out of London (such as Stevenage and Harlow). Others were rehoused in the Warwick Estate tower blocks that rose from the newly landscaped area.  Today, the church and the school are all that remain of Victorian Westbourne Green. A new, multi ethnic local community now benefits from this leafy, canalside setting.

St Mary Magdalene Church rises from the grassy, slope below the canal. Built in 1872, it was originally squeezed into a narrow site between streets, its needle spire soaring above the parish it served. It is widely recognised as architect, George Edmund Street’s gothic 034dmasterpiece in London. Two boys on wobbly scooters are racing each other down the slope past the church. I step out of the way and, looking down, see some flowers chalked on the tarmac.

The path continues up to a footbridge over the canal. We’re less than 500 metres upstream of Little Venice and Rembrandt Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 11) and just over 500 metres downstream of Meanwhile Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 18). This was the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal (now part of the Grand Union), opened in 1801, built for the same reason as the Westway: improved access into the city, for all kinds of goods, but especially heavy cargoes like coal, timber or building materials, which were difficult and costly to transport any other way. The downside in the 19th century was the transporting out of the city of rubbish, cinders and horse manure, much of which was dumped in sites next to the canal. This wasn’t a pleasant place up until the 1950s: dirty, smelly, rubbish and rat infested.  But, opened up during the slum clearances and redevelopment and after years of clearing and restoration it has been transformed into today’s idyllic wildlife corridor.

A line of narrowboats are moored alongside the towpath. These are serious, lived in boats, with piles of logs on top, and gardens in buckets and growbags. I stroll towards the western end and, under a sycamore tree start another drawing looking along the canalside towards the Harrow Road bridge. On the wall across the water is a mural made from recycled scrap: a giant dragonfly, swans, kingfisher and frog, reflected into multicoloured ripples below. In front of me a beautiful metal fence with swirly circular design. More of a long, curving sculpture than a barrier, but separates me from the flow of runners and walkers, cyclists and skaters. A little girl walking home with her mother runs her lunchbox along it to make clink clunk metal-plastic music.

A sycamore seed twizzles down and flips onto my sketchbook.

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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, 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 London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Westbourne Green, Harrow Road, Paddington, London W2 5ES
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 31: Victoria Embankment Gardens

victoria-embankment-gardens-1(Friday 16 September 2016)

A day of blustery showers: an autumn taste. I enter the gardens at the narrowest end, away from the sound of traffic splishing along the Embankment, and follow hurrying figures along the curving puddled path. Mature planes, catalpa and metasequoia, yews 031aand laurels, luxuriant plants, exotic shrubs and banana palms line the way and provide backdrops for an array of statues and memorials, including one to Sir Arthur Sullivan by Sir William Goscombe John, put up in 1903, with semi- naked muse draping herself seductively in grief (he ignores her, but looks across to the Savoy Hotel, which was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas). Further along, I try out the brass button of the drinking fountain, memorial to Henry Fawcett (political reformer and campaigner for women’s suffrage), work of sculptor Mary Grant in 1886. It still works after all these years and spurts a forceful jet of water from its dolphin spout which sprays over me and a shocked tourist couple, who jump back, already damp from the rain! Then there’s the grand white Portland stone monument to Lord Cheylesmore (Army major- general and chairman of London County Council who, in 1925, was the first member of the aristocracy to be killed in a car accident), designed by Edwin Lutyens, behind a circular ornamental pond. It’s back to back with the Belgian War Memorial, which faces out to the Embankment, opposite Cleopatra’s Needle.
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031bThis garden was one of several created after the completion of the Victoria Embankment in 1870, along the northern banks of this mile long, dog leg bend of the Thames, between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. The Embankment was built under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, as described in my blog post about Whitehall Gardens (only a stones throw south of here), back in May. A hugely ambitious project to tame the Thames and assert London’s authority over nature (an embankment and road had originally been proposed 2 centuries earlier by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666). This string of gardens forms the decorative icing on this massive practical and utilitarian cake. Take a slice through and you have the Circle and District line, running just below (not tunnelled, but cut down from the surface and then covered over). At a ventilation opening on the east edge of the gardens, you can feel and hear the rumble and screech of trains below, pulling in to Embankment station. And under the road, there’s the cavernous Low Level Sewer, a major conduit which flushes much of central London’s effluent away to be treated to the east of the City.
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A few spattering drops then the heavens open again and I make a dash for the cafe. A mug of tea bought, then I set up in the dry under the cafe canopy, looking across through a varied pattern of partially autumnal foliage, along with limes, tree fern and fig tree, towards the pink granite of Cleopatra’s Needle, stabbing up towards a slaty sky. Glimpses of the river, slipping silvery under Waterloo bridge. Snatches of chatter and drifts of tobacco smoke from occupants of other tables. A bedraggled looking blackbird scrabbles among the soggy fag ends beneath a dripping viburnum.
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031dThe rain eases and I wander between lawns and brightly planted beds of rudbeckia and banana palms. The garden layout was designed by landscape designer, Alexander McKenzie in 1870 and is little changed. Curving rows of empty blue deckchairs are a patient audience to a closed up bandstand. I sit for a while. A couple are taking selfies, posing with a plastic white knight from the giant chess game. I watch some surveyors in hi-vis jackets battling with a mis-behaving theodolite. And a little girl in a yellow raincoat is chasing her father around the lawn. She’s parked her very shiny matching yellow ‘ride-on’ Mini Cooper expertly by the path edge.
I make my way out and wander through the heaving Embankment station and up the steps to the Golden Jubilee Bridge. I follow the raised walk away from the river, towards Charing Cross and find a covered balcony that overhangs Villiers Street. From here my sketchbook is protected from raindrops and I have a pigeon’s eye view down towards the garden entrances: between scalloped walls and railings, with plane trees forming a welcoming party. I can watch the crowds, scurrying to and from Embankment station; transitory snippets of hundreds of lives. A rumble of thunder rolls and echoes down the street. And then a sudden raucous screech of female laughter from the trattoria opposite. When I glance round I notice a blue plaque which announces that Rudyard Kipling lived there from 1889 -91, where he wrote his novel The Light That Failed, which references this area.
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That building also houses Gordons Wine Bar, established in 1890: easily the oldest wine bar in London with, what looks like, its original drab brown Victorian frontage. Before the Embankment was built, it had been a warehouse on the river’s edge, where sacks of seed 031cand grain would have been winched directly from river barges. It sits on the corner with Watergate Walk, where you can follow the path along to the York House Water Gate. This impressive arched gateway was built in 1626, designed by Sir Balthazar Gerbier as the river access for York House, the residence of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Originally lapped by the grey Thames waters, it’s now landlocked, looking out onto the potted palms, flowerbeds and lawns of Victoria Embankment Gardens.
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Drawing done, I close my sketchbook. My eye is caught by a gleam of evening sun, which streaks into the Pink Pansy flower stall at the bottom of the street, between the gardens and the station entrance, shimmering down into the wet pavement.
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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, 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 London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )

Victoria Embankment Gardens, Villiers St, London WC2N 6PB
Google earth view here