Tag: Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

Google earth view here

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Sticks in the Smoke 62: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Lambeth

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Allées and Dragons (Thursday 20 July 2017)

As I leave Vauxhall station a gauze of light rain is being blown across from the river. It eases as I pass between the two black entrance pillars, tall as trees, each supporting a sculptural outline of a Victorian pleasure seeker (photo below).

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The original garden on this site was in the riverside grounds of Vaux Hall, the stately home of John and Jane Vaux, who were vintners.  Opened to the public in the 1650s as New Spring Gardens by Jane Vaux, following the death of her husband. London pleasure seekers would arrive by boat (it was still a century and a half before Vauxhall bridge was built), to escape the filthy, teeming and stinking city for a few hours and enjoy fresh flower scented air, attractive tree lined walks, shrubberies and fine vistas. Entry was free in the early days, with refreshments sold to support the venture. Sir Samuel Moreland, the inventor, built a central feature for the garden with fountains and a mirrored pavilion.

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The drizzle eases and I trace a tour around the wide undulating lawns, past the riding paddock where a horse stretches out to nibble at the hedge. And the Vauxhall City Farm where damp donkeys nod and bray in earthy pastures. I turn and take in the view across the width of the park to its westmost fringe, where trees partially obscure the mainline railway embankment. And rising behind, the angular blocks of Albert embankment riverside buildings, including the ‘legoland’ postmodern castle of the M16 HQ, behind which the sky is deepening to a threatening pewter. The breeze picks up and rain comes again, more insistent this time. I scurry to the hopeful shelter of the trees which fringe the crescent ridges that bound the western edge.

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It’s relatively dry under the dark canopies of horse chestnut trees and maples which grow thickly all along the ridge top. I scramble down the slope and set up to draw under one of the procession of lime trees on the path towards the Tea House Theatre (cafe and events venue, set up in 2011 in the premises of a Victorian pub which opened here after the pleasure gardens closed). People are scattering away under umbrellas. A few raindrops percolate through but it’s mostly dry under here. The anaemic light and chill breeze makes it feel less July and more like February and I’m wishing I’d brought a jumper!

By the early 18th century, the gardens had developed a reputation for impropriety. The secret walks and hidden bowers made this a perfect location for furtive liaisons. The author, John Lockman described it as little more than a “much frequented rural brothel”. Around 1730 it was taken over by entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers (who had made his money trading leather in Bermondsey. See ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 58). He wanted his pleasure garden to become a “rational, elegant, and innocent” space, a civilised and civilising environment. It was remodelled with help of his friend, the artist William Hogarth, who lived nearby. The garden transformed into a space for performance and display, with specially designed pavilions and  grottoes in the new Rococo style, displays of paintings and sculptures, formal allées and serpentine walks illuminated with many glass lamps. For his inspirational work, Hogarth was given a free pass to the gardens for life.

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The Orchestra (see illustration above), an octagonal building designed for the performance of music in the open air, was opened in 1735, the first of its kind in England. Around it in colonnades, were rows of supper-boxes where people could enjoy the music while eating and drinking. Frederick, the Prince of Wales, was a prominent patron of the Rococo and gave his support to the Gardens, having his own pavilion built here. The central grove, with its classical portico at one end, was like “an ancient Greek agora”. It could accommodate 3,000 people. In 1749 a rehearsal of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks attracted an audience of 12,000.  and in 1786 a fancy-dress jubilee to celebrate the proprietor’s long ownership was thronged with 61,000 revellers. With 100,000 visitors each season, the gardens provided London-based composers with their first mass audiences.

Tyers’ sons Jonathan and Thomas took over managing the pleasure gardens after their father’s death in 1767 (the family name is remembered in Tyers Street, on the park’s eastern boundary). The site was renamed as Vauxhall Gardens in 1785. New entertainments included firework displays, balloon ascents, and tightrope performances by Madame Saqui. In 1817 the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted, with 1,000 soldiers participating.

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As the shower passes people begin to permeate through the gardens again. A 12 strong female fitness class is being taken through their paces on the damp grass. They stand in a circle and flex their limbs at each other. Two guys carry sheets of cardboard to the top of the tree sheltered hummock. They sit on the cardboard and drink lager while watching the fitness class. On the lawn below them a squirrel is digging for nuts, then sits on its haunches and nibbles at its treasure. Trains are a constant rumble and scree.

The sun emerges and a warmth radiates across the park. I finish the drawing (see top) and pack my things and walk past the tea house and across the middle of the garden. Rough carved wood sculptural pieces sit in the grass, including a fire breathing dragon (from the St Georges Festival, an annual event here since 2012. See photo above). Avenues of trees lead to a central grid of beeches, wet foliage dripping onto stone block benches. Shadows flood the gravel between splashes of sunlight like a Parisian park in the summer. Further on, the scuffed grass ground is patterned with beer bottle tops and laughing gas cannisters. Much evidence of pleasure having happened. Over there the remains of a couple of disposable barbecues.

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During the early 1800s, Vauxhall Gardens continued under different owners but suffered financially due to competition from the more fashionable Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 28) and the popular Cremorne Gardens (see Sticks in the Smoke 16), both on the opposite bank of the river. It closed in 1840 due to bankruptcy then reopened and staggered on for another few years, but its fate was sealed with the building of the 2 mile long railway viaduct from Nine Elms to Waterloo Station, creating a curving cliff that severed the gardens from its river frontage. Visitors lost interest and the gardens fell into disrepair and closed for good in 1859. This site, for 200 years the most famous and notorious of all the pleasure gardens, immortalised by Thackeray, Dickens and Hardy, was wound up and its contents sold by auction for £800.

The land was redeveloped in the following decades and built on with streets and some light industry, but wartime bomb damage and postwar slum clearance saw these 7½ acres of the original site opened up as a public park. This was initially called Spring Gardens but renamed in 2012 as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

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I walk to the western edge, where Goding Street underlines the viaduct. Grassy banks here are covered with yarrow, bright as snowflakes. I set up to draw, with the contrasting background of the railway arches. Umber bricked. The furthest arches are occupied by the Metropolis Motorcycles shop and garage. Ranks of motorcycles outside. Every few minutes a bike roars down the street, echoed and amplified by the high wall. In the nearer arches is the Chariots Roman Spa, London’s biggest and most popular gay sauna.

A man wearing batman t-shirt has a stick and is systematically patrolling the banks, poking and prodding at the long grass. Every now and then he bends down to pick something up. He pauses to look at my drawing and I ask him what he’s looking for. “Money” he says and shows me a handful of coins. He’s wearing plastic gloves. “Anything valuable I hand in. Found a samurai sword once in Vauxhall Park.” (Vauxhall Park is about 300 metres south of here.)

An insistent call of crows from the nearby stand of horse chestnuts is echoed back from the other end of the park. The exchange goes on for a full 10 minutes. Then one takes flight, right overhead, cawing noisily, a ragged feathered silhouette against the clearing sky.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter which will be shown in a future London exhibition. www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Tyers Street, London SE11 5HL
Opening times: unrestricted

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 61: Finsbury Square Garden, London

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

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Mercury and the disappearing deckchairs (Thursday 13 July 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter which will be shown in a future London exhibition.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

Google earth view here

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

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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

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 56: St Pancras Gardens, King’s Cross, London

st-pancras-gardensWeaver of dreams and Mad Day Out (Thursday 11 May 2017)

From Camley Street Natural Park (‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 55) its a 2 minute scurry under the railway bridge and up the steps into St Pancras Gardens and into the contemplative air of a rural churchyard. Everything slows. Evidence of its former function as a burial ground is everywhere: wonky gravestones and subsiding memorials. One of which, enclosed within a circular enclosure, is architect Sir John Soane‘s family tomb (photo 1), which he designed in 1816. Its unusual squared dome roof was inspiration for Gilbert Scott‘s design for the K2 red telephone box in 1926.

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There are a good many trees, mostly planes. Leafy canopies flittering in the light breeze, each one different and distinctive, as if possessed by the spirit of those individuals once buried beneath, distorted, stretched, twisting, leaning.

And over there, through the branches, stands the unassuming old St Pancras Church (photo 2), parts of it 1000 years old.  Over the centuries it’s been patched and rebuilt, with its tower, much of the exterior and its striking Norman entrance porch created in the 1800s. It stands on the site of one of the most ancient sites of Christian worship, dating back to the 4th century. The River Fleet flowed just below, where now runs the busy St Pancras Road.

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As with many London churchyards, population growth in the 1700s led to overcrowding and the need for more space. St Pancras churchyard was expanded twice. It butted against another burial ground which was created to serve the church of St Giles in the Fields. The parish was encroached by Victorian suburbia and absorbed by the city. Grimy industry grew. Streets spread out under the hulk of the gasworks, with its suffusing noxious stench.

These resting spaces were eventually closed to burials in the 1850s to the relief of locals, unhappy about the caved- in graves, bones and coffin fragments scattered all over. Plans in the 1860s to bring the Midland railway line through here to St. Pancras Station meant that tombs and bodies had to be disinterred and moved before the embankment was built. A team of apprentice architects, including Thomas Hardy (later famous as poet and novelist) was delegated to oversee this grisly task. The bodies were reburied in the new Kensal Green and Highgate cemeteries. Two of Hardy’s later poems: ‘In the Cemetery’ and ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ were partly inspired by the black comedy he found in this early experience. Many of the recovered headstones were laid against walls. Some were arranged against each other in a circular stack. The trunk of an ash tree which grew up through the stack has now fused with the stones, becoming a melded memorial, known as the Hardy Tree (photo 6).

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These were among the first former burial grounds in London to be converted  into public gardens. Many of the gravestones and memorials were moved to make way for lawns, trees, shrubberies and a web of paths, much as it appears today. It was opened in 1877, with the unveiling by banking heiress Baroness Burdett- Coutts of a grand gothic sundial (photo 3), designed by architect George Highton. Here it still stands, its three pedestal tiers bursting with varieties of perwinkle and other perennials. I freely admit to a love / hate reaction to neo Gothic design; as I approach it stands there like a gargantuan and mouldy wedding cake. But as I get closer and start to take in the colourful mosaic panels of wild flowers (photo 4), the intricately worked carvings of St Pancras (the saint, not the station) and figures representing night and morning, and the guardian statues of lions and dogs, and the curlicue rails, pillars and finials, I’m seduced. I realise that here is a structure that keeps on giving: a teller of stories, a provider of imagery and pattern, and a weaver of dreams, if only you have the time to take it all in. Looking down, I notice a single ballet shoe, stained and twisted and discarded at its base. I wonder about its partner.

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As I stroll these dappled paths, an insistent bright cobalt blue keeps catching my eye and draws me to the axis of the gardens, where a blue painted cast iron drinking fountain stands. Commissioned by the Church warden, William Thornton in 1877 from Andrew Handyside at the Duke Street Foundry in Derby, inspired by Corinthian columned monuments, topped off with a strange blue cherubic water carrier. I notice that someone had threaded ‘offerings’ of daffodils into its chain rings. Now dried and wilted. This supply of fresh water, once so essential, is now sealed off, but a 1968 publicity photo shows the Beatles, all four of them gargling their own little spurts of fountain water on their Mad Day Out while recording the White Album (photo 5).

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I decide to set up to draw this landmark, with the Soanes memorial behind, against the backdrop of the railway embankment and the looming drum structures of the Gasholder Park development (see drawing at top).

People meander the crisscrossing paths. Dog walkers. Staff from St Pancras Hospital which overlooks the park’s northern edge (partly housed in the original Victorian buildings of the St Pancras Workhouse, it now specialises in geriatric and psychiatric medicine). Voices and traffic noise are softened by the plentiful foliage and dry earthy lawns, so it feels tranquil with a sense of being alone despite the muted presence of other park occupants.

Sunshine comes and goes. Dapples across the dipping, root- rucked paths. Blackbird song trills down across the park like a fountain. A few spatters of rain pock the ground. I gather my things and run to the shelter of the church porch as a shower drenches the gardens. The rising perfume of rain wetted earth.

As the rain stops a white van enters the park and pulls up at the church side gate. 3 young guys in black t-shirts hop out and start unloading amps and loudspeakers. Laughing and joking. Since 2011, the church has taken on a seperate evening identity: as London’s smallest and most atmospheric music venue, opening it’s doors to up-and-coming and established rock, folk and indie artists (such as Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno and Laura Marling). Tonight, well established singer songwriter Charlie Dore is launching her latest album, ‘Dark Matter’ here.

I set up again to finish my drawing. Across the lawn, two tracksuited men are exercising and practising boxing under a tree with an ironwork seat circling around its trunk. One of them jogs over and asks “do you smoke?” And I shake my head and hear myself saying “no, sorry”. And as he goes off to ask someone else, I’m left wondering why I apologised that I don’t smoke.

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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

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

Google earth view here

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

camley-street-natural-park

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 54: Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel, London

Altab-Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(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 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!

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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 

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