Tag: Garden

Sticks in the Smoke 71: Gordon Square and Woburn Square Gardens

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‘Hula Hoops and the Hermit’  (Thursday 21 June 2018)

These two garden squares are the green core of UCL (University College, London), the breathing spaces of this part of busy, bustling Bloomsbury. The morning is warm; pavements simmer as I enter the western gate to Gordon Square Garden. An intensity of brightness across these sun drenched lawns. Circles of students sitting cross legged on the semi parched grass. Some groups seem more organised, maybe alfresco seminars. Some more informal. Friends lunching together. A hum of voices; at times reaching a crescendo. A global mix of many tongues. Fast and urgent conversations. Soundtrack of stimulated minds.

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I pause at the bearded bust of Rabindranath Tagore (the Indian poet, philosopher and Nobel Laureate, sculpted by Shenda Amery) and read the plaque inscribed in his own handwriting:

“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new. At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.

Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.”

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Along the curving shaded southwest path to the Ginger Jules Cafe (was once the gardeners’ cabin). Outside there’s a man wearing a beret and holding a coffee. He has a (Siamese?) cat attached to an extending dog lead and is trying to stop it scrambling up a nearby tree.

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Prior to the building up of Bloomsbury, the area that’s now occupied by Gordon and Woburn Squares was open marshy farmland, part of the Tottenhall Manor Estate.

As demand grew for housing in the late 17th century, the Dukes of Bedford who owned the land began to develop Bloomsbury as a desirable location for high end residences away from the crush and stench of the City. A basic grid of streets was laid out, interspersed with garden squares, a fashionable feature of the time. These two particular squares were fairly late developers: laid out in the 1820s and 30s. The finest Georgian houses were built around Gordon Square by master builder, Thomas Cubitt. Whereas, the terraces around Woburn Square were built by James Sim and his sons to be more functional. The houses were narrower, less imposing and were cheaper to rent, so this square lacked the grandiose status of other Bloomsbury Squares.

I take my coffee for a walk around the garden. A line of lime trees which borders the north east path casts pools of blue violet. At the top corner a memorial bust of Noor Inayat Khan (an SOE agent who infiltrated occupied France, but was executed at Dachau Concentration Camp in 1944 and was honoured with the GC, MBE and Croix de Guerre) is looking out across the lawn where a pair of girls are hula- hooping in the hot sun and laughing loudly at each other.

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In places, the fringes of the park, under the spread of the plane trees, are deliberately left overgrown with shrubs and wild plants to provide habitats for wildlife and encourage biodiversity. At the northern end is a wilder pocket, like a piece of woodland thicket where several homeless men, with sleeping bags and possessions gathered around them, are sitting in a group, talking together and smoking.

The original design of the gardens was by John Russell, the sixth Duke of Bedford (Gordon Square was named after Lady Georgina Gordon, his second wife and Woburn Square named after Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford’s country seat). He laid out both gardens with elaborate arrangements of curving paths, shrubberies and lawns, for the sole benefit of residents of the surrounding terraces. By the end of the 19th century the layout of both gardens had been made less formal, with serpentine paths and more natural looking shrubberies, borders and tree planting.

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I set up to draw in the dust dry shade of a broad beech next to a central island rose bed. Colour rich and intense. A sporadic breeze cools my hot neck. The park fills with gatherings of young Education First (Summer Language School) students from around the world. A group of young East Asians sit on the grass to picnic just in front of where I’m working and glance at me nervously in case they’re in my view. They are but I decide not to include them in my drawing. They talk and laugh excitedly. One or two come over and glance at my sketchbook and nod and say ‘Very nice, very nice’. Summer school leaders circulate with placards reading ‘chocolate’ and ‘vanilla’ and shepherd their animated groups together and away for the afternoon’s sessions.

The University of London was founded in 1826. The following year it moved into the grand neoclassical Wilkins Building, just round the corner from here. However, over the next decades, with expansion and the need for ever more space for new educational roles and departments, by the twentieth century it had outgrown this and other sites in London.  In 1920 the Duke of Bedford agreed to sell a large parcel of his Bloomsbury estate, including these two squares, for the building of new University premises.

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I pack my things and leave the teeming Gordon Square. The day has heated further and there is the scent of warm dust and diesel as I cross the road which separates the two parks. But the air freshens as I enter the shade of Woburn Square Garden. A patched pattern of light scatters across the long rectangle of lawn, transforming it into a giant rug laid out in a lofty hall. The leafy roof held high with great plane tree trunks for pillars.

This is a quiet, hushed space. A wooden shelter at the northern end sits proprietorially over the lawn. Like a cricket pavilion. Or a royal throne. A man in a shabby dark coat sits bent over in one corner, bags and things gathered around him. Lost in thought. Like a hermit. I don’t go in. Neither does anyone else. It would feel like an intrusion. Some people perch for a while on the benches which tuck in amongst the shrubs and bushes beside the perimeter path. Most people looking for a picnic or sunbathing place would surely opt for the more open and warmer lawns of Gordon Square.

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Further university expansion encroached on to Woburn Square in 1958 when the original terraces on its western flank made way for the Warburg Institute. And in 1972 part of the north and south sides were demolished for the Institute of Education and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 

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I stroll down towards the children’s playground at the southern end. It’s deserted. But there is an onlooker: a figure standing near the southern gate, thrusting a peeled fruit (or nut) into the air: ‘The Green Man’ a bronze by Lydia Kapinska, sculpted in 1999 (he looks to me somewhere between Mick Jagger and Peter Pan!). Someone has given him a flat cap (see below), which I remove before starting to draw this sprite- like guardian of the garden. A plaque close by is inscribed with an extract from Virginia Woolf‘s ‘The Waves’ (Woolf lived at 46 Gordon Square from 1903- 07, where the circle of writers and artists who were to form the Bloomsbury Group first started to meet):

“My roots go down to the depth of the world, through earth dried brick, and damp earth through vein of lead and silver. I am all fibre.

I am green as a yew tree in the shade of the hedge. My hair is made of leaves. I am rooted to the middle of the earth. My body is a stalk. I press the stalk.

The roots make a skeleton on the ground, with dead leaves pressed in the angles”

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A pigeon hops amongst the crunchy leaf debris under the railings. As I draw, I throw down a small crust from my sandwich but a blackbird darts down in a flash and carries it off before the pigeon gets a look in.

For a few minutes I’m alone in the garden. Well, apart from the man in the pavilion who’s there immobile and hunched over for the whole time I’m drawing.

A gentle gust sisses through the high foliage.


In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.



Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PQ
Woburn Square,  London WC1H 0AA
Opening times: 8am – dusk or 8pm

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Sticks in the Smoke 69: Charterhouse Square, Smithfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.



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

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 67: Sussex Gardens Open Space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.



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

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 66: St. George’s Gardens and Marchmont Community Garden, Bloomsbury.

066a-St-George's-GardensStarbursts and pink daffodils (Thursday 5 April 2018)

It’s been months. Ages since my last London drawing trip. So much has got in the way. Plenty of good things (but some not quite so good). As soon as I walk into St George’s Gardens on this perfect spring morning I feel all those outside things lifted away. As though their strings caught on the iron park gates. Down the slope and into the gardens, tree shadows criss and spread across the curving paths and winterworn lawns.

Formerly meadows, this land was acquired in the early 1700s for use as burial grounds serving two nearby Bloomsbury churches, both dedicated to St George. The walls are lined with tomb stones formerly located within the burial ground. I wander between the stone urns and box tombs, many of which are unusually built up on brick plinths. They rise up from the ground, like a scatter of steep rocky islands. In one shaded corner stands a tall and imposing Portland stone obelisk, but with no indication of who it commemorates. Most inscriptions are eroded and difficult to read, but there are some famous people buried here, including Anna, grand-daughter of Oliver Cromwell (d.1727), and the anti-slavery campaigner Zachary Macaulay (d.1838). A gruesome claim to fame is that the first official record of body-snatching was from these burial grounds in 1777.

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A Rasta- hatted, hi vis jacketed gardener is tending a central flower bed. Above him a terracotta statue of a robed and barefooted woman (Euterpe- the muse of music), her powerful forearms held defensively across her chest. She’s been garlanded with a string of artificial flowers. Plane, lime and oak trees surround the park, their branches still wintery but some just specked with bright buds. They fragment the surrounding views of Victorian townhouse backs, the rear of the Foundling Museum and the Coram campus to the south. A magnificent magnolia bush is decorated with starbursts of flowers and I want it in my drawing, so set up to draw looking back towards the west gate with the pedimented Mortuary chapel, and a view to the distant scaffolded Telecom tower framed by the terraces of Handel Street. The gardener (JB) comes to look at my drawing, his smile a flash of gold. He tells me I’ve come at just the right time for the magnolia, “in two weeks them petals’ll be rotting on the ground”.

The grounds were closed to burials in the 1850s, after which they became neglected and overgrown. 30 years later they were converted into this single public garden, one of the first undertaken with the help of the Kyrle Society (founded by Miranda Hill), which aimed to improve the lives of the poor through the provision of playgrounds for children and the creation of public gardens on unused spaces, with an emphasis on converting the numerous disused burial grounds that had closed as a result of the Burial Acts of 1852 and subsequent years.

Birdsong cascades through the tangle of magnolia branches, but I can’t see its source. Then drowned out by the clatter of a JCB. I can see the powerful yellow arm flexing and juddering behind the north wall.

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Many park visitors, ambling, dashing, lunching. Dog walkers. A shaggy border terrier scuttles across and drops its muddy red ball under my easel and noses it towards my foot. I kick the ball back across the grass and it’s retrieved and brought back. A voice from down the path- his owner, a man in his early 50s on a mobility scooter: “Teddy! Here!” He comes over and we chat briefly about our Border terriers and their idiosyncratic natures. He brings Teddy here every day, “He’s my life” he says before driving off, dog trotting alongside.

I pack my things and walk out of the gardens and back along Handel Street. Only 200 metres brings me to the tiny oasis of Marchmont Community Garden. At about 35 metres long and less than 10 wide, it must be the smallest public green space I’ve visited in this project, but such a little snip crammed with life and colour and, most of all at this moment: light! Young trees in blossom, or just budding- cherry, apple, catch today’s sunlight and burst into flaming flares against the shaded brickwork of Marchmont Street. Light pushes down through bushes and shrubs and rakes shadows across the winding path, with bright tulips- flashes of red and orange amongst the undergrowth. I set up to attempt to trap some of this light in my sketchbook.

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This old demolition site, a redundant gap and eyesore, under the north cliff face of the Brunswick Centre, was recovered and developed by the Marchmont Community Garden Partnership (MCGP), with much involvement from the local community. It opened in 2011.

Many people pass through, from street to street, to catch a momentary breath of beauty and nature. Or pausing on benches with coffee or to read the news or simply to sit. A blackbird’s song joyfully filters through the space. A crow lands on a tree branch directly overhead, cawing noisily. Its call reverberates, amplified  by the high surrounding walls. It tugs and twists at a twig then flies off.

Drawing finished, I walk back up the sloping boardwalk. Past two young girls trying to fix pink plastic daffodils into their hair.

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In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.


 

St. George’s Gardens, Handel St/Sidmouth St, Bloomsbury, London. W12 7RW
Opening times: 7.30am – dusk
Marchmont Community Garden, Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, London. WC1N 1NJ Opening times: 10.30am – 8.00pm / Sunday 10.30am – 6pm / Closed Mon + Tues

Google earth view here

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018.  www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.


 

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

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 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.

leatherwork-reliefs
Stone reliefs of leatherworking process on the Leather Exchange building

The turn of the century saw a decline in Bermondsey’s dominance of the leather industry. Changes in the process, cheaper rents and labour costs away from London saw other centres, such as Liverpool and Leeds taking over. And, after the First World War, the rise in motor transport over the use of horses led to a drop in the demand for saddles and harnesses. Heavy bombing of this industrial district during the Second World War brought many tanneries to ruin and the postwar rise in synthetic plastics reduced leather making to a specialist industry. The last working tannery, S.O.Rowe & Son moved out of London in 1997.

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Bed of salvia and Bermondsey Village Hall

I return to the eastern garden segment, to draw the view across the rose beds (see drawing at top). This was the first part of these gardens to be opened, in the 1930s, as a garden square to serve the neighbourhood. The rest of the gardens were recovered in the 50s from postwar bomb sites, where once were warehouses and sheds, and laid out to lawns and shrubberies.

The garden is busy, with many people strolling through. Some walking dogs. Others eating lunch on green park benches or under a shaded pergola. A terrier runs up and down the grass paths between the beds. It’s owner calls “Datsun!” I think I’ve misheard until I hear again- “c’mon DATSUN!” Hmm, maybe a Japanese Terrier?

Gusts of breeze set rose heads nodding. Alive like a bright hatted audience, swaying to a beat. Their heady perfume wafts in aerosol bursts.

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Leathermarket Gardens looking east

Guy Street Park

Drawing finished, I walk back through and cross over to Guy Street Park. These two green spaces almost connect, point to point, across Weston Street. In spring, a trail of crocuses decorate a colourful winding trail from Leathermarket Garden over to this open, diamond shaped flatness of lawns. A path, straight as a stripe, cuts across. Other, curving paths lead past beds and around a small pergola, heavy with clematis and honeysuckle. A shrubbed squeeze up some shaded steps into an upper level, with playground and basketball court. Closely overlooked by a multi storey car park and the scaffolded shell of an apartment block under construction.  A glimpse from the northwest corner, up Kipling Street to the primary colours of the newly opened, state of the art Cancer Centre at Guys Hospital.

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Guy Street Park with Leathermarket Gardens in the background

Guy’s Hospital was founded in the 1720s by entrepreneur and benefactor, Thomas Guy. Until the mid nineteenth century this piece of former grazing land was used as the hospital’s burial ground for deceased patients. In the 1890s it was bought by London County Council, refurbished and laid out as Nelson Recreation Ground (with tennis courts, lawns and swings). Much needed in this heavily populated and, at the time, industrialised district.

I struggle for a suitable drawing location so decide to go up to 6th floor of the multi storey NCP car park. From here I have a birds eye view of the park (see drawing at bottom). I’m up amongst the shivering plane tree tops. Looking down, a group of basketball players are clustered around one end of the court, practising shots at the net. Shouts and laughs. A satisfying metallic clang when the ball goes through the hoop. One player is kicking another ball through the opposite posts, clashing it against the chain fence behind. Hammering from building works to my left adds to the percussion.

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Guy’s Hospital on left. NCP car Park on right with Mark Haywood lightboxes

The recreation ground suffered bomb damage during the 2nd World War. It was restored but deteriorated through the latter half of the 20th century through neglect and vandalism. Its unlit corners perfect for dealing and using drugs. In 2000, tenants groups campaigned as the Friends of Guy Street Park. They succeeded in getting funding to redevelop the park to its current plan, with support from Southwark Council and the Pool of London Partnership. As a way to improve lighting, artist Mark Haywood was commissioned to produce a series of large lightboxes which were hung on the side of the car park to display artwork from artists, schools and community groups.

Squeals of tyres and engines revving echo around the concrete cavern behind me. A pigeon struts along the wall close to where I’m drawing. He cocks his head and blinks at me. Then flaps noisily away into the tree when I move to rinse my brush.

A yell from below! A basketball escapes the court and bounces once into Kipling Street, once on the wing of a parked car and rolls in front of a woman pushing a buggy on the opposite pavement. She retrieves then expertly lobs it in an arc to the approaching player.

Guy-Street-Park..
Guy Street Park basketball court. Mixed media sketchbook drawing

 


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

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

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