Tag: Memorial

Sticks in the Smoke 54: Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel, London

Altab-Ali

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

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

Since about 60AD, when the Romans built a road to link London with Colchester (the original Roman capital of Britain), this thoroughfare has been traversed by a whole host of humanity over the millennia, from units of legionaries, peasants with oxcarts, livestock herders, merchants and messengers to today’s van drivers, office workers, cycle couriers, ambulance paramedics and bus passengers. I’m at the point where Whitechapel 054eHigh Street becomes Whitechapel Road and the busy northeast bound A11 trunk road.

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

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

A diverse mix of trees line the park’s perimeter: planes, birches, Scots pines. A line of twisty trunked robinias, newly decorated with delicate yellowgreen leaflets, the sun making them fluoresce against the neutrals of background buildings. A pair of starlings  chase 054geach other, sweeping twice around the park around and through the tree canopies, chirrking crossly before landing on a 6th floor balcony in the apartment block which looms over the southern edge. Above them the cloudless sky is a summery blue.

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

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

Lunchtime fills the park. Bodies sit in sun or shade. The day heats up, I begin to regret 054achoosing such an exposed spot. A family picnicking nearby seem to be celebrating a young daughter’s birthday. A sudden sparkle catches the corner of my eye- an eruption of bubbles blown by dad soar into the air and fly past me and up over the lawn.

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

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

As immigration grew, so did far right extremism in the east end of London. With marches and banners and slogans, the National Front were fuelling resentment on these streets. Incidents of racial violence were increasing. On the evening of 4 May 1978, Altab Ali (a 25 year old mechanic, who’d recently arrived in London from Bangladesh) was walking to his bus stop after work at a textiles factory in Brick Lane, when he was chased 054cand attacked by three teenagers who stabbed him to death in Adler Street, just to my right. This horrific murder was a huge shock. On the day of Ali’s funeral, thousands took part in a demonstration against racial violence, marching from here to Whitehall. The local Bengali population were mobilised and, through their campaigning, were able to rid Whitechapel of the National Front and, in doing so, became more cohesive as a community. In 1989, St Mary’s Gardens was renamed Altab Ali Park to honour Ali and all victims of racial violence. In 2010 the Altab Ali Foundation was founded which, every 4th May holds Altab Ali Day to commemorate all victims of racism.

Rising from just behind the original churchyard gateway is a sculptural arch (photo 4) created by Welsh blacksmith sculptor David Petersen. It was commissioned in 1989 as a memorial to Altab Ali and other victims of racism. The design combines elements from Bengali and western Gothic architecture, but is woven together with playfully draped ironwork ribbons, symbolising the coming together of these two cultures in East London. At its opening, children processed under the arch wearing headdresses inspired by the arch and carrying red carnations (it is a Bengali tradition to pass under an arch at important events such as at weddings and funerals). An extract from a poem by 054bBengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was carved along the park’s central park, reading “The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly” (could be a slogan for all public green spaces). Sadly this text  was subsequently tarmacked over during relandscaping in 2011.

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

054dThe front section of the park, bordering Whitechapel Road, is as flat as a floor, where once the churches stood (see photo 2). In 2011, this was landscaped by students from the nearby Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design. Stone architectural blocks were carved based on pieces uncovered in an archaeological dig. These are embedded in the lawn, along with fragments of tiled flooring, a surreal hint at the ghost of the 17th century church (photo 6). A congregation of lunchers are sitting on or amongst this stonework, relaxing and chatting and letting today’s sermon of sunshine wash over them. Zigzagging through is a raised terrace (photo 3) which follows the outline of the Victorian church and also acts as seating, picnic table, impromptu bar, children’s play wall and performance stage.

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

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

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

Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel Road, London E1 7QR
Unrestricted opening
Google earth view here

Line drawings of churches reproduced from London Borough of Tower Hamlets Information panel (photo 2).

Sticks in the Smoke 49: Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn

Lincolns-Inn--FieldsStorm Doris. And her opposite. (Thursday 23 February 2017)

So very windy today – London’s catching the swishing skirts of Storm Doris. I pass many people gripping their jackets and coats tightly around them as they dash to pick up some lunch.

I take an anti clockwise route around the perimeter path of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which wraps this space, the largest garden square in London. The paths are strewn with 049btwigs, shed from the mature plane trees which give this space its crisscrossing vaulted roof. Clatters more with every gust. No one seems much bothered by this fall of wood; there’s a healthy flow of lunchtime walkers in ones and twos and more. A mix of students, lawyers and office workers, local residents walking dogs. But, much more than any other park I’ve visited in this project: so many runners, fitness groups. The slap of trainers on tarmac. And, on the south quarter, overshadowed by the imposing portico of the Royal College of Surgeons and Hunterian Museum, are the tennis courts, bursting out of their nets with vigour and volleys.

Bounce back 500 years or so and this was a cattle grazed pasture called Cup Field. Londoners came out here from the City to fill their lungs with fresh air or take part in open air sports such as jousting, swordfighting or archery. Turnstiles were placed on the footpaths into the fields to allow people in, but to stop livestock straying. These remembered in the names of three narrow alleyways just to the north of the park: Little Turnstile, Great Turnstile and New Turnstile.

049cLincoln’s Inn itself is one of London’s four Inns of Court, housed in a collection of fine historic buildings set in a collegiate enclave of courtyards and gardens, just to the east of the Fields. A diaper patterned brick wall surrounds and encloses its eleven acre estate. Lawyers were originally encouraged to move up here to the hamlet of Holborn in the 13th century by the third Earl of Lincoln  after a royal decree that no legal education could take place in the City of London. The Inn became formally established and purchased the present site in the 16th century. The turreted towers and tall Gothic windows of the Great Hall (built in the 1840s) and the Library (completed in the 1870s), peer out over these fields.

I’m blown towards the centre of the park, where a large gravelled circle is a hub to the four north, east, south and west tarmac paths plus one earthy diagonal shortcut track worn across the northeast lawn.  A surrounding ring of mature plane trees. Dead centre to this is an octagonal bandstand or shelter. A brass plaque set into the floor reads: “Near this spot was beheaded William Lord Russell, a lover of constitutional liberty 21 July AD 1683”. This was the site of occasional public executions. Lord William Russell (mentioned in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 45 Russell Square, Bloomsbury) was executed (with four clumsy hamfisted blows of the axe, it’s said) for his alleged part in the Rye House Plotthe attempted assassination of King Charles II. He was later proven innocent and posthumously pardoned. Which I’m sure made him feel a whole lot better!

049eI start setting my drawing things up under the shelter but realise it’s filling with people in sports gear getting ready for a class, doing warm up exercises and stretching and making appropriate sporty grunts and snorts. I back away and set up instead in front of a bushy thicket to draw the view across the park, with the former Land Registry Building (now a department of the London School of Economics) a stately redbrick backdrop. I start scribbling, one hand holding my easel from being blown over, trying to describe the upper tree branches swinging and swooping with the wind, a curly, jiggly aerial dance. There’s even movement detectable in the upper trunks. The gale rages overhead in waves of roaring bursts, but thankfully no rain. With every wave, a great crashing racket like an explosion! It turns out to be plastic sheeting covering scaffolding at the northwest corner of the square. The exercise class goes on regardless, under the canopy, led by a girl in lime green lycra. Her voice shrill across the gravel, enthusiastically counting her victims through a sequence of acts of self torture.

Across to my right, the Fields Cafe parasols are being buffeted and shaken. Five hundred years ago, that spot was the site of a gunpowder house (after many accidental explosions and fires in the City, gunpowder storage was moved out to fields like this, well away from habitation or means of detonation). But London was fast expanding in this direction and it wasn’t long before developers saw the plump potential of these fields for building. 049a Lincoln’s Inn enjoyed its rural and pastoral outlook so took a dim and nimby view to proposals for development. It was only after several decades of negotiations between the landowners and the Inn that agreement was reached whereby houses could be built, but the Inn had control over their design . And these seven acres where I’m drawing today, was to be kept green, with walks and trees and lawns.

In the 1700s, residents of the square, outraged by roguery, thievery and rubbish tipping in the fields appealed to have the square enclosed. Which it was in the 1730s, making it a private and more genteel space of lawns and paths and, for a while, a duck pond just about where I’m standing. Later in that century, many of the fine houses around this square were taken on by wealthy lawyers, attracted by its proximity to the Royal Law Courts. Barrister’s chambers were founded and solicitors’ offices opened (including Farrer & Co who are still there today, in their stately premises at No. 66; solicitors to much of the aristocracy, and the Queen).

049fDrawing finished (see at top), I shake a couple of twigs out of my rucksack and haul it on my back and explore the rest of the park. Sunshine flings tree shadows across the fields. Dogs of all sorts are having a field day, with a million sticks to chase after. A group of runners are sprinting across the gravel, crunching woody debris as they go. Parks workers are trying to collect up the fallen twigs, but one of their large canvas sacks has escaped from the truck. It careers past, billowing, dancing; it pirouettes a full circle on one of its corners before being whisked away behind a stand of shrubs. 

The layout of the park hasn’t changed much since the start of the nineteenth century, with perimeter shrubberies, trees and bandstand. Towards the eastern side was a little subtropical plantation, which is still here. The park was eventually opened to the public in 1894 and was immediately popular, being pretty well the only substantial piece of public green space for at least half a mile in any direction. Bands played on summer afternoons. Areas were set aside for tennis and golf putting. As I walk the paths I pass several memorials, but the one that stands out the most commemorates Margaret MacDonald the social reformer (wife of Ramsey MacDonald, first Labour prime minister), who died in 1911, 049dway too early at the age of 41. A curving bench seat topped with a sculpture (created by sculptor Richard Goulden), of this beneficent woman, tending a twisting clutch of playing children and inscribed below: “This seat placed here in memory of Margaret MacDonald who spent her life in helping others”.

The sun catches specks of pink standing out against the dark of a holly tree. Blossom glowing on bare black viburnum sticks. I scramble around and start a drawing from behind them (see below), looking through and across the open stretch of northern lawns. Leaves scratching the back of my neck as the tree sways. Cold gusts in my face. A constant parade of runners pass. A game of three a side football gets underway on the worn grass. Bags and coats for goals.

And then, from the corner of my eye, a tightly raincoated figure, bent over, almost double, shuffling along. Painfully, painfully, picking her way with a pair of sticks. Woollen hat pulled over ears, bag over shoulder. Advancing so very slowly, gaze intent on dragging feet and knocking the odd twig away with a stick. She pauses in front of me and tortuously turns her head round from under her collar to look up. I smile and nod. She looks for a while; a slight tremor, then gets back to her mission. It takes a full five minutes for her to walk across my field of vision. Quiet and measured: the very opposite of today’s Storm Doris. And I think: of all the people in this park today, exercising, stretching and pushing themselves to the limit, it’s that bowed and aged soul who wins, hands down, the gold medal for endurance and determination.
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Lincolns-Inn--Fields2

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London since January 2016. This is leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in a London exhibition in 2018. Sadly, the original planned exhibition at the Curwen Gallery, London in April 2017 has been cancelled as Curwen Gallery has had to close unexpectedly)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, London. WC2A 3TL
Open 8am – ­  dusk
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 43: Tower Hill and Trinity Square Gardens

tower-hill-and-trinity-square1

Wishes in the soil and memories of 36,000 (Wednesday 14 December 2016)

Emerging from Tower Hill Station into a whiff of traffic fumes with a hint of riverside aroma, which penetrate the chill of this bright day; I’m faced with a truncated fragment of the ancient City Wall, rising to over 10 metres: a curtain of ragstone and red tile- strata of many centuries; almost half its height surviving from Roman times. This wall and its defensive moat (known later as the Citie’s Ditch), was originally built around 200AD. A statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan stands proudly in front of this wall and gestures with his right forefinger (see photo below: an 18th century bronze, allegedly discovered in a scrap yard in Southampton by Reverend T B ‘Tubby’ Clayton, founder of the Toc H charity). His pointing finger leads the eye 043atowards the raised walkway through to Tower Hill Gardens on the other side of the wall.
The wall shades a segment of the low grassy rise of Tower Hill. Play equipment is set into patchy grass. I set up to draw the view from here across to the walls and turrets of the Tower of London. But the sun, strong to the south, flickering and dazzling through the mass of hanging plane twiggery, turns the ancient ramparts to a grey- violet silhouette and I have to peer hard to make out its many windows and battlements. And over to the west, the Shard is a soaring blade of pure glassy blue. The relentless flow of traffic rumbles the dual carriageway road between, and pulls to a halt at the lights at the junction here. The squeal of brakes a persistent theme.
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The garden is busy with tourists. A family sit with a picnic while young daughter whooshes down the slide and then scrambles back up the earthy slope to go again.
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Tower Hill is less a hill and more a gentle rise up from the banks of the Thames, but elevated enough to offer commanding upstream and downstream views, which made this 043can ideal defensive location (there is talk and some evidence for an early Celtic fortress here). And a good strategic position just within the eastern walls of Roman Londinium.
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After the decline of Roman rule, followed by 400 year of neglect and Viking occupation, London’s walls were restored by Alfred the Great in the 890s. The Tower of London was built by the Normans soon after their conquest of Britain in 1066. Surrounded by a moat and high walls, the White Tower was the castle’s keep, built to be impregnable and commanding. It was a powerful symbol of the power of the new King William and was used as a royal residence. Over succeeding centuries its function changed variously to a prison, an armoury, a treasury, a private zoo for exotic animals (including lions), to house the Royal Mint, as a public records office and to guard the Crown Jewels.
The area around it became known as the ‘Tower Liberties’, an area that could not be built on, defined by the distance an arrow could be fired from the Tower. So Tower Hill remained undeveloped. A 20 metre wide stretch of water, known as the Citie’s Ditch, ran through here, at the foot of the Wall (where the children’s playground now stands). It emptied through 043ba channel into the Tower’s moat. At that point, where now run buses and articulated lorries, was once where tracks converged from the farms and villages outside the eastern city walls, to squeeze through a postern gate. Over the centuries, despite attempts to dredge and clear, it grew foul and choked with rubbish and waste. By 1700 the Citie’s Ditch had been filled in.
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The screech of a child pierces through the traffic noise: the sliding girl isn’t happy about being wrenched away from her slide. Then a loud slapping noise! I look across: the mother is crashing the soles of her daughter’s shoes together to get rid of the accumulated mud.
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I’m aware of a dark haired young woman wearing a light brown beret wandering around the shrubs and amongst the play equipment, searching the ground, picking things up and dropping them into her bag. After a while she goes to sit on the roundabout, sets it gently turning and films a dizzy 360 degree view of the world on her phone: Roman wall / trees / slide / scaffolded office block  / person drawing / more trees / lorry / Tower of London / bus stop / Roman wall again / slide again etc…
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Drawing finished (see image at top), I hastily pack my things. The woman has gone and I’m 043dcurious about what she was picking up. I go over and very quickly find some coins. I pick them up: one of the old large 5p (shilling sized) coins, smeared in mud. And there’s a shiny 2p coin. And then I see more. And more! Lots of different coins all around: some bright and new on the surface, and some hidden, just circular edges poking out of the earth. I prise up some more: old halfpenny pieces. I have a handful now and think about putting them in my pocket, but then start to wonder why coins have been thrown here apparently over a long period. Perhaps they’re offerings. Or wishes. I can’t take away people’s wishes! I throw them back on the ground and push them in with my heel (a mystery! Despite research, I haven’t been able to find any reference to a practice of coins being thrown here).
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I wander the 2 minutes across to Trinity Square. A steaming americano bought from the Tower Hill Tram coffee stand to warm me up. Into this 1¼ acre space of lawn; winter bare trees and evergreen shrubs around the edge. I follow the perimeter path around to the site of Tower Hill Scaffold. From 1381 public executions were carried on this raised patch of rough ground. A permanent site was established a century later. Today marked out by cobbles and chains (see photo below), with plaques to commemorate those put to death on this poignant spot.  I set up to lay this historic spot across the foreground of my drawing. 043eExecutions were a popular but grisly spectator ‘sport’, with viewing stands, raucous crowds, street entertainers and vendors. Over 350 years, at least 125 prisoners, political and criminal, lost their heads here, most of them from the aristocratic classes, including Sir Thomas More (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke 35’ Ropers Garden) and Thomas Cromwell. In 1747 Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, was the last beheading to take place in Britain.
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Apart from the carnival atmosphere of the public executions, Tower Hill had been a neglected piece of ground until, by the 18th century, local residents were getting annoyed at the dumping of rubbish, unlicensed quarrying, attacks by footpads and anti- social behaviour. Parliamentary Acts were passed authorising the creation of Trinity Square and surrounding streets. The gardens were laid out in 1795, overlooked by the neoclassical home of Trinity House (the charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers), designed by Samuel Wyatt (innovative architect of lighthouses and industrial mills). He set out the gardens in the form of an oval, with a surrounding path, much as they are today. Its use was governed by strict bylaws, limited to permit holders and residents of the square. Other grand buildings around the square include the Port of London Authority Building, built in 1922 (by Sir Edwin Cooper) with its impressive classical frontage.
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043gThe maritime character of the square’s occupants made this a fitting location for memorials to the seamen of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets lost in 20th Century wars. A large, classical temple, designed in the 20s by Sir Edwin Lutyens, bronze plaques engraved with the names of the 12,210 lost in the First World War, sits solid over my sketchbook page (see drawing at bottom). And the 8ft walls of a sunken garden behind me (see photo left), designed by Sir Edward Maufe, are set with bronze plaques to remember the 23,765 lost in the oceans during the Second World War, punctuated by 7 tall stone reliefs of allegorical figures representing the seven seas, by sculptor Charles Wheeler. The most recent addition at the east corner of the gardens, is a round memorial set at a keeling tilt, engraved with: ‘In Memory of those Merchant Seafarers Who Gave Their Lives to Secure the Freedom of the Falkland Islands in 1981’.  With these sombre memorials and the Scaffold site, this place is definitely ‘park as Memento Mori’.
Smoke billows from one of the memorial temple’s porticos: a workman leans on its sill, puffing on an e- cigarette. As the light fades fast, the darkened pillars and turret turn into the superstructure of a great ship, steaming towards the sunset. I abandon painting and try to commit the changing colours to memory as the pinnacle roofs of Tower Bridge in the background catch the last russet rays of sun. And two vapour trails scratch a silver blue cross into the pink blush of the sky.
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tower-hill-and-trinity-squa
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(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016 and early 2017, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in the Curwen Gallery London in April 2017.)  www.nickandrew.co.uk 

Tower Hill Garden, Tower Hill, London. EC3N 4DR
Unrestricted opening
Trinity Square Gardens, Tower Hill, London. EC3N 4DH
Open 8am – ­ half hour before dusk

Google earth view here