Tag: St Pancras

Sticks in the Smoke 56: St Pancras Gardens, King’s Cross, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google earth view here

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

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The surge of nature (Friday 28 April 2017)

I wasn’t planning to come here today. To my shame I didn’t even know about Camley Street Natural Park! I was on my way to St Pancras Gardens but took the wrong turning out of the maelstrom of St Pancras Station, walked up the street and found myself standing in front of these elegant curlicued iron gates, restored from their former use as Victorian coal yard gates (photo 1). A green thickness and abundance is bursting out from its streetside boundary, clearly waiting for an opportunity to engulf the paving. I’m intrigued and decide to investigate what lies through the gates.

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This is a narrow 2 acre strip, squished between the Regents Canal which laps its north edge and Camley Street to the south (originally Cambridge St), which runs below the Eurostar rail line.

St Pancras Gardens are only 80 metres to the west, on the other side of the raised railway embankment. I’ll make it the subject of the next post so I can bring both spaces together (like long lost siblings), as they were originally part of the same fields, which surrounded the church in a farming village on the banks of the River Fleet called Battlebridge (supposedly named after a major battle between Queen Boudicca‘s Iceni army and the Roman army in around 60AD, fought on this important river crossing point. There’s an urban myth that Boudicca’s grave is said to be nearby, under a platform of Kings Cross station! Hmm).

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Next door, construction work is going on: power drills and hammers, dust and debris. A footbridge is currently ring built to cross the canal to link with the impressivenew Granary Square and Gasholder Park developmentI walk up under the creaky wooden veranda of the visitors centre. The park is run by the London Wildlife Trust. Here are offices, information boards, exhibition space, cafe and teaching rooms. I notice plans for a new state of the art building to replace these tired and ramshackle structures, to open next summer. I step out into a tranquil natural space, tangled twiggery and fresh spring growth. Through the hedges are glimpses of the canal; coal dark and chrome light ripples tremor at the bank. Woodchip paths wind up and down between low rustic hazel hurdles (photo 2). Past blossoming fruit trees, flourishing meadow, thick with grass and wildflowers, bluebell and cow parsley. Sedged marshland and reedbeds. Natural pools and ponds, boardwalk bridges. And on, through young but dense woodland of hazel, alder, sycamore and more.

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At the southern end a line of beehives and, above are the towering Kings Cross office blocks. Down some earthy steps and you’re led round to the canal and onto ‘Viewpoint‘ (photo 3), a floating wooden platform, like a gently swaying deconstructed pyramid (designed by Finnish architects inspired by Nordic islands), a water level teaching and meeting space. Viewed from here, the canal is like a polished sheet, stretching away to the north and the east.  Opposite is the Fish and Coal building, Victorian offices which closely follows the canal’s sharp bend. At its foot, a temporary pontoon gangway has been fixed along the towpath. It resounds with a rattly clashy metallic rhythm whenever runners or cyclists pass along it!

Regent’s Canal was excavated  through here in the 1820s. The Prince Regent‘s architect in chief, John Nash designed a redevelopment of much of this area, which included this waterway, from the junction with the Grand Union Canal at Little Venice (see Sticks in the Smoke 11, Rembrandt Gardens), around the edge of Regents Park, turning this sharp bend just here and on through east London towards the salty docks on the Thames at Limehouse. Along its towpaths grew warehouses, wharves and grimy waterside industry which spread over former pasture and market gardens. This particular strip of land was used for coal chutes to supply fuel for the canal and later, after the 1860s, for the Midland Railway, which steamed through just a hoot to the west.

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I wander back through the woodland and find a place to draw over a reeded pool, brimming and skimming with invertebrates. Mallards dabbling at the fringes, moorhen and coot paddling (photo 4). Birdsong. The scent of damp leaf litter and breeze rustling reeds. So rural. It’s almost impossible to imagine this was once fouled ground and industrial wasteland. And yet reminders of where we are permeate from all directions. Sudden platform announcements from St Pancras Station bark through the foliage: “the 2.45 to Faversham will leave from platform 11”. The roar of trains. And now and then, the  sound of the Eurostar passing right behind, like a giant vacuum cleaner. Through the opening ahead the occasional narrowboat chugs along the Regents Canal.

This 2 acre site continued as a coal depot until the 1960s. It was then abandoned and left as waste ground. A rubbish dump. But nature managed to reclaim the space, surging through a century’s worth of accumulated coal dust and contamination. It became a wilderness, a natural sanctuary, much loved by local people. So, when threatened with a plan to turn it into a lorry park, a campaign ran by the local community with support from the London Wildlife Trustpersuaded the GLC (Greater London Council) to save the space and retain it as a community nature park. It was landscaped, the visitor centre built and opened to the public in 1985. It has become an important resource for visitors and especially local schoolchildren, whose experience of wildlife is often limited. It’s a similar space to Meanwhile Gardens in Kensington, which I visited last June: a community wildlife park next to the Grand Union Canal (see ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 18).

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A few park visitors pass by. One or two come across and make comments on my drawing, but in hushed tones as though they shouldn’t really be here. A couple of volunteers with clipboards, pointing at the pond with their biros and making notes, whisper ‘hello’ as they walk past. There’s something about this place. It offers a truce, a respite. I feel rooted, fixed. I know I’m overworking my drawing but I can’t seem to stop. I feel the need to stay and get everything in. To capture all this surging complexity.

There’s the “chip chip”, of a long tailed tit from above. I watch it flitting from twig to branch. A quick, quick tip of its head. And then, when I look down, a blackbird has hopped onto the bench where my paintbox lies open (photo 5). Inquisitive. Pecking and investigating with his beak.

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

Camley Street Natural Park, Kings Cross, London. NW1 0PW
Open daily 10am – 5pm
Google earth view here