Tag: wildlife

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

Google earth view here

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Sticks in the Smoke 70: Wandsworth Park

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‘Silt, Sports and Stinkpipe’  (Thursday 7 June 2018)

The refined and polished residential streets of East Putney lead to the gates of Wandsworth Park. This broad, tree- fringed rectangular field opens out, sloping gently down to the Thames which runs below the north flank of the park. A sign at the west entrance directs cyclists to the left and I follow the arrow too, drawn by the watery shimmer through the line of great gnarly plane trees whose branches spread and wave at passing rivercraft. I amble along the wide embankment path, trying to dodge cyclists and mums jogging with buggies. Looking over the railings, the river slides silver grey under today’s bright cloud. The thick  line of trees opposite at the Hurlingham Club riverside reflect a dark ribbon in the water.

Once marshy farmland, cattle grazing down to the water’s edge. The village of Wandsworth grew up close to where the River Wandle joins the Thames a short walk east from this park (and from where Wandsworth gets its name). Travellers, traders and horse- drawn coaches would cross the Wandle here, on their way to Central London from the West country.

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Since the early 16th century, Wandsworth offered settlement to consecutive waves of immigration, including Protestant Dutch metalworkers fleeing persecution in the 1590s, whose expertise contributed to the establishment of ironworks and brass foundries. Later, French Huguenot refugees settled here to work in the cloth mills on the Wandle and developed a hat industry for which the town was famous. Brewing began a stones’ throw from here at The Ram Pub sometime in the 16th century, making use of the ready supply of water. The Ram Brewery developed through the following centuries and was taken over in 1831 by Charles Allen Young and his partner Anthony Forthergill Bainbridge who founded the brewery and pub company, Young & Co which became a major employer in the town (large scale brewing only stopped on that site in 2006, when Young’s operations were moved to Bedford).

I lean my things against the river railings and stand my easel in the leaf choked gutter. I set up to draw the view downstream towards Wandsworth bridge, moorings of houseboats and quayside developments. Colourful and busy. Cranes punctuate the skyline, I count 12. A cool breeze from down river has a salty, seaweed tang. A quartet of Canada geese dip and paddle along the lapping silty strand. A rook paces the brick studded shingle then flies up to the railing and calls: “caw, caw, caw”. A distant answer from across the park: “cark, cark, cark!”

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As I draw, a continual process of passing humanity. Amongst them: a man skitting along on a very rattly scooter, several pairs of women running and chatting, a man fast sprinting the 1k circuit of the park, a girl running in a flowery African dress, she circuits the park several times, cyclists, tourist groups. A man stops to look at my drawing while munching noisily,  Many dogs and their walkers. Dog names here seem to have a colonial feel: “Stanley, STANLEY! C’mon!”, “Here, Rupert!”, “WINSTON, STOP THAT!”

By the 19th century, Wandsworth was a densely built and cramped agglomeration of coal stained terraces, grimy streets, sprawling industries and heavily polluted creeks and river (and the setting up of the Wandsworth coal gas plant in 1834 didn’t help matters!). To address the health concerns of its population, London County Council (LCC) saw the creation of public parks as one of its primary concerns and when, in 1897, Wandsworth District Board were given the opportunity to buy this 18 acres of (formerly) allotment land for this purpose, they contributed a third of the purchase price of £33,000.

By the time I’ve finished my drawing, the tide has fully retreated. Houseboats have settled onto mudflats. A handful of waders are sifting the exposed riverbed. A heron stands in the ebbing tide above its shimmery reflection. A mudlark stoops with a metal detector and picks and dips his way amongst the mud coated stones and debris, occasionally stopping to pick up an oddment of treasure (?).

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Wandsworth Park was designed and constructed under the supervision of the LCC Chief Officer of Parks Lt Col J J Sexby and opened in early 1903. The Thames was embanked and a riverside walk created. The overall park design responded to two main influences current at the beginning of the 20th century: firstly the increase in maintenance costs and the shortage of gardening staff, and secondly the growing interest in organised sports. So most of the space was given over to a large central expanse of grass playing field surrounded with walks. The park’s perimeters were planted with lines of trees, including plane, sycamore, holly and false acacia. A few ornamental flowerbeds were laid out near the main entrance.

The park’s layout has remained relatively unaltered since it was originally opened. A bowling green with a pavilion was added in the 1920s but this was removed a few years ago. In it’s place: Putt in the Park: miniature golf / crazy golf with a cafe. A bandstand sat close to the river walk but was demolished in the 1950s. There’s a busy children’s playground to the east of the playing field which was first laid out in the 1960s.

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I make my way south to the top of the field. Pausing at ‘Pygmalion’ (above) one of Alan Thornhill‘s 9 eloquent bronzes on the Putney Sculpture Trail (another; ‘Nexus’ is at the top of the field’). A tractor mows back and along the long grassy ride. I walk across the straight path, fringed with more regular ranks of mature planes. Gaps have been filled with beeches. I stop and watch an energetic game of wheelchair cricket. On the field, nursery children are playing running games. Further on, enthusiastic young coaches lead school sports, yelling encouragement and clapping.

I buy a coffee from the Putt in the Park cafe pavilion, walk past the mini golf course, the tennis courts, flowerbeds, then to the top path where I can get a wide view across the field and its many activities. Along here, bordering the Putney Bridge Road, the park is edged with a procession of great old (non prickly) holly trees with a few rowans and maples. Its starting to lightly spot with rain so I set up to draw just under a holly’s spreading branches. Close to its base is an iron pillar-like structure (inscribed: “Fred Bird and Co, Engineers”), whose top disappears into the tree canopy. This turns out to be a Victorian sewer ventilator (commonly known as a ‘stinkpipe’).

Footsteps on the pavement behind the railings scrunch through the scatter of dried holly leaves. A blackbird lands very close to my easel and cocks his head to look up at me, hops around and picks at the fallen leaves, looking for hidden invertebrates. Suddenly screams from across the field and the blackbird flits off. A white shirted team of schoolkids are celebrating a win, jumping and high- fiving!

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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.



Wandsworth Park, Putney Bridge Road, London SW18 1PP
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 59: Margravine Cemetery, Barons Court

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View from near Field Road entrance. Mixed media sketchbook drawing

Stone angels and butterfly wings (Thursday 22 June 2017)

At the Margravine Road entrance to the cemetery a pair of gothic arches and gateposts stand like helmeted sentinels, staring across the road at the austere 1970s blocks of Charing Cross Hospital (relocated here from central London over forty years ago, standing on the original site of the Fulham Union Workhouse).

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It’s another warm day, but less severe than the searing summer heat of the past week. The central axial drive advances away in perspective straightness. A busy progress of people cutting through, perhaps students and staff from the hospital escaping after the end of shifts, or about to start. Workers on lunchbreak, making for their favourite spot in the sun or shade. I meander the grassy paths either side of the central avenue. Wild flowers and sun bleached grasses surround subsiding memorials and praying angels at precarious angles, preparing to take flight on their stone wings.

Apart from the chapel and cemetery lodges, the ground enclosed within these cemetery walls have never been built on. Originally part of Fulham Fields, which for centuries had been a patchwork of market gardens and orchards, laid out across this fertile flood plain loam, providing fruit and vegetables for the ever growing city to the east.

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Following the 1850s Burial Acts, which prohibited further interments in the overcrowded city churchyards, the Hammersmith Burial Grounds Committee spent fifteen years searching for suitable local sites. In 1866, a local outbreak of cholera injected an urgency into the search. Ten acres were purchased for £600 from the estate of Sir William Palliser (politician and armaments inventor). Tenant farmers with plots here were ordered to leave after the following year’s harvest. Margravine Cemetery opened for business 3 years later with space for 12,000 occupants. (The name derives from playwright, Margravine of Brandenburg-Anspach, formerly Lady Craven, who lived in the nearby riverside Brandenburg House at the end of the 18th century). Lodges and chapels were designed by local architect, George Saunders, including a unique octagonal mortuary, where bodies of paupers in coffins were stored until their families could afford to pay for a funeral (see photo below).

 

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Octagonal mortuary

 

At the top of the central drive, a circular box hedged bed, colourful with a mix of herbaceous and wild flowers. Lavender, pelargonium, hemp agrimony. An axle for paths leading into the eastern section.

Suddenly a distant amplified voice booms out from the right and then is borne away on the breeze. I walk in that direction and then, there’s the voice again. But the words are muffled. All I can make out is an eager enthusiasm. Then I realise they are announcements from over the wall, where the AEGON tennis championships are taking place at The Queen’s Club,  (Established in 1886, The Queen’s Club was the first multipurpose sports complex ever to be built, anywhere in the world. Named after Queen Victoria, its first patron).

Walking south towards the Field Road entrance, I find myself in front of the old nonconformist’s chapel, now a gardener’s store (there was another chapel for the Anglicans, but this was demolished in the 1930s after falling into disrepair). The rounded wings of a child’s chalked butterfly are barely visible on the tarmac forecourt (see photo below).

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The sun scorches through the clouds and I seek out the parasol cool of a nearby maple’s spread to open my sketchbook and make a start (see drawing at top). My eye is caught by a shock of lady’s bedstraw, a yellow gold glow beyond the shade of a horse chestnut tree. And further: hosts of trees, windswept swathes of grasses, beech hedges. Gravestones stand dark like punctuation marks. Or like fleeting figures. A gentle warm breeze shooshes the foliage above me. The scrit scrit of a grasshopper just to my left. Commentaries blare again from behind. A peck of pigeons rise en masse, disturbed by the arrival of a gardeners cart in front of the chapel. The sound of their massed wings merges with another swell of tennis applause. Animated groups of tennis spectators stride the shortcut from Queens Club to Barons Court tube station.

By the 1920’s, the cemetery was seven times oversubscribed and bursting at the seams, prompting complaints from local residents. This definitely wasn’t the place for a fresh air meander or picnic; every available piece of ground, including some of the paths, had been dug up for burials. It had taken on a further 6 acres at the turn of the century but, now hemmed in by terraced housing, railway tracks, roads and sports club, there was no room to expand further. So a new piece of land was acquired 3 miles away in Kew, opening in 1926. After then, the only burials here were in private spaces, reserved for eminent members of Hammersmith society. By the Second World War, Margravine had fallen into sad disrepair. Wartime bombing left it gruesomely cratered and dilapidated.

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Central drive, with buildings of Charing Cross Hospital in the background

Between the 50s and 60s, Hammersmith Council resuscitated the space, removing or burying damaged memorials and tombstones. Areas were cleared and laid to grass. Trees, shrubs and hedges planted. Only privately owned graves, war graves and significant memorials were left remaining, such as the ornately gothic Young Mausoleum, near the south entrance, now in a fairly rickety state. And a sober stone memorial was erected close to the entrance, listing all the Commonwealth War graves in this cemetery.

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The Young Mauseleum

I walk the eastern track. There are fewer stones here. It has the forsaken feel of a wild and overgrown walled garden. Buddleia and clumps of willowherb, alive with flickers of butterflies. Dead trees are left limbless for nature’s undertakers to deal with and insect boxes have been fixed to tree trunks by the Friends of Margravine Cemetery to encourage invertebrates (see photo below).

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At the north corner a patch of oxeye daisies shine out, bright stars in the wilderness. I set up for my second drawing (see below) near the base of the high cemetery wall. On the other side are the backs of Palliser road businesses and houses. Clattering of crockery and busy chattering from the building behind is presumably a cafe. From over the ivy clad wall to my right, snippets of conversation and laughter from people walking to Barons Court station. The screech and rattle of rolling stock over points. A sky streaked with cloud wisps behind 60s high rises and roofs of Victorian back terraces.

It’s almost hot now. There’s a hint of perfume, a waft of honey. The whole time I’m drawing only 2 people pass. Dog walkers. A place for seclusion like the quiet corner of a country meadow.

A pair of chittering squirrels chase each other along the wall top, crash down through a rowan tree then continue the pursuit, arched jumps through the long grass.

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Baron’s Court corner. Mixed media sketchbook drawing

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

Margravine Cemetery, Barons Court, London W6 8HA
Opening times: Various throughout the year, but you can guarantee it will be open between 10am – 4pm

Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 57: St George’s Square and Pimlico Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pimlico Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google earth view here

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

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The surge of nature (Friday 28 April 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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