Tag: woodland

Sticks in the Smoke 72: Ravenscourt Park

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‘Circles of Sun and Pools of Shade’  (Thursday 19 July 2018)

Ravenscourt Park occupies land that was once part of the estate of Pallenswick in the Manor of Fulham, and at its greatest extent covered around 100 acres. By the 13th century the manor house was surrounded by a moat fed by the Stamford Brook (the lake in the centre of the park is the only remaining evidence of the original moat).

Over the next few hundred years the estate was owned by various private owners, including Alice Perrers (Edward III‘s mistress), in the 14th century. In 1650 the house was demolished and a new mansion built to the west of it. It was bought in 1747 by Thomas Corbett, Secretary to the Admiralty, who changed its name to Ravenscourt (a pun on his own name, ‘corbeau’ being French for raven, a feature of his coat of arms).

I enter the park from the south at the King St gate and follow curving paths which cut through tired lawns of parched grass. Red oaks, plane trees and sweet chestnuts are oases of cool. A line of railway arches separates this small quiet space from the rest of the park (Hammersmith and City railway was brought through here and opened in 1869). Only one of the benches is occupied; an elderly man reading his newspaper. He has a bright white handkerchief in the top pocket of his jacket. As I walk under one of the arches into the main park a group of yellow shirted nursery children are walking through the adjacent arch with their teachers. They all stop and the teacher counts “one, two, three. NOW!!” And they all shout and scream wildly, their voices ricocheting and pinging satisfyingly off the curving brickwork.

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In 1812 Ravenscourt House and estate, which still consisted mostly of fields and meadows, were bought by builder and philanthropist George Scott. He employed leading landscape gardener Humphry Repton to lay out the estate, with flower gardens, lawns and orchards. A variety of trees were planted, and an ice house built to store winter ice cut from the lake. By this time Hammersmith had grown to be an important and growing settlement on the Great West Road (originally a Roman road, leading west from London to Bath), so Scott encouraged building on the fringes of his estate to meet the growing demand for good quality housing, endeavouring to ensure that they were well-designed and well built. By the 1850s there were over 330 houses.

North of the railway arches are children’s playgrounds, sandpits, paddling pools. Teeming and lively. The park opens into a wide open field, crossed with long straight, tree lined walks (grand avenues of elm and chestnut trees planted in the 18th century stood until the 1920s, but became dangerous and had to be cut down by the LCC, and were replaced with sweet chestnuts and flowering cherries). Further north, around where the manor house would have stood (its site visible as a mound by the lake), the park takes on a timeless and traditional feel, with stands of cedars, planes, shrubberies, flower beds, paths sweeping and curving through. Railed and rolling lawns, filled with family groups and friends, playing, relaxing in the sun, laughing, lounging.

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The lakeside confines are railed. Once there were boats for hire but now the lake is reserved for wildlife. Canada geese graze and moorhens waddle across the grass. A flock of pigeons pick lazily at the hard dry earth until they’re flurried into the air by a yipping golden spaniel off the lead. It’s owner on the path ineffectually yelling “Margo! Margo! MAARGO!! COME BACK! From the bridge I can see the lake surface is covered with a slimy skin of blue green algae, prolific in this heat. Some ducks dabble lazily at the edge. I decide not to draw here but walk on, past more playgrounds and ball courts towards the walled garden at the north end of the park.

In 1887 the estate was sold by the Scott family for development with much needed workers’ houses. However, this scheme was blocked by local residents and the land was sold on to the Metropolitan Board of Works who established a public park, laid out by Lt Col J. J. Sexby, in the 32 acres of land surrounding the house. It was opened to the public in 1888 and soon attracted visitors. The main house became Hammersmith’s first public library, opening in 1890. An Old English Garden, later known as the Scented Garden, was created in the former walled kitchen garden. You enter through recently restored original 18th century ornamental iron gates.

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A rose covered pergola is a circlet around the centre of the walled garden. An orrery sundial floats here in this space orbited by box hedged ball planets and wooden benches. Symmetrical with radiating paths, yews and beds and herbaceous borders. Wooden shelters at the edges, brick walls hidden behind thicknesses of trees and climbers. On this baking morning I step into pools of shade, eventually finding a cool leafy spot to set up my easel, behind a firework explosion of day lilies. Something on the ground catches my eye: a child’s pencil drawing of a lily (see below). From just over the wall, the continual backdrop sounds of children’s excited screams and hoots. Effervescent energy. And the playground gate a continual squeal and clang. At first I am one of the only occupants of this beautiful and fragrant space but lunchtime brings more people to sit and wander. And breathe in the perfume. For a few minutes the sound of someone at the opposite corner sneezing continuously.

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I’m finishing my drawing and notice a man in a dark t-shirt meandering through the garden, looking and poking into every bin. He reaches into the nearest one but comes away empty handed. As he leaves he stoops down to sniff a crimson rose.

During the two world wars the park was the venue for fundraising and events such as concerts and other entertainments. In WW2 trenches were dug and lawns dug up for allotments, but on the night of 21 January 1941 incendiary bombs destroyed the big house. All that remains today is the stable block which is home to the park café.

Behind the cafe are two glasshouses that have now been converted into Community Greenhouses by Hammersmith Community Gardens Association, which provide a busy programme of events and classes.

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I walk across to the cafe to fill my water bottle and buy a cup of tea. In the full sun the air is hazy hot. Figures stretch out in delicious shade. Glorious inactivity. But the park is also heaving with activity. Alive and energetic with the run and jump and roll and kick and hit and bounce and yell and cheer of many sports.

I take my tea over to a splash of shade under a ring of ageing limes and sit on a log. I watch as a pair of gardeners park their tractor by a wall behind the ball courts where 5-a -side football is happening. They start to listlessly hack and pull at an over abundant ivy but very soon stop to wipe their brows and watch the game. I walk over to the busy basketball ground and set up to draw under a line of cherry trees which make dark frames for the bright view. Basketball nets are supported on strangely bent trees on red padded posts. Occasional missed balls bobble past me chased by eager players.

People walking along the nearby path are decorated with flickering fragments of dappled light.

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After the war additional facilities were built in the park: a bandstand, tennis courts, a bowling green and pavilion. Further additions more recently include the basketball circle, ball courts, all-weather pitches and an ecology area with a pond.

A cluster of teenage boys are straggling over some benches. Bags and bikes spilling over the ground. Their music hops and pounds across the hard ground: “tak, tak, takka, takka..” And all the leaping, reaching basketball players seem to be dancing to the pulse.


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.



Ravenscourt Park, Paddenswick Rd, Hammersmith, London W6 0UA
Opening times: 7.30am – dusk

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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
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