Month: June 2016

Sticks in the Smoke 19: Soho Square Gardens

019-Soho-Square(Wednesday 15 June 2016)

I walk from Greek Street into Soho Square, 3 minutes north of Shaftesbury Avenue. Just on the corner here is the Georgian dark bricked House of St Barnabas (a charity established in 1846 for the homeless and needy). Looking up, its original red and gold glazed tile frieze, announces ‘House of Charity’. At the opposite corner is the elegant 1930’s Twentieth Century House, UK home to 20th Century Fox. Many of the other buildings in the square: old and porticoed,  bow windowed, or bold glass and brick, house the offices of various film, music and media organisations, including Dolby and The British Board of Film Censors. The area is a hub of the entertainment industry; the surrounding streets full of theatres, nightclubs, bars and sex shops.

019dThe sky is a deep slate violet with low threatening clouds as I hurry across Soho Square towards the entrance to the gardens. There’s a feel and scent in the air of approaching rain. Referendum ‘Remain‘ campaigners have stationed themselves at this entrance to the gardens to hand out leaflets and ‘IN’ stickers. I take a sticker and fix it to my rucksack. As I go through the gate I turn to look back and see a group of American (or maybe Canadian?) tourists, all taking stickers too. I think they believe they need them to get ‘IN’ to the gardens!

Tall black iron railings outline this 1 acre of lawns and trees, subdivided by crossing paths. Another path runs all around, just inside the perimeter, with benches at close intervals, mostly occupied today. More benches around a wide paved area, just above the entrance. As I go up the three shallow steps, a man in tight black outfit lunges in my direction with arms flailing. I step aside and then watch him perform a kind of acrobatic dance, while softly chanting a repeated phrase.  I soon realise that this isn’t intended as a public performance; he appears oblivious to the throngs of people who are steering clear of his dance floor. It seems like a personal ritual. Or maybe a rehearsal. And then I make out his chant: “I’m soo beautiful, from my eyes right down to my cuticles…!” Hmm…I move on but am aware that he continues his dance obsessively for the whole time I’m in the gardens.

019aThe gardens’ central feature is a crooked black and white Tudor- timbered lodge, placed where the paths cross, like a little gingerbread house. You’d think it was an original feature of this old garden but was actually built in the late 19th century, using 200- year old oak beams. In the 1920’s it housed an electricity substation. Today it’s used as a garden store. And its verandas provide welcome shelter for visitors escaping wet weather. It is also the fire exit for World War II air raid shelters which were built under the gardens to provide a Blitz bolthole for up to 200 local residents (the lease for this space was put up for sale recently for possible conversion into a glamorous subterranean bar or nightclub).

This square and surrounding streets occupy what was originally a tract of farmland known as Soho Fields, owned by the Earl of St Albans. The name ‘Soho’ is said to derive from a local hunting cry. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, these gardens were laid out and and were called King’s Square to venerate the newly reinstalled Charles II. Ornamental trees and rose bushes were planted in symmetrical beds. A stately statue of Charles was carved in gleaming Portland stone by Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber in 1681 and was originally placed on a fountain in the centre of the gardens, where the lodge now stands. It was surrounded by sculptures of the river gods of the Severn, Thames, Tyne and Humber as a symbol of the King’s regained power and dominion over 019bthe four corners of the land.  After 200 years, however, constant spray from the fountains had eroded Charles and given him a clown- like expression. He was taken down and retired to stand on an island in a lake near Harrow, but was restored and reinstated on the garden’s northern path in 1938: a second Restoration! (He still looks like a clown though!).

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the square and surrounding streets were developed with grand houses and quickly became one of London’s most fashionable districts, with the embassies of Venice, Spain, Naples, Sweden, France and Russia occupying houses in the square at various times. A drift away by the gentry towards fashionable Mayfair residences in the early 19th century prompted a shift into the square by doctors, lawyers, architects and companies such as Crosse and Blackwell setting up office.

I walk around a mass of white and deep red bedding plants (alyssums?), which edge the path on one side of the lodge. I take out my sketchbook and lay it with my drawing things against the exposed root of a plane tree.  I draw towards the north gate and Soho Street, with the lodge in the foreground and, further down, the statue of Charles II as a bright as a ghost.

A few raindrops pinprick the paths but stop within minutes. At 3 o’clock, great bongs ring out from the red brick tower of St Pat’s (St. Patrick’s Catholic church) and, as if commanded, the sun pushes the clouds apart and dappled shadows spread across the lawns. St Pats squarely sits opposite the eastern entrance to the gardens, with Roman porch and columns. It has extensive catacombs that spread deep under the square. The ringing carries on for well over 5 minutes, the last bong seeming to bounce several times around the square until the babble of many voices takes over again.

So many people here, so wonderfully diverse. I can’t help people watching. And there are a lot of groups, including:

019cConstruction workers from the Crossrail site at the end of Sutton Row (behind St Pat’s), wandering through the gardens like fiery beacons in their orange hi- vis. Two of them pause in front of the lodge and eat ice creams that drip on their boots.

A line of about 8 or 9 men sitting close together on a low wall, eating packed lunches. They’re all dressed entirely in white. Some with white caps. Maybe a bakers’ day out?

A line of rucksacked and yellow-baseball- capped schoolchildren (they sound Spanish). A tangle of excitement, they’re led purposefully along the path by a teacher with guide book. Two minutes later, they march back the other way!

A group of smiling women float past serenely in brightly coloured silk dresses and robes, fluttering like living flags.

Drawing finished, I walk away and a gang of marauding pigeons swirl and swoop down on the crumbs of my almond croissant.

I leave the gardens, walking past a bench (occupied), commemorating Kirsty MacColl (who died in a tragic accident in Mexico in 2000). This has become a kind of mecca for her fans. The inscription on the bench takes lyrics from her song ‘Soho Square‘: “One day I’ll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square”.

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. . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support

Soho Square, Soho, London. W1D 3QE
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 18: Meanwhile Gardens


(Wednesday 8 June 2016)

A 4- acre green oasis that hugs a gentle bend in the Grand Union Canal, a little under a mile west of Little Venice and Rembrandt Gardens ( see Sticks in the Smoke 11). It’s also only a very short walk along Kensal Road back to Emslie Horniman Pleasance (see Sticks in the Smoke 9). Before getting here today, I had to drive across London and back through painfully slow traffic on a very warm and humid day, to deliver some work to a company in the City for a possible commission. Now, hot and sticky and irritable, I walk in through the gate at the east end of the gardens and dive into a cool patch of tree shade, and follow the shade patches like stepping- stones over to the blue Carlton Bridge, which carries the Great Western Road over the canal.


It was while crossing this bridge, back in 1974, that young sculptor, Jamie McCullough spotted a stretch of derelict waste ground which was being cleared of demolished Victorian terraces. In a desire to move away from the conventions of the 70’s art world, he was inspired to direct his creativity towards the founding of a community space which would bring a haven and a place of joy and nature to the people of, what was then, a run- down and deprived area.  He spent the following 2 years working with schools, community groups and Westminster City Council to progress his vision. The council had no immediate plans for the land, so eventually granted temporary permission in 1976, but only until a permanent use could be found, hence the name. The Meanwhile Gardens Community Association was set up as a charity to oversee the project with the help of volunteers. The gardens have continued to rely on the input of volunteers and dedicated staff. In recent years it has received awards and grants from the national lottery and the British Waterways Board.

This was the first of many of Jamie McCullough’s landscape projects which include the ‘Beginner’s Way‘ in Haldon Forest, Devon, and inspired a generation of community artists. He wrote a book about his Meanwhile Gardens project, published by the Gulbenkian Association.  Jamie died in 1998 at the age of 53

Lawns undulate and rise to the tow path. A string of colourful narrowboats are moored. As the water claps at the canal wall a group of boaters are chatting and one stands astride the gap between boat and edge. He points across to the other side where a pair of swans are puffed up and fiercely guarding their clutch of fluffy hatchlings on a ledge at the foot of the sunlit canalside apartment blocks. My mood softens.


This is a practical, lived- in park. Not manicured, over- pruned or weeded (a bit like my back garden!). The path sweeps down and past the swooping and rattling and (very) graffitied skatepark bowl, the first in London and still very popular. A colourful sculptural drinking fountain designed by Steve Bunn is called ‘Soft Landing 2007’ and is an abstract response to the twists and turns of the skaters. Graffiti spills onto the railway sleepered sides of the curving path which leads past a playground with paddling pool and life-size (friendly) croccodile. And there’s the Playhut (closed on Wednesdays), which provides stimulating creative play and nature learning for the youngsters of the many families living in the drab blocks of Elkstone road or the brutalist Trellick Tower, looming there behind the trees on the left.

I follow the snaking path through narrow woodland of birches and beech. The air is cool. A boardwalk leads down to a platform overlooking the duckweed covered pond, with flag irises and waterside plants. A perfect spot for local school groups to come and study tadpoles and water boatmen and dip dripping nets. A wagtail hops and jerks around the edge, chirruping noisily.


Rustic, rough- hewn fences and gates draw you into the depths of the Meanwhile Wildlife Garden. This is run by Kensington and Chelsea Mind, to provide support and training for people suffering mental distress, to achieve better lives, through developing, nurturing and maintaining a natural wildlife habitat. The ethos is to use only British native plants and trees and encourage wildlife. There’s even a multi- storey insect hotel, made out of piled palettes and stuffed with sticks and organic matter: ‘Open to all beneficial insects’. This feels like a fragment of our local woods, with hazel, birch and damson trees. My hand brushes bark and I feel absorbed, relaxed and at home here. Only the red flashes of buses passing along Kensal Road remind me where I am.  I push through luxuriant growth of elder, bracken and forget- me- not, down a sun- dappled earthy path and find a little clearing, with a foliage- framed ‘window’ out towards the sunny brightness of canal and towpath.  I stand and draw here, from my shaded haven: an unobserved observer as towpath strollers and runners pass. The melody of birdsong and background traffic hum are interrupted by bursts of drilling from the nearby housing block.


Later, I cross the twisty- sided bridge to the garden hub, where compost heaps, planted containers, wooden benches, logpiles, boulders, piles of earth and old wooden barrow verify a working space. The wooden garden office / shed is welcoming and calming blue and green. A polytunnel runs behind, the sound of trowel chinking on flowerpot.

As I leave, my eye catches a notice pinned to the board: a quotation from gardening writer, David Hobson“Yup, gardening and laughing are two of the best things in life you can do to promote good health and a sense of well being.”

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. . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support


Meanwhile Gardens, 156 – 158 Kensal Road, London. W10 5BN
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 17: Westfield Park

017-Westfield-Park(Thursday 26 May 2016)

Just a quarter mile walk from Cremorne gardens,  past the huge brick and glass monolith of the old Lots Road power station (now being converted into luxury apartments as part of the Chelsea Waterfront development) and up the fashionable Victorian terraces of Upcerne Road, and I enter the gates of Westfield Park.
017cA green 2½ acres of lawns, rounded rose beds and gentle grassy hummocks. An undefined shape that seems to have been hacked out of the surrounding streets. Groups of trees form spinneys and snippets of shady woodland. A bright and very busy playground with colourful equipment skitters across one side of the park. I walk the perimeter paths straight and curving, overtaken by young children running and scootering. I’m looking for a spot to draw. There are picnic tables and benches but most are occupied on this warm afternoon by groups of mums chatting and bouncing buggies. Then I see a young family packing up their picnic and I weave between the tree trunks to claim the empty table, thankfully in the shade of a spreading oak.
My view is south, with the chimneys of Lots Road power station towering above. And 017bthere’s the same yellow crane that was in my drawing view from Cremorne Gardens. The sun shines on the yellow- bricked frontages of the Upcerne Road terraces. It’s hard to imagine that during much of the last century these streets were grimy and shadowed from power station smoke and from the other heavy industry which straggled along this part of the Thames and around Chelsea Creek (Lots Road power station was built in 1905 to generate electricity for the London Underground, which it did for nearly 100 years). Much of the workforce were housed in this area.
This patch of industry was a target for the Luftwaffe during World War 2 but most bombs lots-road-power-stationlanded in the nearby residential streets instead. In September and October 1940, many explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped which caused extensive damage. There were also more bombs in 1941 and 1944. Parts of these streets were razed to the ground, and many people lost their lives. Meek Street was all but obliterated. Its foundations and the lost sections of adjoining streets now lie here, under Westfield Park. This poster (from the archives of the London Transport Museum) was published in 1944, showing the view from the devastated Meek Street- almost exactly the same view that I’m drawing.

This is an account from a survivor of the bombing, from the bbc history website:

“One evening in September 1940 in Chelsea, my sister Ada, her fiance Harry and I were at home with the family in Tetcott Road when the sirens went. Harry and I wrapped up warmly and rushed to offer what help we could. Our first encounter was at my Aunt’s house in Meek street. Something had dropped in the attic rooms. Harrry and I dashed up to find the attic burning. Luckily no explosive incendiary bombs had landed up there. We grabbed the sand buckets and doused the fires. Next we crossed into Lots Road and heard noises from the horses in a stable. They were banging their hooves and whining as their stables were alight. We smashed open the side door of the stables, managed to get inside and opened the large stable doors. The horses dashed out and fled. Further along Lots Road was a storage depot called The Overland. The caretaker shouted for help as some of the items were on fire. We went inside and tried to work the stirrup pump to douse the burning boxes. Poor Harry was pumping hard whilst I held the jet but the pressure was low and only a trickle came out. It was like a drop in the ocean. I remember shouting to him “Pump harder Harry, I want more water”

After the war, the bomb- damage was cleared. Prefab buildings were quickly put up as a temporary measure to provide shelter for those who had been made homeless. The streets were closed to traffic and this piece of waste ground became a makeshift playground for local children. When motorists tried to use it as a short cut, the children protested by laying down in the street. In 1951 a park was proposed, but it took until 1981 for it to finally receive planning permission.


A gardener hauls an unruly yellow hose across the path to water the rose bushes, the arcing spray making little rainbow patches in the air. A headscarved nanny wheels a baby to a bench, where she sits and rocks the buggy and starts softly singing a lullaby in an eastern European language (I think!). She is interrupted as the warm afternoon air detonates with the excited commotion of school students from nearby Chelsea Academy, bursting into the park at the end of the school day.

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. . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support

Westfield Park, Uverdale Road, Chesea, London. SW10 9BY
Google earth view here