Sunday, February 17th 2013
After the usual Sunday cafe breakfast and trip to the supermarket to do the weekly shopping, we decided to pay a visit to a very special park hidden away in a corner of North London. We had not been there for a while and there are always seasonal changes to observe.
It is called the Camley Street Natural Park and is situated in what at first sight seems a very unpromising location, jammed between the St Pancras International and King’s Cross railway stations and the Regent’s Canal. A lot of effort and careful design has worked a remarkable transformation of what was once a coal yard supplying fuel to the steam locomotives at King’s Cross into a wildlife reserve with a variety of habits combined with easy access for members of the public. It is run by the London Wildlife Trust who have created many such projects throughout the capital.
One side of Camley Street is occupied by the bulk of St Pancras station and you could be excused for thinking that nothing resembling a park or wildlife reserve is to be found here. But then you arrive at a pair of imposing iron gates topped with lettering announcing that this is the park. I suspect that these are the original coal yard yards, as their substantial build seems to indicate.
One of the first things you see on entering through the gates is the visitor centre. This somewhat resembles an oversized garden shed but the facilities within cannot be faulted and the welcome is friendly and informative.
If you are used to formal gardens, your first impression of the park is likely to be one of disorder or near chaos. The discerning eye, however, soon begins to make out a different sort of order, that of nature itself. For example, the photo above shows a screen or hide behind which people can stand to watch birds as they come to the feeders. It is details like this that shows the deep level of thought and planning that has gone into the park’s design. In the background you can see an interesting historical relic:
Now called the Waterpoint, this Victorian Gothic building is an 1870s water tower that originally stood in St Pancras station to provide water for the steam locomotives. When the high speed international railway track was built, the long disused water tower had to be moved and now stands on a site adjoining the Natural Park. Today I could photograph only the top part visible above the wall but I hope to get a better and closer view one of these days.
There is a variety of habitats in the park, suitable for different species of wildlife. Above is a stretch of open grassland.
There is a large pond screened with rushes and trees but at one end there is also an observation platform where visitors can stand and watch whatever creatures are on or in the water.
There is also woodland of varying density suitable for different species of birds, mammals and insects.
Dead wood abounds in the form of branches, logs and tree stumps, gathered into heaps or cleverly used as boundary fences. This material serves as a habitat for insects and other small creatures in structures called “minibeast habitats” or “bug hotels” but it also rots down to provide nutrients in the soil for the growth of new plants and trees. Everything is recycled; nothing goes to waste.
Tucked away in corners screened by bushes (but readily accessible to visitors) are areas of cultivation. These ensure that there is a variety of plants throughout the park and also provide food plants for the various creatures living here.
Prettily arranged paths offer firm footing and invite you to explore the park. The importance of such paths is to bring visitors in while offering as little disturbance as possible to the wildlife. Discreet barriers protect sensitive areas from human incursion.
As you walk around the park, you are continually aware of the Regent’s Canal that runs beside it. In fact, the canal feels as though it is part of the park. This is appropriate because the London Wildlife Trust is working on a project called Wildlife on your waterways and moored beside the park is a barge in which is being created a Floating Forest Garden.
Camley Street Natural Park has an important role to play in education. I was glad to hear that it is very popular with schools and often receives group visits of school children. There are talks and various events for adults too. One example of that is the miniature wildlife garden created to show in a model how people can adapt their own back gardens into places welcoming to wildlife.
Even though this is still the winter where nature is apparently at its quietest, there is still plenty going on if you know where to look for it and Camley Street Natural Park is a good place to look. Every season brings something different and we shall be back again soon.
Leaving the Natural Park, we continued along Camley Street and very soon saw this gateway on the other side of the road. It is the Camley Street entrance to the grounds of St Pancras Old Church. We went in for a quick visit.
The burial ground, closed since the middle of the 19th century, looks rather bare, partly because the trees have yet to recover their leaves after the winter and partly because many of the gravestones have been removed, as is common in London burial grounds that have been turned into gardens.
More or less complete and actively maintained is the Soane family mausoleum. This was designed by architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) who created, among others, the Bank of England, the Dulwich Art Gallery and Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone. (The present Bank of England building, however, is not Soane’s but is a rebuilding by Sir Herbert Baker.) The mausoleum was built in 1816 after the death of Soane’s wife and houses her remains along with those of Sir John and their son, also named John. (Three other sons died in infancy.) The vault is below ground and accessed by steps. The mausoleum has the distinction of being a Grade I listed building.
A rather curious object, still remaining in the burial ground, is this blue-painted drinking fountain. A plate affixed to the fountain tells us that it was presented on August 22nd 1877 by William Thornton Esq, Senior Church Warden of St Pancras. What struck me was that the figure on the top – a putto bearing a water jug – is rather crudely modelled. Notwithstanding my criticism, English Heritage (which informs us that “The design is based on the Choragic monument of Lysicrates in Athens”) values it enough to accord it a Grade II listing. So there.
I photographed the side of the church through the trees as this enabled me to hide an unsightly pair of bright blue portable loos standing beside it. The second picture shows the rather pretty tower with a clock. Like most “old churches”, publicity for this one boasts that there has been a church on this site since ancient times. Not that I disbelieve it in this case, though the church, as we see it today, is the result of two rebuilding exercises carried out in the early and middle 19th century. The church is usually open and provides a relaxed and welcoming environment for visitors but we didn’t go in as it was Sunday which is obviously a busy day for churches. However, I did visit the church in January 2011 and take some photos of the interior. You will find them in A look at St Pancras Old Church.
My last photo was of this strange collection, called the Hardy Tree. The tombstones have been in place here for so long that the tree, growing and expanding, has shaped itself to fit them. During the 1860s, the Midland Railway built a line over land previously part of the church’s burial ground. In preparation for this, human remains buried in the affected part had to be exhumed and the gravestones were stacked around this tree. But whence the name? Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is best known as a novelist and poet but began his career as an architect in a practice in Covent Garden. He it was who was charged with the task of removing the remains and shifting the gravestones. His involvement is recalled in the name of the Hardy Tree.
This brief visit did not exhaust all there is to be seen here but we shall no doubt return and visit it again at some point. Now it was time to catch a bus home and relax over a cup of tea!