Thursday, 25 February 2010

Finsbury Circus RIP

If you live or work in the City of London, be sure to visit Finsbury Circus this week. It will be your last chance to see it in its original state, and your last chance to enjoy it at all for at least seven years, as it will become a building site for Crossrail from 1 March.

Finsbury Circus is the oldest and largest open space in the City. A short distance between Moorgate and Liverpool Street station, it is unusually a square in London that is in fact elliptical, covering 2.2 hectares. The Circus was once part of the Finsbury Manor Estate but was enclosed in 1812 to form a garden later laid out by William Montague. It’s our minute version of Central Park.

Crucially, it is a refuge, a tranquil sanctuary in the middle of otherwise busy streets raging with traffic, away from the nearby busy pavements that are covered by masses of work-focused people stomping past to the next chapter of their busy lives. This open-air shelter of sorts a short distance away is remarkably serene. I look around at the others sitting here, many taking photos in the knowledge that this little paradise is being lost, and everyone has that look of calm that the Circus inspires, which they will no doubt lose when they walk a few yards to Moorgate or London Wall or wherever to fade into the crowds and return to their bustling, busy lives.

There are, of course, bigger green spaces in central London if you have time to travel way across London to a royal park, for instance. But none so accessible to us City folk. If you just want to see some lovely flowers and gorgeous old trees, or to hear the happy chirp of birds other than pigeons, it’s a Godsend. Already, the Camellia bush beside me is in bloom (I am typing this from a bench in a quiet and somewhat forlorn Finsbury Circus) and behind me are the first crocuses and snowbells I have seen this year, already in full flower as if Finsbury Circus has some special gulf stream or simply magic that's sprinkled on its green inhabitants. This tiny touch of joy truly stirs my heart, particularly on this otherwise miserable rainy grey day. The flowers have gone to the trouble of finally bursting through, subtly and delicately presenting their brand new beauty ahead of most of their cousins, and yet they will be heartlessly yanked up and put on a tip somewhere in a day or so.

The existence of the magnificent Finsbury Circus has been threatened before by railway development. Apparently, in 1862, when it was only 50 years old, plans by the Metropolitan Railway Company to demolish it were considered, but it was saved by Alfred Smee, who considered it to be one of the most beautiful London squares. Where is its saviour now, I wonder, as it surely retains that impressive status 150 years later. The elliptical square was acquired by the Corporation of London in 1900 for public use, and has been maintained by the City for that purpose ever since. Until now, when the battle has been lost.

I feel at such a loss because, even though I don’t get to take a break as often as I should, I cheer myself with the thought of coming here, and I will always go slightly out of my way to wander through it if I’m near. If I’m simply strolling from Moorgate or London Wall to Broadgate or Liverpool Street, I make sure I cut through Finsbury Circus, and even just that quick diversion leaves me feeling warmer and soothed as a result. If I find I have even just a few minutes, I will get a Chai Tea Latte from one of the nearby Starbucks and go sit on one of the many benches and have a bit of ‘time out’ from the stressful day, just watching the sparrows and looking up at the sky through the stretching arms of trees, which is something I can rarely do as a City dweller. People with more time and money to devote enjoy a meal at the Pavilion restaurant there, which has a fun clubhouse-shack look with tables overlooking the bowling green, all of which I imagine will also be destroyed.

While this Spring will be an exception, of course, usually, as soon as the weather is warm, the garden fills with people reading, chatting, enjoying their lunch, sitting on the many benches that line the circle of the square, or the low stone walls, or the deckchairs provided by the bandstand, or just stretched out on the lawn. People are everywhere, sharing the joy of the gardens. During the City of London Festival each summer, the bandstand delivers bright live music, and I have enjoyed many a delightful lunch break during the festival whilst being wowed by impressive jazz musicians in Finsbury Circus, when somehow I’m not fond of jazz elsewhere. The atmosphere sells it, the rapture of the others around me, perhaps what the Irish would call the craic.

The gazebo, in particular, means a great deal to me as a symbol of a carefree time. Back in 1989, when I was in the UK for only eight months, a friend who was a professional photographer took photographs of me with my new fiancĂ© and my future brother-in-law and his wife in front of the charming gazebo. Although I later, after an awful divorce, removed from the framed collages all the other photographs from that period containing the now ex-husband, I kept the ones from Finsbury Circus as they were always warm memories of a superb summer’s evening in a remarkable place.

In the centre of the Circus is a bowling green, and plaques citing former championship wins are posted on its edge. The bandstand is lined with plaques pronouncing the Square as having won awards as the best inner-city open space for some years. Or at least it was; I see those have been removed over the past few days given what feels like the impending apocalypse. There are palmettos beneath the surrounding canopy of beautiful plane trees, some of the oldest in the City (I hear the latter might be protected from the destruction; I certainly hope so). I understand the garden also contains the oldest specimen of the pagoda tree, Sophora japonica, so I pray that is also preserved. The Circus is surrounded by tall buildings with a Georgian feel that remind me of Bath’s Royal Crescent, and all sorts of little oddities pop up as you wander around, such as funny former drinking fountains from another century, benches installed decades ago in memory of 'old music hall artistes and song writers'. Everyone sitting in Finsbury Square seems to have an affinity with it, and we respect each other’s enjoyment of it.

So, get there while you can. There is barely any time left. Crossrail takes control of it from 1 March and will remove everything in the centre, although they will apparently in 2017 or so reinstate the little gazebo of which I am so fond and, I assume, the bandstand. They will presumably remove the Pavilion restaurant, the bowling green, the flowers, shrubs and many trees. They are storming in soon and I will have lost my refuge from the world, and I feel stressed already.

Ironically, I see that Transport for London have listed Finsbury Circus on its Open Garden Squares Weekend site, complete with a description of its marvellous attractions even though that weekend is in June 2010, long after this stunning sanctuary will be gone. I am offered as some insubstantial comfort the fact that Crossrail promises to reinstate Finsbury Circus when it is finished with it, at least seven years away. I am also told that we need this new railway, and I am not condemning progress. But I find myself devastated and depressed by the loss of this treasure, and totally lost as there will be nowhere to go so safe from the stresses of life with such amazing calming powers. I think on Friday, I may just cry, but I hope to race for one last glimpse and absorption of its gift of solace if I can manage it before an unmissable meeting. I’m already feeling dispirited to have to give up and leave now as it’s started to pour down rain, as predicted.

Go see Finsbury Circus now even if you’ve never been; it will warm your heart--if the bulldozers and diggers aren’t there yet. Nothing can replace it for me, my enchanted Shangri-La. I thank it for its many years of solace and diversion. RIP Finsbury Circus.

1 comment:

WH said...

Bye bye Finsbury Circus. I had lunch there almost every day in the summer. Where to go for greenery now in the City? Hardly a place that isn't ringed or fenced by traffic. A sad day!