Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Joy of London's Open Garden Squares Weekend

I am not a gardener and never will be.  I find no pleasure in the thought of filthy fingernails and insurmountable amounts of patience waiting for the fruition of hard work that is then consumed by insects.  When I was younger, I rarely noticed flowers and greenery, perhaps taking them for granted as I grew up in a very green state (I mean I lived in one of the verdant United States of America; I don’t mean that I was particularly envious). 

But these days, I find enormous solace by sitting in a city square at lunchtime, or in a park watching water birds seem to dissipate the pollution and stress. I get livid when I hear of plans to build on Green Belt land or to plough railway lines through Sites of Specific Scientific interest, destroying habitats.  I am definitely a City Mouse, but there is enormous pleasure—and health—to be found outdoors spending time with nature and one’s thoughts, absorbing the calm, particularly when the jungle that surrounds you is concrete and the few gardens near you have been paved for parking.

So the old me paid little attention to the annual Open Garden Squares weekend each June when over 200 urban oases are open to the public, and I was surprised to learn that it had been running for 17 years by 2014.  Then at last emails to us regular attenders of the annual architectural splendour of the Open House weekend, with a small discount on the £10 ticket, tempted me to give it a try, particularly as a private Pimlico square I’ve longed to peer into was planning to throw open its gates.

Unlike Open House, you don’t have to book for gardens apart from a few exceptions such as 10 Downing Street.  But as I left it late to book and didn’t have a chance to go through the glorious guide book until the Saturday it started, I didn’t take full advantage of the weekend, but I still was surprisingly moved by the few gardens I did get a chance to visit. 

And there are gardens of all types in all areas. Medicinal gardens, wildlife gardens, skip gardens, private residential squares, kitchen gardens, nurseries, gardens in hospices, museums, vicarages, and Buddhist centres, tiny havens outside chocolate shops, allotments and garden farms, roof gardens on tall city buildings, those in venues such as the Royal Hospital Chelsea, 10 Downing Street and the Olympic Park. Not all gardens are open both days, but the website and guidebook make that clear. 

I must praise the hugely efficient guidebook and website.  The guidebook is an impressive book, not a cheap little pamphlet, full of photographs to tempt you to places you might not have thought had value. It has a substantial blurb on each garden as well as a wealth of information, including such things as whether the gardener would be on site to answer questions, whether there were plants for sale, live music and cream teas on offer and activities laid on for children, whether dogs were allowed, where the nearest toilets and Boris Bikes were, whether the paths might be too narrow for wheelchairs, precisely where to enter each garden, and anything else you could want to know.

The website has the same and a highly functional garden selector, where you can specify the time and day when you want to visit, say, wildlife gardens in Kensington that are not normally open to the public, or rooftop gardens on a City skyscraper with a beekeeping demonstration.  There is also a Smartphone app, and it helpfully gives information on other gardens open in the area at the same time, so you don’t really need to plan for ages; you could just wander.  Outer London is included as well, but I had my eyes on one particular garden in Pimlico.

I had also decided to go to several other places that looked amazing in the catalogue, but I ended up only being able to get out on the Sunday, and train delays prevented me from reaching my intended first stop of Nomura International roof gardens, which came to interest me once someone tweeted a picture of an owlet there, so instead I headed straight for Victoria.

I had long wanted to see inside the secret and stunning Eccleston Square and thought I’d only have a chance to go inside was once I had married a resident Earl or won the Euromillions lottery and bought a place on the Square.  Ever since I once walked past in early Spring and was captivated by its magic based on the stunning flowers beckoning through the iron railings beneath towering trees, I knew that right around the corner from Victoria station, there was paradise—but only for residents.

Then a welcome chance to peek inside unexpectedly came through the BBC’s coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show 2014, when Jo Thompson, designer of the Gold Medal winning ‘London Square’ garden, was given a key to the hidden kingdom of Eccleston Square, and her expert appreciation of some things I might not have noticed in my ogling ignorance created more to love, but again from afar. She praised the climbing rose on a tree that she had not expected to see there, and the irises, gardenia and rhododendron, which would have reminded me of home, as well as the ‘instant architecture’ of three silver birches planted together. She then gave us a near aerial view from a top floor balcony on Eccleston Square, and aptly said that the garden squares ‘give a sense that they’re enabling the city to breathe’, which I support. 

I thought that would be my only ‘visit’, until the wonderful Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Finally, I was able to see inside Eccleston Square myself.  When I first entered, I came upon a table where two women who seemed like they might be residents were seated, one chatting to someone about the garden, and the other ‘looking on’, as poor caption writers always say.  As neither seemed interested in checking the ticket in my extended hand, I moved towards the man beside them who may have been the head gardener, when the second woman snapped at me snootily to demand whether I had a ticket as if I was daring to sneak in and steal the beauty.
Happily, that was the only variation all day from encounters with nothing but delightful people thrilled to be sharing the experience.  And immediately before me, paradise opened, and thoughts of that woman’s unduly sharp demeanour faded away.  The square was even more impressive than I imagined from the crumbs I’d seen scattered around the outside.  To my right and left were shady paths with occasional pergolas covered with climbing roses, and straight ahead was glorious planting opening into the main garden, which revealed a sizeable lawn area to the right and tennis courts to the left.  As people behind me went elsewhere, I ventured right so I could have the path all to myself, something I hadn’t expected but frequently enjoyed; I had wrongly assumed the crowds might make enjoying the gardens difficult.  

Happily, with so many gardens to see over two days and several boroughs without set times and bookings required, that left plenty of room for us to spread out.  There was no rush either; we could stand for an age in front of a particular flower garden, or plonk ourselves down on one of the many lovely wooden benches and just sit and read a book, as some people did, as though this was our own private paradise.  

Eccleston Square was the masterpiece I expected, but larger.  It was a masterly joy of hedgerows, gorgeous planting combinations, tall twisting trees, unpolished benches looking like they’d been carved after a tree blew down, and amazing scents that made it difficult to believe it was bordered by a busy London road near Victoria station. We were even left free to peek into the marvellous greenhouse. On the edges of the garden were long, beautifully isolated hidden paths that let you imagine you were meandering through some country wood, luring you to duck under low branches just for the chance to wander off somewhere.

I won’t describe the beauty with purple prose, nor can I wow you with the scientific names—or even the common names--of the plants I admired. There were discreet markers to identify many of them,  sometimes indicating that I was looking at a ‘rare bird’, and I was frequently impressed by unusual, racy looking floral creatures. But the language of flowers is Greek to me, even when labelled, so I will just have to share a few of my photographs and hope you can get even a fraction of the sense of beauty and calm that these gardens gave.  

More than once on the Sunday, I would be thinking ‘what pretty blue against that spiky thing’ and people behind me would come up and murmer to each other, their faces deep in concentration, Greek things like, ‘Is that a Queen Anne?’ and ‘I doubt it; they only grow in China and have three petals, not four,’ or marvel that the shaggy looking green thing was a rare Wollemi pine.  People would think to brush aside glamorous puffy flowers to reveal a tiny little blue treasure in the undergrowth and say ‘You see the Latinus Floralbus?’--or some such name—“you see how it doesn’t need any sunlight to grow? They’ve done it marvellously; mine have always died.” 

But my ignorant marvelling at the bigger picture did not lessen the glory of the gardens for me. The beauty of them is that they are—well, beautiful—to the uninformed observing eye as well as the all-seeing eye, to the layman and the expert.  Everything was there to behold—pure splendour, even on this deeply cloudy day, although we were lucky not to get the expected rain (though the gardens may disagree).
The gardens I visited weren’t all stuffy fragile things of beauty with ‘please keep off the grass’ signs simply meant to be observed. They had benches along their hidden paths, well-used tennis courts that were often shielded by climbing roses and the like, as well as playgrounds for children and even, in one case, a barbecue area.  They are living, functioning gardens, as well as places of respite and calm.  Some contained miniature sections of wooded forest, stunning floral beds far more creative than the average council green with a few marigolds in an orderly pattern, some manicured lawn, winding paths that beckon you irresistibly, some tropical looking areas and the gorgeous backdrop of stunning terraces. They could be wonderful microcosms of the world, the gardeners and garden designers having achieved masterly accomplishments in small areas. Whatever the residents pay for the upkeep, it’s worth it. 
When I tore myself away, I moved just a block away to Warwick Square, thinking the garden, as another part of Thomas Cubitt’s Pimlico plan in the 1800s, would be similar but unable to top the realised joy of Eccleston Square.  However, it immediately impressed as visitors entered through a tunnel of glorious greenery, through which we could see a statue surrounded by stunning roses and lovely tall purple and white daisy-like things (sorry to wow you with science).  Bird song collaborated with church bells emanating from the picturesque steeple looming over one end of the garden.  A resident was telling someone as I entered that they usually did something jointly with the church for this event, but the new vicar hadn’t yet had a chance to get his feet under the table.   
Never mind; the setting was straight from a chocolate box.  It was a village scene plonked in the middle of Pimlico. The paths along the edge of the square were a joy to explore, generally with great vistas of the whole park, with a secret path straying off to a raised bench built from what looked like fallen timber.

I once again admired the multi-layered planting of remarkable combinations and heights amidst so much established greenery.  In the middle of the designed wilderness was a manicured lawn, with incredible trees towering over both sides and lovely sights of stephanotis and magnificent tall bulbous things that look like potted Daisies left bare by a game of he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not.  Robins were flitting about and singing, so much laughter echoed around the square, and people made the most of the well placed benches.  That’s an added joy; you aren’t shepherded in and forced to look and leave, with anxious people hovering over you ready to shout, ‘Don’t touch that!’.  Instead, you can stop and enjoy the garden.  People were stretched out in some gardens on the lawns chatting with friends. I chose a quiet bench by the church, hidden amidst more greenery overhead but with a clear view across the length of the square, and watched as sparrow fledglings hopped around the path at my feet. The scent of the surrounding flowers was nearly dizzying, and everything was perfect.

As I wandered around, again I was ogling beds thinking ‘oooo, pretty’ as pairs of gardening women strolled past making comments like ‘Is that a St Anne’s?‘ ‘No, it couldn’t grow here. Too acidic’ and other Greek things that made me smile.

A marvellous iron gate on the opposite side (through another tunnel topped by blue flowers) had ‘Rus in Urbe’ inscribed in the iron, or ‘country in the city’.  How perfectly stated. I gather the gates are replacements of the originals that were lost in World War II, a worthy project.  The iron gate through which we entered said ‘Paradiso Volupatatis’, which I believe means Garden of Eden, a pleasurable paradise.  The garden certainly provides for all with the different (predominantly green) terrains, occasional hiding places, a playground and a tennis court shielded by lovely planting.  This visual paradise amidst the splendid soundscape of chirping birds, church bells, the gentle pop of tennis balls at play and sprigs of laughter was certainly no disappointment after the glory of Eccleston Square, and it was hard to tear myself away.

But I did move on, and as I left the square, I found that St Gabriel’s Church benefited a great deal from viewing it with the garden in the foreground, as the foliage and flowers covered up a row of Boris bikes, busy ‘no entry’ signs and the ugliness of modern reality. 

After Warwick, it was nearly 4pm, so I had no hope of making Kensington in time to enjoy the gardens I’d hoped to see there, so I moved along to nearby Eaton Square, which I hadn’t intended to visit.  How fortunate that I made it there.

The gardens of Eaton Square were also originally laid out by Thomas Cubitt in the 1820s, and like others in the area, it was replanted in the 1950s after much disruption during the war.  (In fact, several people including the Lord Mayor of Westminster were killed there in an air shelter that took a direct hit, and cannon shells were found in the Plane tree limbs when they were pruned in the 1970s.)

This was a welcoming family-style place, as though they chose to embrace the day by throwing a party rather than issue notices warning their residents to stay away if they wanted peace.  I had just missed the Punch and Judy show (I didn’t mind; I hate domestic violence) but I stopped for a while near the fat palmetto trees to hear the steel brass band give the occasion an island flavour with jolly interpretations of those old Caribbean classics La Bamba and Sway.  The lively band was terrific fun, performing beside a fountain wall with water tumbling down it that I imagine is rather soothing on less
celebratory days.

I was handed a Tree Walk Guide as I entered, which I wanted to give back to keep my hands free and because, whilst I love there to be trees, I didn’t think I was so worried about knowing the individuals. But I was quickly pleased that I kept hold of it, as they had placed big numbers on some trees around the garden and that would have driven my curiosity mad. You could check the corresponding number on the guide to find that, for instance, that tree came from New Zealand in the 1980s, or this one’s a Chinese katsura that smells of burnt sugar (ah-hah! I’ve been baffled by that scent in St James’s Square), or it’s a Japanese dogwood with horizontal branches, or an original Plane tree and a past head gardener’s favourite. The sheet also provided the bit of historical information I mentioned above.  How grand that scrupulous historical records have been kept and that this beauty didn’t just happen with blowing seeds and bees (not that I imagined it did).

After leaving the slightly ‘built up’ area by the tennis court and passing the many seats for the audience in front of the puppet theatre where I saw the Punch and Judy hands out of character, I passed through a brief little woodland area where there was a log pile, good for wildlife particularly like bees.  This, in fact, was the garden’s ‘habitat hideaway’ to encourage wildlife; they even had a wormery.  A little path led to a tucked away bench on the side beside a sculpted half-sphere coffee table. 

The polished table was an example of what was tremendously special about this square: it was full of fascinating art.  There were numerous captivating sculptures, often highly reflective or patterned metal cut-out spheres, some with ‘bites’ taken out of them and a disco ball hidden in the woodland. Tucked in the planting by a path was a marvellous Anthony Gormley like copper figure holding a sundial that turned out to be a Light Sorceress.  A ‘moon dial’ sphere loomed behind a bench. These treasures emerged from the garden as though you had stumbled upon a secret stranger lurking intriguingly in the bush.

In the middle of the square, near where people were lying on the grass laughing with friends, was a green bronze that looked a bit like a model of the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe, not the pickle) from one angle, but seemed to divide into three pieces as you walked around it (called Eveque after a Bishop’s mitre).  Another bronze Gherkin-like one on the edge in the planting was called Quill, inspired by Mediterranean pencil pines, with a pointed base and top.  I later learned the sculptures and sundials were by artist David Harber and they certainly added to the magic of the square.

This certainly more family-oriented garden jolted with joy in the welcoming party atmosphere and came prepared for the big day, even providing a bright blue port-a-loo that the eye, if not the camera, overlooked.  The rest of the square cried out to be photographed, not just the
engrossing sculptures but the lovely stacked blossoms around them, flowers of such an unusual pale blue that they seemed dipped in food colouring, some giant camellias (perhaps) in deep and pale pinks, near lovely low trees and consistently impressive planting around a manicured lawn.

The garden welcomed families of all types, as recently occupied bird boxes abounded and more newly fledged robins surrounded us.  I would normally seek the peace I found in the previous two gardens, but was easily enamoured of this wonderful place. It would have been a dreadful shame to miss it.

Around the square on lovely homes were blue plaques for Neville Chamberlain, which could be seen from the garden, and Vivien Leigh.  Vivien Leigh’s former home looked out on a part of the garden that was separated by a road from the main section, and it was closed to us.  How lovely for the residents that there are separate squares to enjoy, and presumably some offer more peace, particularly on this day.

I then passed through Chester Square on the way back to Victoria station, which looked lovely and had a spectacular tree in the middle but had already closed.  Chester Square also has a church and blue plaques, as an astonishing number of celebrities and a few important figures have lived there over the years. I passed a blue plaque for Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the square was in the news a few days later when it was announced that Margaret Thatcher’s last home there was going to be sold for £35 million once the developers refurbished it to include one of those ghastly multi-storey basements that I hope are outlawed soon. Surely someone would pay a ridiculous price for the house as it was just to enjoy the green treasure on their doorstep.

It’s truly so generous of people to open these gardens to us during this wonderful weekend. Why would they want the scruffy public traipsing through all day and trampling their precious flowers, even bringing dogs?  Obviously, we weren’t doing any trampling; instead we were highly appreciative, respectful admirers who acknowledged the privilege of being guests for a bit.  But if it were me, I would have worried.  Instead, most of us smiled at each other as we shared this special experience, although the gardens I went to were rarely crowded. I was always able to have a nice wander at my own pace, could usually find a bench on which to pause and absorb the glory, and I rarely had to wait for people to clear the scene so I could snap a photo to let me carry on enjoying the gardens for years.  

Although I only managed to visit a few gardens that were in the same area and a somewhat similar style, I was still blown away by them and felt my tenner was completely worthwhile.  I just cursed myself for not making the most of it by planning better and getting out throughout the weekend.
Frankly, for the low price, even if you don’t have time to do much, you should at least just get to a few gardens, whatever you can fit in.  You could even take a book and find a quiet bench and just sit for a while in a garden you would not otherwise be able to enter.  
I had big plans last year and only managed three gardens, yet I’m still talking about them a year later.  I also thought it worth reading through the 100+ page booklet that is included with the ticket after the event with a view to making a point of visiting some of the parks I knew nothing of that are regularly open.  It’s a marvellous event highlighting London’s jewels. Chelsea Flower Show is nothing compared to this—that’s just pretend and temporary.  These are the real things.

If you haven’t booked ahead of time, you can book online and get an e-ticket and electronic version of the guidebook, and the website and related apps really tell you everything you could possibly need.  Otherwise, you can get a ticket at certain participating gardens. (See list.), or at the City Information Centre on the river side of St Paul’s Cathedral, and you will be handed the marvellous hard copy of the guide book (or collect it by showing your e-ticket). 

So if you’ve made no plans yet, there’s nothing to stop you going out for a wander for the price of three cups of coffee, and children under 12 go free.

You could say that the more gardens you get in, the better value you’ve created, but I would have been thrilled with just the first one I visited; the others were icing and a cherry on top.  It’s a treasure of an opportunity you really shouldn’t miss.  The gods of weather seem to agree and are smiling on you this weekend.

There’s a complete list of gardens here and you can search for ones in your area  Just go!