Saturday 2 January 2016

Wandering With the Ghosts of Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

This weekend is the last chance to observe Christmas celebrations over the past 400 years at London’s wonderful Geffrye Museum.
It’s a splendid privilege to wander from one decade to another simply by waltzing down a corridor along a row of rooms.  Even better is seeing those rooms decorated for Christmas in the vastly different styles of the ages—some with barely a sprig of holly adorning the top of a picture frame and others looking like an inviting scene on an elaborate Christmas card.
After years of meaning to do so, I seized the opportunity last new year to visit the Christmas Past Exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, based in wonderfully restored Grade 1 listed 1714 almshouses that form an oasis directly behind Hoxton station.  The museum specialises in the history of the English domestic interior and lets you nearly step into those bygone days as you are subtly informed most delightfully about social history.  At this time of year, they decorate the rooms as they would have looked at Christmastime in that period, with an extra sign added to tell you how the day would have been spent then (such as with the maid helping to buy holly, snacking on anchovies and olives while having music, giving only educational toys to the children, or the family usually eating out).  Some rooms show surprisingly few signs of the festive season as that simply wasn’t done back then, and others seem to be the epitome of the old fashioned Christmas that people picture so fondly.

Even in these times when social history is enormously popular on television, either through period dramas or unexpectedly educational shows like Who Do You Think You Are?, I learned quite a bit that was new to me.   Spread amidst the rooms are little exhibitions of objects such as porcelain or tea caddies from that period, samples of fabrics used for floor coverings, details on techniques used at the time such as ‘Japanning’ (a 17th century type of black furniture finish), and illustrations or photographs of what the outside of the house would have looked like—and the difficulties faced when building them--and where the various servants and family members would have spent most of their time. 

Amongst the informative timelines—showing when important books were published, new legislation passed, famous exhibitions held, and new technology (such as railways) established--are snippets of information about, for instance, how the ‘middling classes’ would have behaved and how crucial newspapers once were, giving businessmen all they needed to know about grain prices and foreign news, and telling people of the comings and goings of ships, tides and socialites.  There are also details of how the popularity of gardening ‘as a fashionable leisure activity’ grew in the 18th century, along with the ‘pleasing London custom of dressing…windowsills with pots of greenery’.

But the highlights are the period rooms.  We see decorations with rosemary and bay and learn how friends who stopped by would be offered jellies and wine as the family sipped cordials. The rather bare 1630 hall shows little evidence of the holiday other than a green garland draped over the mantelpiece and a modest feast on the table, and we read that Christmas was banned by Parliament during the Civil War owing to Puritan values. 
Coming to a gorgeous Wedgwood blue 1830 drawing room with only a few sprigs of holly evident, I hear a man on his way out behind me comment that he likes the wallpaper but it isn’t very Christmassy, as though the museum—or the occupants of the house—would completely re-paper the room just for a couple weeks and then change it back. 

A panel tells how a small family party ‘is about to take place’ on Twelfth Night, when a king and queen would be chosen for the night based on who found a dried bean or a pea in their traditional Twelfth-Night cake, bizarrely with even the servants allowed to play so their master could end up serving them on the night.  During the revival of the Christmas celebration in the 19th century, that type of game became more like the modern day charades.  There was no mention, however, of any medieval game that led to Twister, which was the traditional Christmas Eve game in my family.

The museum has some audio exhibits that enable you to listen to readings from letters and books of the late 18th century and early 19th century, including a letter from Jane Austen about moving house, advice to servants about setting the table for a tea party, and a description of dinner with a rector.  Some 19th century advice manuals are on show, with panels telling us that ‘taste’ and debates about it in terms of home furnishings came in to play at this time.

Nearby is the wonderful Victorian drawing room from 1870, with Yuletide sheet music on the piano, different busy fabrics draped over chairs as well as covering the floor and windows, mistletoe hanging from the light fixture, and a toy farmyard set up on the table near a stunning live Christmas tree.   It’s a Christmas card into which I’d like to climb.  A poster teaches us the history of Christmas cards and says that, by this time under the burden of the new seasonal flurry, the post office began to warn people to post their cards early, which at the time meant on the morning of Christmas Eve.  That reminded me of reading the puzzling passages in the Mapp and Lucia books where people purchased their cards late on Christmas Eve and seemed to post them on Christmas for delivery that day.  Things are a wee bit different now, I mused as I thought of having to post my stepsister’s gift by the recommended date of 4th December, and it still arrived in late January last year.

Through glass doors, the new extension’s dazzling open architecture draws you towards more modern room displays, including one influenced by Japanese culture that was the rage then, a suburban Edwardian ‘Arts and Crafts’ period room with holly in a vase, and a great many samples of chairs through the ages.  

My favourite room was here, a room of a purpose built 1930s London mansion block flat, my obvious choice as I adore Art Deco and modernist architecture and anything of the period.  On show were muted colours and furniture I’d love to have today with a rather pathetic sprig of a Christmas tree on a table, but everything decorated cheerfully, albeit artificially, which was the practical fashion of the time in urban homes.  The room was set for the Christmas Eve cocktail party, the poster said, and then the couple would motor down to the country for Christmas Day with relatives, before the already firm recent tradition of hearing the King’s Christmas broadcast on the wireless at 3pm.

The 1970s room surprised me by tugging at my heart a bit, presumably touching some suppressed pleasant memory as a child, although we never decorated our contemporary (American) home for Christmas as we always travelled to my grandparents’ more traditional home in the north for the festivities. Perhaps it was the discarded Christmas wrap on the floor, although the toys it had covered were duller than what we were getting at the time, although I suppose it was later in the decade when we were getting the earliest video games and that flashing light Simon game.

Even the 1990s are covered, which could make you feel a bit old, but we are marching ever further from that decade so it might as well be in a museum. The display is a bright sparsely decorated flat with wooden floors, no doubt in a regentrified Docklands warehouse, with one of those tiny bedroom lofts that would have me too terrified to sleep for fear of rolling off in the night and falling to my death on the colourful Conran dining set below.

In the middle of the almshouses stands the original little chapel, a delightful path on your journey through the decades. It is a rather understated chapel given its location in charitable homes for the poor, with just a few pews.  On the wall are passages from Exodus Chapter 20 (including the commandments) and the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of St Matthew. There is also a memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye (and wife), the former Lord Mayor and Master of the Ironmongers’ Company who died in 1703 aged 91 and left the bequest that enabled the almshouses, principally for ironmongers’ widows, to be built.   The Geffryes are now buried in a small courtyard in the period gardens out back, which are not open in the winter, but which look beautiful through the wide windows of the curved, cozy garden reading room behind the chapel.  There is a statue of Sir Robert in the outside wall of the chapel facing the front gardens, which are always open.

Downstairs in the new wing was an exhibition called ‘who once lived in my house?’, which I accidentally got caught up in for an age given the lack of time I had left.  It followed certain real houses through the ages—the landowners who commissioned them, where the original owners came from, who passed them to their daughters when they married, whose children all died so they sold it to a more affluent man as the area changed or when their business went belly-up–that sort of thing, telling you often amazing facts and even showing photographs of the various real residents right up to modern day, and of course giving particular mention to the resident ghost when there was one.

The contemporary wing also houses a collection of 20th century paintings of interiors, which draw you in far more than you would expect, as does the whole museum. I generally have no interest in interior design and barely notice things like carpeting and curtains, and my own home is a cluttered disgrace decorated by a previous owner with an apparent nod towards a dingy Blackpool B&B, but this museum was fascinating and informative about so much, so I was pleased that Yuletide pleasures drew me to it.

As I went late in the afternoon and didn’t want to disturb others with a flash, my photographs are dark and blurry, so you will need to go see things yourself.  If you can’t get to London, the museum’s website has virtual tours and loads of detail about period pieces and décor, so you can wander through now.

I emerged from this wonderful visit to a past I never knew feeling reluctant to leave its magic, but smiling after a happy stroll through it.

The museum also has a tasteful café and areas with activities for children, reading rooms that are full of books you can sit down and look through, decorated with lovely portraits showing people in their homes including party scenes of yesteryear. The charming gift shop has some marvellous
Christmas cards and ornaments as well as fun books on the past and décor as well as objects and jewellery resembling antiquities.  [My only bad experience at the museum was a ‘nose-powdering session’, when I entered a loo that seemed the type to have a new Dyson hand dryer but instead had me standing amidst scary, smelly pools of liquid, and I had to struggle so long to get a square or two of tissue out of the holder that I started seriously considering how I might remove the screws, as disassembling then reassembling it seemed a quicker option to access the necessary stuff. But shame on me for mentioning unmentionables.  It had been a worrying first impression of the museum, but happily everything improved greatly from there. Perhaps the cleaners had been off for the festive period or they wanted us to experience the austerity of the past before people could pop down the road for a value pack of Velvet.  If the museum relies on grants and donations, then I guess they wouldn’t concentrate their valued funds on penny-spending.)

If you are in London on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, 6th January, the Museum holds at 3.30pm its annual ‘traditional burning of the holly and the ivy, with carol singing, stories about Epiphany and a taste of mulled wine and Twelfth Night cake’ in the front garden. It lasts until 5pm and admission is free.

Admission to the general museum is also free, although obviously donations are always welcome.  The Geffrye is opened Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm, and the Christmas exhibition ends on 3 January (but will return).  The museum also has some restored almshouses that are only occasionally opened and for which there is a £4 charge to adults and timed entry.  Details can be found here .  Do go.

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!