Visiting gardens is for middle-aged people, right? Well, yes, probably. But here at Londonist we like to be as inclusive as we can. With that in mind, we foolishly promised to try and visit all 117 gardens participating in last week’s Open Garden Squares Weekend. And we were true to our word. That is, we did try to visit them all, but only managed about 40. (We knew we were fighting a hopeless battle when we heard Coram’s Fields wouldn’t be revoking its rule of barring adults, unless accompanied by children.) Here’s our pick of the highlights.
Viewers of BBC’s Springwatch will, by now, have acquired a Pavlovian response to salivate at the mention of peregrine falcons. Russell square gave Londoners the opportunity to see this magnificent bird, along with some of its raptor mates, all shackled forlornly to the turf. It’s one way to protect wildlife, we suppose – chain it up so it can’t get itself into any mischief. After gawping with the other punters at this cruel spectacle, we needed redemption. The nearby SOAS Japanese roof garden, which is ‘a quiet place dedicated to forgiveness’, made a perfect confessional. This almost plantless garden is tucked away atop the Brunei Gallery. The air of tranquillity was enhanced with pipa music (a kind of Chinese lute played with the fingernails). Until – like the piano player in Little Britain – the artist stopped mid-chord to bark at one of her friends.
We reached the Mall to a Trooping of the Colour aftermath. From the faecal sheen on the tarmac, Pooping of the Colour would seem a more appropriate epithet. After watching a spectacular RAF flypast, we entered the grounds of Marlborough House which gave us a handy guide to identifying its trees. Spot the odd one out: oak, yew, horse-chestnut, magnolia-Star-Wars. Those whacky gardening folk and their uproarious naming schemes!
The newly refurbished St Pancras Gardens has some remarkable features. There’s the Hardy Tree, a workaday ash until you see what’s clustered around its base. Then there’s the tomb of Sir John Soane, which bears a weird resemblance to, and may have been the influence for, the roof of the red phone box. You should go visit this strange place, if only to see just how much construction work is going into the new Channel Tunnel link.
We discovered a couple of gems down in Vauxhall: Bonnington Square and Harlyford Road Community Garden. The two are practically joined at the (rose)hip via a passage that feels like someone’s hallway. In fact, we think it might have been. The latter garden in particular is a charming labyrinth of ponds, mosaics, plants and ornaments. Much has been left to grow as it pleases, to the delight of the many insects and spiders.
One message that soon strikes home is that humans and pigeons may think they rule this city, but the humble plain tree is the real master. Once you become aware of them, you realise what an important part of London they are. Plain trees dominate the grand Georgian squares such as Portman, Manchester and Bryanston. Although perfectly lovely, these squares lack any real character. Unless you’re the Knights who say ‘Ni’, all that private topiary begins to pall after visiting a few of these identikit spaces.
Postman’s Park, on the edge of the City, has a singular treat for fans of Victorian phraseology. A wall of fame carries memorial plaques to folk who gave their lives trying to save others. Some are poignantly Dickensian: David Selves, aged 12, ‘supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms’. Others are almost comical:
‘Sarah Smith, pantomime artiste. At Prince's Theatre died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion’.
Of course, the undoubted highlight of the weekend would have been the Hill Garden and pergola up near Hampstead Heath. We didn’t actually make it to that one, but from many previous visits, we know it’s one of the best secrets in London and somewhere where any marriage proposal will be adoringly accepted.
So, with 40 gardens visited in two days (plus about 10 bonus gardens not in the listings), we think we might have set some kind of rather dull record. This is what happens when you tell Londonist that we should probably get out more.