Thirty minutes on the train from Kings Cross is Crews Hill in Enfield. For those without green fingers its claim to have one of the largest concentrations of garden centres, nurseries and aquatics centres in the UK might set you yawning, yet Crews Hill hides oddities, quirks and surprises that the adventurous Londoner should head north to witness.
Back in the 1900s, Enfield was full of market gardens with glass-houses covering several hundred acres* but as industry and housing sprawled north, Theobalds Park Farm at Crews Hill was left the sole large-scale producer, supplying vegetables, plants and flowers to the London markets. As demand for imported goods grew in the 60s, the entrepreneurs of Crews Hill switched their trade to garden centres and nurseries.
So, what's it like today? Turn left out of the train station and the immediate view is of a mile of garden-oriented businesses laid out on either side of the road. Mega garden centres are mixed with specialist retailers (e.g. fence panels, bonsai, mulch, fake grass) and plots where a whole range of small traders have flocked together (e.g. a pet grooming parlour, new age shop, recording studio and vintage emporium).
Some of the garden centres are still flourishing, like the massive Enfield Garden Centre with its proud fake windmill and Wolden's, which is celebrating 50 years. Phoenix Rose looks less glamorous sited in a plastic hangar of former greenhouses. It still offers traditional garden centre wares but has diversified haphazardly with clothing and shoe concessions, Anglian Home Improvements, oak furniture, new kitchens and chandeliers on sale.
Across the road, Springtime Nurseries has a massive end of season sale on to make way for its annual Christmas Wonderland — possibly the biggest Christmas shop and largest Santa's Grotto on the planet. Part of it is already in place. Come through the entrance and you're standing in a fake market town replete with stalls bearing the name of London's famous markets proffering Christmas ales, preserves and ye olde goods. It is still September, however, and if you make it over to the far side of the huge greenhouse structure past the napkins, silk flowers, giant glassware, faded stationery, huge One Direction poster and the Christmas decoration display you'll find their Halloween shop. If you're lucky you'll be in there alone and the shop assistant will shit you up with one of many terrifyingly unexpected gimmicks**.
The specialists are apparently thriving and proud to be part of "Britain's horticultural mile" — several proclaim they are 'of Crews Hill'. If it's fake grass you're after then the Fake Grass Company is at your disposal and prices on gravel and topsoil (which diggers were excavating from a soil mountain at the back of the lot) from Thompson's are definitely far better than you'd get in a general garden centre in town.
You can spend a whole day at Crews Hill exploring its quirky mix of genuine good value stuff for the garden side by side with some bizarre retail efforts in acres of greenhouses that hark back to another age. There are plenty of cafes and a decent family pub too. For those willing to explore Enfield a little further, Whitewebbs Transport Museum is close by and Forty Hall Estate with its grand house and gardens is about a 20 minute walk.
Photography by Peter Berthoud.
** like the bloodcurdling scream and automated ghoul dangling