In 1963, I walked the length of the river in London until I found what I was looking for. I wanted a nursery garden alongside the river with a Georgian house beside it. Nobody wanted to live in East Greenwich then. The row of houses – yes, they are late Georgian – was emptying as quickly as their tenants could get re-housed. The wharf opposite the houses was unused, but the river was still a busy highway. Coasters came in on every tide. Cranes creaked, barges banged together. Lorries blocked the road, queuing for the scrap yard. It was dirty, noisy and intensely beautiful. The river was another world.
All I had to do was persuade the owners, Morden College, that it was worth saving the houses and that I really wanted to make a garden on the wharf. Morden College (bless them) had owned the area since the beginning of the eighteenth century and seen it change from osier beds and fishing to steam, industry, docking. They existed to make enough money out of the estate to support the almshouse in Blackheath.
East Greenwich was a working area. The rents barely covered maintenance. Property booms were all in the future. Morden College, who had intended to pull down the houses and build garages on the wharf, agreed.
Union Wharf became my nursery garden, but also a garden for the neighbours. I saw gardening as encouraging new life to grow up through the cracks in the concrete covering we had spread over the earth. My plants were the plane trees of London, the ferns and buddleias that sprang out of the war damage. My firm, called Union Wharf Nursery Garden, encouraged weeds to spring up all over London. City farms came next. There was a tea garden too. The river was central to them all.
Half a century has passed. Everything, except the river itself, has changed. The trade has gone. The shipping has gone. The cranes have gone. The scrap yard has gone. The nursery garden has gone. But the garden has grown, its rent paid, its grass mown, its growing population of pots planted. The neighbours (a different lot of neighbours) still want it to be a garden, they are thinking of calling themselves The Union Union. What a good name!