A range of influential publications, including The Independent newspaper, have featured articles about the Trust's London Gardens Online inventory, following a survey which identified that thousands of people visit the site. For example, in the single week before the 2013 Open Garden Squares Weekend, more than 8,800 sessions were recorded of people using London Gardens Online, with a total session time of 29,783 minutes! Our regular weekly statistics reveal that the site attracts a high percentage of visitors from USA and Europe, with plenty of hits from other countries - clear evidence of the website's worldwide appeal.
“Until now there has been no comprehensive catalogue of the parks and gardens that help make London such an enjoyable place to live in and explore.”
Chris Sumner, Chairman, Planning & Conservation Working Group for LPGT
London Gardens Online, launched in May 2012, is a unique public resource revealing the extraordinarily diverse openspace network London has to offer. Instigated in 1995, it is one of the largest projects undertaken by the London Parks & Gardens Trust (LPGT). As Chris Sumner observes, “It seems almost a cliché to say that London is one of the world's greenest major cities, but the LPGT Inventory bears out that claim and supplies, at the press of a key, details of more than 2,500 historic parks, gardens, commons, burial grounds and other green open spaces across Greater London, most of which are in the public or semi-public domain.” The inventory has lots of practical visitor information too: a potted history, opening hours, facilities, special conditions and public transport.
Large parks such as Regent's Park and St James's Park are renowned public spaces, yet there are hundreds of hidden gems sometimes known only by their local communities. Many green spaces are centuries old: the area occupied by Fulham Palace Meadows Allotments shows evidence of human activity for 2,000 years, while Barnsbury Square Gardens in Islington stand on the site of a medieval moated farm. Commons like Wimbledon and Mitcham are famous, but remnants of old commonland and village greens can be found in inner London too - even in the heart of Chelsea. Most people know of Hampstead Garden Suburb, but what about other pioneering twentieth-century garden villages like the Webb Estate in Purley or Brentham Garden Suburb in Ealing? Whether it's a grand garden square, churchyard or historic allotment, all these places, says Sally Williams - Keeper of the Inventory, deserve recognition.
Since she was first engaged by LPGT in 1998, Sally Williams has devoted thousands of hours and walked hundreds of miles as she researched and recorded the historic green spaces to be found within London's 33 boroughs. Armed with an A-Z and an annual Gold Travelcard, courtesy of London Transport, Sally took one borough at a time starting with Barking and Dagenham, because it was relatively close to home. Not coming from a gardens background, the project was a huge learning curve and she remembers sitting outside one churchyard with her tree book for over an hour trying to work out whether a particular pine specimen was or wasn't a Weymouth pine.
When asked about memorable moments in this great adventure, Sally replied, 'discovery' and recalled the day she found the Minchenden Oak in Southgate. On her way to another site, but intrigued by a red brick wall, she wandered through and came across the ancient pollarded oak - reputed in the nineteenth century to be the largest in England. “In a way,” Sally believes, “this sort of discovery is one that anyone could have.” She certainly became hooked and, even though the project has driven her potty at times, “it has,” she says, “been a huge privilege to be involved and has given me a complete fascination for London; if that can be imparted by London Gardens Online, then that is what this huge enterprise has been about.”
One of the primary reasons for starting the Inventory was the realisation that many parks were deteriorating through lack of funding. Chris Sumner acknowledges that the work that Sally has done builds on work commissioned by the London Region of English Heritage. One significant result has been to draw local authorities' attention to their green sites – and LPGT is in discussion with the London boroughs and with English Heritage on using sites included in the London Inventory as the basis for local lists and for the Heritage at Risk register (HAR). Chris says, “The London Borough of Croydon has published a Local List which we hope will serve as a pattern for many more boroughs.'
Undoubtedly a valuable resource for planning authorities, architects, garden historians and landscape designers, London Gardens Online, like any great anthology, is wonderful for dipping into. Search by borough, type or keyword and discover a wealth of fascinating stories. For instance, during the Great Fire, Samuel Pepys reputedly buried his fine wine and Parmesan cheese in Seething Lane Gardens, then the site of the Navy Office; St Peter's Cornhill is said to have been founded in AD 179 by Lucius, 'first Christian King of Britain', later rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Its churchyard features in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.
The London Gardens Online website is a work in progress and information for new entries and historical photographs relating to current entries are welcomed. Nor should the importance of voluntary contributions be forgotten: members of LPGT's Research Groups have added a wealth of detail to a number of the sites.The criteria for inclusion are that the green space must have existed for at least 30 years and be of significance for its design, landscaping or social history. To provide information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Inventory is constantly growing and new sites come to our attention all the time, the 2013 Open Garden Squares Weekend being no exception, when Ballast Quay Garden was added. Created in 1965 on a former Thames wharf that dates back to the early eighteenth century, this is one of the many little-known, special places that proliferate in London. An unusual sculpture in the garden is a memorial by artist Kevin Herlihy to animals killed in the Foot and Mouth disaster of 2001, created from waste materials foraged from the river.
Most would agree that contemporary London is a dynamic, buzzing city to live in. Its quieter side is less obvious. London Gardens Online reveals thousands of green oases, which provide opportunities to wander, unwind, delve into history and observe wildlife close at hand. Octavia Hill, pioneering campaigner for urban open spaces, wanted to turn London's disused burial grounds into 'open-air sitting rooms'. This year LPGT's popular Open Garden Squares Weekend was held in association with the National Trust. As a founder of that organisation, Octavia Hill would, I am sure, have been delighted to have had such a fantastic resource as London Gardens Online at her fingertips.
Such an amazing and valuable public resource wouldn't have been possible without the essential participation of many people, among them Hazel Conway, James Edgar, Ruth Guilding, David Lambert, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Mike Dawson, Chris Sumner, Lesley Howes, Sally Williams and LPGT's volunteer researchers.