In the closing pages of his Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816), landscape gardener Humphry Repton urged: For the honour of the Country, let the Parks and Pleasure- grounds of England be ever open, to cheer the hearts and delight the eyes of all, who have taste to enjoy the beauties of Nature."
The Gardens Trust decided to take his words literally, and to mark the bicentenary of his death in 1818 they encouraged County Gardens Trusts, sites and other organisations to pool their energies and organise hundreds of Repton-inspired activities. From special garden openings and conferences to research projects and books, Humphry Repton and his parks and pleasure-grounds were able to delight hearts more than ever before. The London Parks & Gardens Trust played its part, with volunteers — led by Susan Darling and Barbara Deason — researching and publishing the eminently readable Repton in London. This delightful book uncovers new and previously unpublished material about the history of numerous Repton sites, including Wembley, Kenwood and Russell Square, and is still available for purchase from the Trust.
One of the most exciting spin-offs of the celebrations is the GT's National Lottery Heritage Fund project entitled Sharing Repton: Historic Landscapes for All, which is still running on until the end of 2019. This takes as its inspiration Repton's emphasis on landscapes delighting all rather than a few; it uses the bicentenary as a springboard to pilot five simple activities to engage new supporters with historic parks and gardens, and then share the learning so that we can all benefit in future. This kind of outward-looking approach is going to be essential in the years to come, if garden history is to be valued and therefore conserved by future generations.
Known to be one of the most confident County Gardens Trusts, the London Parks & Gardens Trust was invited to run one of the pilot activities, an introductory conservation workshop for refugee groups at Kenwood. Other pilots included:
These projects are very new to the landscape heritage sector, and while they are vitally important, they are also something of a steep learning curve. We were exceptionally fortunate that stalwart LPGT volunteer Barbara Deason heard of the project; with her past experience of working with refugee and other cultural community groups, Barbara was able to lead us through our pilot. We are also very grateful to have had the generous and enthusiastic support of volunteers Margaret King and Joan Pateman. Barbara already had contact with the Refugee Women's Association, Barnet Refugee Service and Hopscotch Asian Women's Centre, and they leapt at the chance to be involved in a project that would include a day out at Repton's lovely Kenwood.
So it was that one morning in October 2018 we found ourselves waiting at the entrance of Kenwood to welcome 27 guests from their buses and cars, feeling nervous as to what the day would have in store. We needn't have worried. Despite autumnal rain and significant language differences, our guests were fabulously friendly and enthusiastic, and from the outset we all got swept along in a wave of pleasure at coming together in such a beautiful location.
Navigating a sea of interpreters, Emily Parker from English Heritage gave a brief talk on Repton at Kenwood, and together we pored over a copy of the Red Book. Then we all grabbed our umbrellas and went out on a brief tour of Kenwood's beautiful views. Having met Kenwood volunteers in the kitchen garden, and admired some of its mature trees and the view from the terrace, we adjourned for lunch and a small exhibition of 18th-century plants from across the world. Here, our guests surprised us with a sequence of incredibly moving speeches on how much the day had meant to them — an unforgettable experience for all of us involved.
Joan Pateman commented: "After today, I find myself remembering things I have not thought about for many years. I came to England from Canada, a Commonwealth country. The women I spoke to today quite rightly said that at least I spoke the language, but I had to sign in at the Aliens' Registration office every six months, and because I needed a work permit, I was classed as temporary staff and not entitled to any pay raises at all. It is so, so much tougher for the people we met at Kenwood, and yet they thanked us. We needed the experience of today more than our guests."
As a follow up to the visit, our guests were able to take part in a planting exercise in Russell Square, thanks to the support of its Commissioners. This took place in April 2019, and was a joyous occasion: LPGT Director Helen Monger spoke about Repton's involvement at Russell Square, before Kenwood's gardener Errol Fernandez helped the guests to plant roses in one of the beds. Many of them had chosen to get involved in the pilot because of previous horticultural experience in their countries of origin, and some had managed to continue gardening in London allotments. Their enthusiasm at undertaking even this small spot of gardening was breathtaking and, as one commented, they were immensely moved by the symbolism of being allowed to plant something right at the heart of the British establishment.
Both of these days were designed to communicate some of the issues involved in looking after historic parks and gardens, and to convey that we are all stakeholders in our shared heritage. We are delighted that many of our guests are now set to join the gardening volunteer groups at both Kenwood and Russell Square.
We captured the magic of our day at Russell Square in a special short film.
The Sharing Repton project runs until the end of 2019 and is producing a flotilla of legacy materials, so that others can use our experiences to find new supporters in their own areas. To find out more, please visit www.thegardenstrust.org/campaigns/sharing-repton.