Magic Squares

An impression of London Garden Squares Day 2002

Victorian Vauxhall
Westminster Abbey
Bloomsbury Bustle
Intimate Mecklenburgh
Communal Gardens

AN overcast sky and the shelter of a large umbrella force a different perspective on the garden visitor. What works on a hot summer's day will usually be found wanting when the weather turns wet. Then the visitor's gaze becomes focussed on the intimate elements of a garden, on unusual plants and shapes, on intense colours and on scents which assail the senses. Even so some elements in a garden retain their appeal whatever the weather: imaginative planting, surprise vistas, high quality maintenance. These were all visible in the squares we visited.

Victorian Vauxhall

We started south out of the river. Tucked away in the Victorian back streets of Vauxhall, Bonnington Square, SW8 is a charming quirky little pleasure garden on a former bomb site.

With an aquatic theme - a rowing boat has been mounted over the entrance and one wall inside is dominated by a vast iron water wheel - the dense planting, enclosed space and imaginative use of subtropical plants give it a faintly exotic air. Like all gardens in areas with social problems, it has suffered from vandalism and the furniture has been removed. There is now talk of making access available via a key and hopes that re-opening the local shop and café will bring a new spirit of community to the area. Meanwhile its carers struggle with the maintenance needed and have hopes of involving the larger nearby Harleyford Road Community Garden SW8 in a joint project to hire professional gardening help.

Harleyford Road is an example of how local enthusiasm can create a garden for the community from the most unpromising of spaces. In 1984 it was a strip of derelict ground when New Zealander Jan Newton started building paths and growing vegetables among the vegetation. Joined by Jenny Vugler they formed the Harleyford Road Garden Association in 1986 and fought a determined campaign to save the garden when the GLC was demolished and it looked likely the land would be sold by the London Residuary Body. Over the years funding to develop the garden has been obtained from a variety of sources including the Prince's Trust, the Body Shop and the London City Partnership.

Westminster Abbey

Just a short trip north and the manicured lawns and shadowy crypts of Westminster Abbey SW1 were in marked contrast to the untrammelled exuberance of their poorer relatives south of the Thames.

The Abbey's College Garden is overshadowed by the imposing presence of the abbey buildings and this is very much a garden where visitors are expected to look up and out. One of its internal eye-catching features is the new Golden Jubilee fountain. The Fountain Society regularly reports on the vandalism of fountains, new and old, and the result has been the evolution of a new generation of minimalist fountains in which the spout of water itself is the main statement. The Golden Jubilee fountain is a model of this type. The water jet rises from a stainless steel cylinder inset into the middle of a surround in which the illusion of depth is provided by a glossy black base.

Bloomsbury Bustle

We found another modern fountain in the bustle of Russell Square WC1. Here the computer-controlled water jets arise and fall at irregular intervals like natural geysers. Russell Square has recently undergone a major restoration project to return it to Repton's formal 1800 design. The original path layout has been reinstated and the newly seeded lawns between the paths are currently protected by chestnut paling fences, scheduled to remain in place until September.

There are some fine trees and evidence of newly planted bedding with ferns and hollyhocks but to my eye the square lacks the gardenesque rusticity which added interest and appeal to so many of Repton's designs. The railings around the park have been painted a tasteful shade of dark khaki and I must confess that, having often read that Victorian railings were painted in bolder colours, I look forward to seeing a set one day restored to their original garish splendour.

Intimate Mecklenburgh

Mecklenburgh Square WC1 is a backwater mercifully free of the hectic traffic rushing around Russell Square and the quieter atmosphere gives it a more intimate feeling.

The borders with their carefully graduated colour schemes are maintained by a part time gardener but the star turn is the New Zealand border planted and lovingly maintained by Kiwi Derek Patterson. Here he cultivates a wide range of hebes, pittasporums and among other gems such as the Manuka or Tea tree, the Kawhai tree, the Poro-poro and the Cabbage Tree. Many of the square's residents are Commonwealth researchers at London University. Lucky them!

Communal Gardens

Amid increasing rain and darkening skies we scurried south west to some of the communal gardens in Earls Court.

Despite the rain over 400 people visited Courtfield Gardens (East) SW5 with its sunken garden around the church of St Jude and Courtfield Gardens (West) SW5 dominated by a magnificent London plane tree.

For me however the star turn of the day was a short distance north to Edwardes Square, W8 in Kensington. Here a full-time gardener maintains a large three acre garden set in a Regency square to the highest professional standards. We entered next to a small temple, in the Greek Revival style, and then like all the best gardens, the vista opened out to encompass a carpet of green velvet, the air drenched with the scent of roses and syringa on a damp English summer's day. Not even the rain could spoil that..

This is just a small selection of the localities open on London Squares Day and I only wish I had had time to visit more. Congratulations to everyone who helped behind the scenes and on the day.