To start a walk at Mile End, one might expect to go to Mile End Park or Victoria Park, but this walk starts with the Sephardi Nuevo Cemetery, hidden in the campus of Queen Mary University of London. Burials commenced in 1733 and ended in 1899. Queen Mary College, who had expressed an interest in acquiring the burial ground since the late 1940s were finally able to purchase it in 1973; and during the following year many of the remains were re-interred in a plot of land in Brentwood. On leaving the cemetery, there is a bowl with running water for washing hands.
Meath Gardens is our next site, formerly Victoria Park Cemetery. Established in 1845, this cemetery was not a 'success' and was converted into a park by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in 1894. The cemetery's Gothic entrance arch remains. Since I first visited some twenty years ago, the park has gained play equipment and more trees. There is a small memorial plaque to King Cole, an Aboriginal cricketer who died in 1868 while on tour in Britain. The plaque was placed in 1988 and planted next to it was a Eucalyptus tree donated by Hillier Nurseries to the Aboriginal Cricket Association; the tree has recently been replaced.
At Bethnal Green's crossroads, there are three parks. On the south-east corner, Bethnal Green Gardens contains the 'Stairway to Heaven' memorial, designed by local architect Harry Paticas, to commemorate 173 people killed on 3 March 1943 in what is now known as the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster. Much of the park is given over to sports facilities with areas of ornamental planting. The drinking fountain is a memorial to those lost in a fire in 1902. Bethnal Green Library, once part of Bethnal House asylum and now Grade II listed, is worth a visit. At the nearby V&A Museum of Childhood the wall overlooking the Gardens has murals designed by FW Moody depicting agricultural scenes; the north exterior wall depicts arts and industry. In the west corner of the junction is Paradise Gardens, a small area of grass with some notable plane trees enclosed by railings.
Weavers Fields commemorates the Huguenot silk industry, but was created from bombed land after WW2. The largest park in Bethnal Green, it provides three full-size football pitches, open grass areas and a woodland walk. A stainless steel sculpture, Weaving Identity by Peter Dunn, references the area's weaving heritage. Nearby in Brady Street is an Ashkenazi Cemetery, which is normally closed, although you can go on a tour, which will illuminate the different memorial style to that seen in the Sephardi Nuevo Cemetery earlier in the walk.
Haggerston Park is located on land once occupied by the Imperial Gas Company from 1823, which later became the Gas Light and Coke Co., destroyed by bombing during WWII. The high nineteenth-century wall with an observation platform overlooking the site and the varied levels of the oldest part of the park, laid out in 1956, are relicts of the industry. The viewing platform has a splendid wisteria. Later extensions have made space for various games pitches, exercise and play equipment for all ages, and there is a good BMX track with an all-weather surface. A new woodland walk, where habitat has been created by piling brushwood between the trees, has been developed. Look out for the mask! It will be interesting to see what comes to inhabit the area as the material features do not occur naturally. Hackney City Farm occupies the south-east corner – the residents include sheep, ducks, geese and donkeys.
London Fields, originally Lammas land, was saved from development in 1866 and became a park in 1872. The play area in the south-east corner has a sculptural seating area with raised beds in mosaic and pebbles created by community arts group Freeform with local schools depicting flower sellers and sheep. The lido has been re- opened and is London's only heated outdoor Olympic-sized pool, and there is a range of play equipment for all ages in the park. The railings by the lido have silhouettes of various animals made in conjunction with a local school. There are many old plane trees as well as new planting, and some areas of grass are managed for nature conservation.
Off Mare Street there is a complex of open spaces relating to the lost chapel of St Thomas. St Thomas's Square, laid out in 1771-2, has a central garden formally planted with flower beds and shrubs. There is a drinking fountain (1912) just outside the railings. To the south there is a tall white arch that leads to the burial ground of the chapel, which became a public park in 1885, burials having ceased in 1876. Most of the graves are stacked against the walls although some chest tombs remain. A path at the back of the park leads to St Thomas's Recreation Ground.
St John-at-Hackney Churchyard Gardens are the grounds of St John Church (1791) by James Spiller. The thirteenth-century tower of Hackney's first parish church, dedicated to St Augustine, still stands to the west. There is a walled quiet garden to the south of the church, where there is also a play area for young children. To the north the layout is more formal with a war memorial in the centre.
Clapton Square, just north of the church, dates from 1811. The residents' garden became neglected and after acquisition by the LCC became a public park in 1924. In the 1990s a restoration project began and the square is well used today. There is a new play area, ornamental gardens and a community garden. The early- nineteenth-century railings and drinking fountain remain.
Hackney Downs, like London Fields, was formerly Lammas land. It was saved from development in 1872 and opened as a park in 1884. Even before it became a park, it was used for horse racing and team sports. Major works since 2010 have provided new tennis courts, various sports pitches and a community room. The children's play area has a mosaic depicting animals and trees created by volunteers from the local community and Lifeline, a charity that works with people recovering from addiction. West Hackney Recreation Ground is in the grounds of St Paul's church; it has been partially cleared of graves and became a park in 1885. A group of volunteers from the church tend the garden. The church is post- Second World War by Cachemaille-Day (1958). St Michael and All Angels (1960) by the same architect is next to London Fields.
Butterfield Green was created as old and bombed areas of housing were redeveloped. It has lawn, trees and shrubs, a bandstand, play areas, including a playable stream and a community orchard. It is surprising how much there is in a relatively small area.
Allens Gardens is behind blocks of flats erected by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company in 1874 in Bethune Road (the entrance is at the junction with Manor Road). The west side has a series of garden rooms given over to various uses, including play equipment, ornamental planting and a wooded area. The east side has a wilder natural character and in places some old brick walling remains, suggesting something previously grand. The gardens are also home to Growing Communities, a food-growing social enterprise.
Woodbury Wetlands is a recent addition to habitat and open space in London. It is the eastern reservoir of the New River. There is a good walking path around the water and a café in the old coal store. We explored the New River some years ago, but this is an excellent addition to this walk.
As we began the walk, we were between important open spaces and we end in the same manner between Clissold Park and Abney Cemetery. Perhaps, when you are exploring London's more imposing open spaces you will also find time to visit these lesser-known parks. I have realised that my title is an echo of a musical song of 1899: 'If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between'. Since then, access to open green spaces has increased and facilities have been much improved.
Further information on many of the sites mentioned in this article can be found at www.londongardensonline.org.uk.
Photos 1-5: Sally Williams