The Timeless Appeal of Cannizaro Park

Merton's loveliest park holds special attraction for TONY MATTHEWS

It will be 62 years this May since the former Cannizaro estate beside Wimbledon Common became a public park. It has held English Heritage Grade II* status for 24 of those years, one of very few such parks in Greater London.

The Italian Garden in Cannizaro Park
The Italian Garden in Cannizaro Park (Tony Matthews)

Merton Council secured EH registration for Cannizaro Park's 34 acres of lawns, gardens, woodland, maple avenue, water features, permanent artworks, precious plants and hundreds of rare trees at the time of the October 1987 hurricane. That felled many of the 300-year-old estate's older trees - some dating back to the late 18th century - but extensive re-planting and careful stewardship of some fallen specimens soon restored the park to a magnificent state. The Sunken Garden, rhododendron woods and azalea dell created by the estate's last private owners in the 1920s and 30s were maintained to match the best in London and beyond.

Struggle with Maintenance

Since then, however, Cannizaro has suffered the common problem of parks nationwide, with declining local authority budgets and diminishing resources for the maintenance of flower beds, fencing, security and so on. The park's quality has effectively been under siege ever since.

The establishment of a Friends group in 1996 brought real benefits in the decade that followed. Substantial funds were raised for replanting of the azalea dell. Volunteers replanted the iris beds and pruned roses. More than 40 species of shrubs and other plants were added beside the re-established water cascade. The iconic new Millennium Fountain was created at the park's entrance following a national competition backed by the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Two other permanent historic sculptures were restored, the herb garden created, garden furniture purchased, and signposts installed among many other initiatives.

But now, as Merton faces the even tighter budgetary constraints shared by all local councils, Cannizaro's magic is increasingly threatened. Spectacular bedding plants have given way to small, cheaper flowers and grass is criss-crossed by the tyre marks of gardening vehicles as the minimal staff struggle to reach every area of the park within their limited available hours. Council priorities in recent times have been resurfaced pathways to meet disability legislation and the felling of older trees rather than expensive planting. And staff also have to clear increasingly invasive ferns, hollies and so on to allow the still fantastic annual shows of snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and bluebells.

Cannizaro's annual open air music and entertainment festival may be back this summer - if the organiser who financed it last year can do so once again. But the same funding issues that have sometimes caused its cancellation in previous years show no sign of disappearing and it no longer includes the Shakespeare and operas for which it was once known.

Historical Heritage

Yet nothing can take away Cannizaro's historical heritage - its 18th-century role as a haunt of prime ministers, national figures and classical sculptures, its 19th-century musical performances, or the scandal-ridden Duke and Duchess from whom it takes its name.

Wonderful Displays

And nothing, certainly, can detract from its wonderful arboreal displays, as spring blossom gives way to summer and then the most extraordinary array of autumn shades. Even in winter, there's the wych-hazel to delight, while the recent snow made Cannizaro a true scenic wonderland. With very good reason, it was compared directly with Kew by the Royal Botanical Gardens' own curator when originally purchased by Wimbledon Council back in 1948.