Advancing on the City

SALLY WILLIAMS, Keeper of the Trust Inventory, visits some tucked-away churchyards and gardens

The website London Gardens Online now features over 850 sites, but the LPGT Inventory of Parks, Gardens, Squares, Churchyards, Cemeteries and other Historic Green Space across London also carries on growing, now with over 2,475 entries! The latest local authority to be uploaded on the website has been the City of London. In preparation for this, I spent a few fine days re-visiting some of its tucked-away churchyard gardens and other spaces. There are some interesting developments, in more than one sense of the word. Some gardens have disappeared altogether but others have appeared, and yet more have been re-landscaped, with interesting planting schemes as well as exemplary works of art, and of play.

St Helen's Bishopsgate
St Helen's Bishopsgate
Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

St Helen's Bishopsgate

St Helen's Bishopsgate is unusual in having twin naves: a nuns' church, now the north aisle, was built parallel to the parish church in the early thirteenth century. In 2002, on first visiting the shady paved garden that was once part of the churchyard, I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition of the medieval church and its overshadowing neighbour, the Gherkin; but now the City skyline boasts ever more glass and steel.

At New Change, gone are the formal sunken gardens off Bread Street that formed part of the Bank of England Clearing House erected in the 1950s as part of post-war reconstruction. These sometimes maligned buildings were demolished in 2007 for One New Change, an innovative scheme by French architect Jean Nouvel due to be completed in late 2010, a vast structure with new pedestrian routes, long vistas to St Paul's Cathedral and public access to a rooftop plaza. It will be too new to add to the Inventory quite yet, but promises to provide a fresh and welcome view over the cityscape.

Fen Court

The Guilt of Cain

In a quiet passageway off Fenchurch Street is Fen Court, once the site of the railed churchyard of St Gabriel Fenchurch, one of those churches lost to the Great Fire of 1666 and not rebuilt, its parish now within that of St Mary Woolnoth.

When I visited in 2002, this was a hard-landscaped open space with a few trees, raised beds and two or three eighteenth-century tombs, which had been laid out in 1960 by owners and occupiers of adjoining buildings. It has since been re-landscaped with new paving, seating and planting, and on 4 September 2008 a public sculpture was unveiled by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Entitled 'Guilt of Cain', the work commemorates the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and is the creation of sculptor Michael Visocchi in collaboration with Lemn Sissay, whose eponymous poem is engraved into the granite columns and stepped podium that comprise the sculpture. The form is evocative of both a pulpit or a slave auctioneer's podium, the columns suggesting stems of sugar cane, a crowd or congregation.

The project arose at the instigation of the parish of St Mary Woolnoth and Black British Heritage and was commissioned by the City of London in partnership with British Land. St Mary Woolnoth has a historical connection with the abolitionist movement: its rector from 1780 to1807 was Revd John Newton, slave-trader turned preacher, who worked alongside William Wilberforce.

Childen's play area in front of the Roman wall at Tower Hill
Childen's play area in front of the Roman wall at Tower Hill

Children's Play Areas

The City has not been much given to children's play up till now but this changed this year when two state-of-the-art children's playgrounds opened, one adjacent to the impressive fragment of the Roman City Wall by Tower Hill station, the other within a small, little-known public garden, variously called Portsoken Street Garden or King George's Field. Here the new sandpit was being enjoyed by a small girl and her adult companion when I visited, while at Tower Hill Gardens a group of young boys played on the slide and swings. However, don't be misled by these seemingly run-of-the-mill items of play equipment: the facilities are accompanied by imaginative landscaping, natural boulders and timber boardwalks, jumping and rotating discs, balancing blocks, bouncing 'flowers' and wind-pipes. Both schemes were provided through the Corporation of London's City Play Partnership, with funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families' 'Playbuilder' project. Let's hope that the threatened Government austerity measures don't put an end to such programmes.

The garden of the Maughan Library
The garden of the Maughan Library

St Dunstan-in-the-West

And last but not least, the City's most recent public garden is the former churchyard of St Dunstan-in-the-West, a closed and neglected spot in 2002 but now a charming raised garden.

The church itself still stands on Fleet Street, separated from its former burial ground by the Maughan Library and other buildings of King's College London, which itself boasts a new Contemplative Garden. Here a series of 1 garden rooms' have been created on the former Public Record Office garden, once the old RolIs Estate that originated in the reign of Henry III.

These are just a few of my City pleasures, but don't take my word for it, explore for yourselves!