Church Gardens in the City

Photography: Sally Williams

Click on a site name for more information on its history and details of how to get there.

As I have been exploring the far flung parks of Greater London for some time, I have decided to go into the City of London and discover some of the gardens there; and especially those around churches. The Great Fire caused the loss of so many of London's churches — 50 went on to be rebuilt but 35 were never repaired — so it would seem fitting to start at the Monument to the Great Fire of London.

Nothing remains of St Margaret's church on nearby New Fish Street, but recently a set of stone benches, with the words of the song London's Burning on them, have been installed making this a useful open space. St Magnus the Martyr has a small courtyard partly used as a car park which contains some hydrangea bushes: the first of many on this walk. Hydrangeas seem to be the Corporation of London's favoured shrub - a good choice as the bracts make it look as though it is flowering for a long time.

St Mary-At-Hill churchyard is entered via a gate, revealing a secluded area with trees and seats. Across the way is St Margaret Pattens, which no longer has a churchyard as such, but close by is Plantation Lane, a pedestrian street created in 2005 for British Land's Plantation Place development, where text inlaid in the pavement references places, churches, livery companies and other aspects of the history of the City. A collaboration between artist Simon Patterson and Arup Associates, the pavement is complemented by a glass light-wall with an image of the moon's surface.

The former site of St Gabriel Fenchurch is now Fen Court. Three chest tombs remain but the rest is all new. Fen Court also contains a public art piece called Gilt of Cain by sculptor Michael Visocchi with poetry by Lemn Sissay. It is an open condemnation of slavery and was erected in 2008.

In Cornhill there are two churches whose churchyards are both gardens. That of St Peter Cornhill is accessed via an alley by the church and has grass, trees and many benches. The customers of the Counting House pub respectfully remain in the alley, but their glasses are often to be found standing on the wall. St Michael Cornhill has a somewhat larger garden.

St Laurence Pountney is represented by two gardens either side of an alley. The one to the north is the former church site and is now the well-designed garden of Vestry House, occasionally open to the public. To the south, the former burial ground is a private garden, also of good modern design. The site was rebuilt as housing after the Great Fire and Georgian houses here remain as an echo of the past.

The last church site on this walk is St Swithin London Stone. This was not rebuilt after World War II and the site now houses a small well-kept garden of raised beds with shrubs. The London Stone, a Roman relic known as 'The Heart of London', was once mounted in an alcove of the church. It survived the Great Fire and the Blitz and was on display in the Museum of London for some time. It had been remounted back in Cannon Street in a new building the day before I visited.

Another good place to start a tour of London's church gardens is at St Paul's Cathedral. Here, two churches, St Faith under St Paul's and St Gregory by St Paul's, completely disappeared in the rebuilding of target" St Paul's at different times. St John the Evangelist Friday Street was also lost, in 1666, but the churchyard remained an open space until it was replaced by office buildings and a new garden — a circular grass lawn surrounded by dense shrubs — created by New Change. Another lost church is St Mildred Bread Street which was bombed in 1941; the memorial to former parishioner Admiral Arthur Phillip, First Governor of Australia, was rescued and mounted nearby. With the latest redevelopment of the site the memorial has now been moved to Watling Street at the north of the garden.

Our first extant church is St Vedast alias Foster. This has a small courtyard garden that is accessible from the church or through what looks like a house door just north of the church. A piece of Roman pavement found when St Matthew Friday Street was demolished c.1885 is mounted on the cloister wall.

We continue to the former churchyard of St Peter Westcheap in Wood Street where the railings date from 1712 and contain a medallion of St Peter. The large plane tree has been notable since Victorian times when rooks nested in it.

St Anne and St Agnes, close by on Noble Street, has a churchyard that is open to the street with lots of benches surrounded by shrubs. Opposite sits the Goldsmiths' Garden, site of St John Zachary church and churchyard, which is in two parts: the upper containing plane trees and the lower a fountain and the Three Printers statue by Wilfred Dudeney. Around the corner lies the site of St Mary Staining on Oat Lane, again featuring plane trees and shrubs.

Our walk now brings us along Noble Street to a substantial section of London Wall, originally built for defense by the Romans. An adjacent open space is managed for biodiversity and includes bee hives. The wall continues north where the Barber-Surgeons' Hall Garden has a wide range of herbs which all grow well despite the garden being about six inches of soil over bomb rubble

We continue to follow London Wall to London Wall Place. As a result of redevelopment of the area the ruined tower of St Alphage Church has recently been released from its prison in the Barbican walkways to form part of new public space designed by Make architects. The site was originally that of Elsing Spital, a hospital from 1331 that became an Augustinian priory before it became the parish church. The former churchyard, created as a garden in 1872, is on the north side ofSalters' Garden, which was redesigned by David Hicks in 1995 in the form of a knot garden but with more height than traditionally used.

At All Hallows-On-The-Wall there's a tiny garden right next to a section of the London Wall. We continue along, past Finsbury Circus, where our second walk ends at St Botolph without Bishopsgate. There's plenty to see in this open area including a tennis court, gardens, David Annesley's Untitled sculpture and on the northern side of the Bishopsgate entrance to the church the faint remains of an early Banksy. Enough variety to make it almost a real park!

I have deliberately left out the best known churchyards to take you to some lesser known gardens and to give you a glimpse of the complex history of the City Church. The churchyards of active churches and the relict gardens of lost churches provide much needed open space within the City, especially at lunch time.

Beaulieu Heights is a bit more formal but is mainly wooded with paths through the trees. There is a Western Hemlock which is the Queen's Jubilee tree: the one formal bit of planting. Paxton may have been involved in the garden of one of the houses on the site. It became a park in 1938, although much of the woodland is regrowth after a fire in 1976.

With Grangewood Park we come to a more formal landscape. It is well wooded but the trees are spaced out giving a more parkland feel. At the centre of the park, where Grangewood House once stood, is a formal garden area with some flower borders. At the top of the hill are the sports facilities: children and adult equipment, tennis courts and a bowling green. At the south end of the park are the original iron gates, a nature area and some rose beds. The Park Keeper's House, with a panopticon bay window once giving good views of the entrance and the main path, is boarded up.

In contrast to these hilly sites is the Queen's Road Cemetery. It is a flat, long oblong site that was designed by E. C. Robins and opened in 1861. There are two adjoining chapels with a spire and the war memorial stands in front of them. The cemetery has some interpretation boards on the history of Croydon, the history of cemeteries and burial, the life and times of some of the people buried here, and a full list of war graves.

Returning from the cemetery I passed a couple of small parks. Wilford Road Recreation Ground is in a housing estate and has some play equipment and plenty of seats. There is an area for community gardening near the entrance. Whitehorse Road Recreation Ground is larger and is mainly grass with some good pollarded trees around the perimeter. There is a small formal area, which was laid out in 1936 as an enclosed rest garden for the elderly.

The next part of my exploration starts at Beckenham Cemetery and Crematorium, which opened in 1876 and was once known as Crystal Palace District Cemetery. It was designed by architect Alexander Hennell and had two chapels. During the Second World War, one of the chapels was destroyed in a bombing raid, the other is now the crematorium, which was opened in 1956. There is an old poster depicting the cemetery in the waiting room showing what it used to look like. The cemetery is now privately managed. The original gates are in place and there is a large waterfall garden and various gardens of remembrance. There are a wide variety of burial monuments; headstones, kerb plots, and special modern brightly coloured tombs with a specific area designated for the various styles. There is a SANDS area with the sweet but sad collections of toys and a War Graves area with simple white headstones. The cemetery is well maintained and one point I particularly liked is that the trees are crown-raised to about the same level as a browse line in traditional parkland which lets the light in and provides views through the cemetery.

The Croydon canal opened in 1809 and closed in 1836, but two parts of it remain in my area of exploration and incidentally the only parks on this trip that I have been to before. There is a stretch of canal next to Betts Park, which opened in 1935 with funds from the King George's Fields Foundation. The Foundation became the Memorial Trust on the King's death the following year. The section of canal is to the north of the park and is surrounded by iron railings. Restoration and refurbishment is due to take place in November 2018. The rest of the park is trees and grass.

The canal reservoir is accessible from Woodvale Avenue and is home to Croydon Sailing Club. The lake and adjacent land have been used for sports since 1881. The area was later taken over by Croydon Corporation and finally became a public park in 1969. There is a small running track and to the north a rugby pitch. There is an old Croydon Council board giving the original size regulations and fees. It was 30 shillings per season!

My final trip started at Norwood Junction. Famous for having the first reinforced concrete underpass to the station — opened in 1912; not a garden but it is a public space. The first park is South Norwood Recreation Ground, which opened in 1889. Apart from the neglected bowling green fenced off near the entrance, the park is given over to sport. There are tennis and basketball courts and the grass shows marking for a variety of sports. There is street workout, trim gym and children's equipment. Mature trees from the original planting line the edges of the park as well as the main path through the park.

Heavers Meadow is a strip of wild scrubland with some grassy areas. It follows the Norbury Brook and ends close to the southern end of South Norwood Country Park. At the western end there are bunds to keep out vehicles, but these include a Croydon Stone commemorating 50 years of the borough. A walk along the bridge over the railway depot brings you to Brickfields Meadow, which has a large lake in one of the former brick pits. It is a mixture of grass and woodland and interplays with the new housing to the east.

Woodside Green is a small hamlet with a village green (divided by roads). The first record is from 1662 and the Green itself became a public space in 1871. The war memorial stands on the Green and the area retains its small village feel despite the modern traffic.

The last park is Ashburton Park, which was opened as a municipal park in 1924 on the site of a late eighteenth-century mansion and its grounds. In 1882 Woodside Convent Orphanage for the sons of gentlemen was established here by Father Tooth, which operated until the 1920s, and its red brick convent chapel, now empty but once used as the public library, remains in the middle of the park.

So I visited a few successors to the Great North Wood and a variety of parks and open spaces. They provide plenty to do, from joining in the wildlife management to taking part in sport and exercise or just sitting in the sun. And if you are inspired to find out more about these historic sites and the Great North Wood, there is much to discover.

St Margaret Pattens
St Margaret Pattens

Fen Court
Fen Court

St Michael Cornhill
St Michael Cornhill

St  Swithin's Church Garden
St Swithin's Church Garden

St Paul's Cathedral Churchyard
St Paul's Cathedral Churchyard

St Vedast alias Foster Churchyard
St Vedast alias Foster Churchyard

Barber-Surgeons' Hall Gardens
Barber-Surgeons' Hall Gardens