In Need of TLC

CHRIS SUMNER reviews the new EH 'Heritage at Risk' Register.
A number of London parks and cemeteries are included.

London Parks and Gardens at Risk
Registered Site Grade London Borough
Lamorbey Park II Bexley
Crystal Palace Park II* Bromley
Highgate Cemetery I Camden
Trent Park II Enfield
Grovelands Park II* Enfield
Abney Park Cemetery II Hackney
Bentley Priory II Harrow
Gunnersbury Park II* Hounslow
Kensal Green Cemetery I Kensington & Chelsea
Commonwealth Institute II Kensington & Chelsea
West Norwood Cemetery II* Lambeth
St Michael's Convent
(Tate Gardens)
II Lambeth
Wanstead Park II* Redbridge
Nunhead Cemetery II* Southwark

Trent Park

Late C18 landscape park, lakes and woodland, developed throughout the C19, and further developed early C20 by Sir Philip Sassoon. The central mansion, gardens and pleasure grounds are occupied by Middlesex University and the surrounding parkland is managed by Enfield as a country park. The gardens are in need of repair and the terrace and a number of statues are buildings at risk.

Grovelands Park

Late C18 landscape park and lake by Humphry Repton, extended in the mid C19, and laid out as a public park in early C20 by Thomas Mawson. The mansion is now a private hospital. The parkland has deteriorated in condition and management is fragmented due to the separate ownerships. Enfield has produced a historic environment assessment as a first step towards repair and restoration of the park

Wanstead Park

Remains of formal gardens, landscape park and lakes, dating from the late C17 to early C19, on the site of a C16 deer park. Developed late C19 by the City of London as a public park. Central area converted to a private golf course in the early C20. Historic features in poor condition and division of land ownership leading to fragmented management.

English Heritage published its first Register of Buildings at Risk in London 18 years ago. The aim was to draw to the attention of local authorities, owners, and the public in general the number of important historic buildings whose survival was threatened through neglect or other causes. The Register has been instrumental in focusing attention and funding on those buildings, and has been successful in many cases to date in helping to repair them and bring them back into use.

In June this year English Heritage launched its Heritage at Risk Register 2009. This extended register includes for the first time a list of registered historic parks and gardens considered to be at risk. There are 14 such sites with Greater London. These are listed in the box to the right.

With the exception of the grounds of the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington High Street, where new buildings are proposed on part of the site, the identified historic sites are not at risk from built development so much as from neglect, the lack of co-ordinated management, and lack of investment leading to a general deterioration and loss of detail.

Cemeteries, of which five are identified, are a particular problem, especially where the uncontrolled growth of trees and ivy has overwhelmed the monuments and where characteristic buildings like chapels and lodges are redundant and vandalized. The importance of such sites for nature conservation cannot be ignored; but it should not be exaggerated either, since a properly managed site can provide a more varied range of habitats than one that is entirely abandoned. Good management requires a good conservation management plan that will identify what is most significant about a site and establish the priorities for attention.

A Contrast in Cemeteries

I would like to contrast two cemeteries - one on the Register and one not.

The management of North Sheen Cemetery, Richmond, which is local to me and not on the Register, seems exemplary in many ways. Owned and managed by LB Hammersmith and Fulham, though outside the borough, it is about 100 years old and does not have any especially significant monuments, and its layout is unremarkable. It is still in use for burials, which ensures an income and provides an impetus to maintain high standards; but even the old areas no longer used for current burials are kept mown and strimmed and neat, and the wide variety of trees with which it is planted give it the air of an arboretum that is attractive all the year round. It has magnolias and flowering cherries as well as oaks and other forest trees, and colourful seasonal bedding schemes.

It is not at all romantic or picturesque, but it is very pleasant to walk through, and the green woodpeckers clearly like it. It bears out the truth of the adage that a stitch in time saves nine; if the grass is allowed get too long, brambles, ivy, birch and sycamore will start to get established, and after only a year or two what was previously a simple maintenance régime will become more difficult, more expensive - and therefore maintenance gets given up.

Abney Park Cemetery, one of the five cemeteries identified as being at risk, is now the antithesis to North Sheen. When opened in 1840 as a non-denominational burial ground, it was conceived as an arboretum, planted with labelled shrubs and trees supplied by the Loddiges Nursery (Note LPGT Winter Lecture VII on 12th April 2010 - Loddiges of Hackney, 1771-1852, by David Solman) and praised by Loudoun. Its Egyptian gates, parodied by Pugin in An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture, closed in 1972, when the cemetery company was declared bankrupt; but they have since been reopened and restored by the Abney Park Cemetery Trust.

The cemetery's character is no longer that of an arboretum, rather that of self-generated woodland with some specimen trees and a huge number of monuments in all states of preservation and decay, but importantly it feels appreciated by the locals and cherished by the Trust that owns it. The mortuary chapel at its centre is a great gaunt ruin in desperate need of a new use and purpose; but to what extent the overgrown cemetery can and should be returned to its early-Victorian state rather than be managed as what it has become is a matter for philosophical debate as well as a matter of economics. It may be a case that the Forest and Sleeping Beauty are two sides of the same coin. The monuments and their history would make Abney Park special anywhere, but, while a large patch of woodland on the fringes of London would not in itself be remarkable, in the heart of urban Stoke Newington it is extraordinary and refreshing - Hackney's own sacro bosco.

Sale of Land Considered

Of the nine non-cemetery sites in the HAR, three are privately owned (Bentley Priory, former Commonwealth Institute, and Tate Gardens), and the remaining six are owned or part-owned by local authorities.

The future of Crystal Palace Park hangs to some extent on the outcome of the recent Public Inquiry that looked at, among other things, the sale of some open land (not part of the historic park) for development to provide funding for the park. The other five public parks suffer from divided ownership and/or divided management.

Wanstead Park is divided into the golf course - which includes the site of Wanstead House and Repton's formal flower gardens, and the Octagon Basin - and the public park owned by the City of London, which includes the string of lakes and islands, the Temple and Grotto, and the formal earthworks including viewing mounds and an amphitheatre. The formal park and gardens, which once rivalled in scale and ambition the royal and princely gardens of France and Germany, fell into dereliction after the great house was demolished in 1822; it is only with the aid of copies of old maps and the eye of a garden detective that the modern visitor can hope to understand the site (see the Transactions of the Wanstead Park Study Day published by LPGT). Part is managed as a golf course, and part is managed as an extension to Epping Forest, but none of it is managed as a relict landscape of major historic importance.