Next weekend, London’s private gardens and squares are open to the public. Expert urban explorer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan plots his path through the best
By Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Open Garden Squares Weekend is the London Parks & Gardens Trust’s highest profile event and, since 1998, has become a regular fixture in the capital’s garden calendar. Held annually (June 8&9 this year), it seeks to increase knowledge and appreciation of London’s many and varied green spaces. The weekend, which is presented in association with the National Trust, provides an opportunity for non-residents to explore private gardens that are not generally accessible to the public, and to enjoy them in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere of open-air concerts, exhibitions, craft displays and wine tastings.
The jewel in the crown of this year’s Open Weekend is the garden of No 10 Downing Street. Its combination of inaccessibility and pedigree makes it one of London’s more intriguing garden destinations. It was not, therefore, surprising that there was an instant and rapturous response when a limited number of places to visit the garden were offered as the prize in a ballot. All the places are now taken, of course, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a tour of some equally intriguing private squares.
This year brings the opening of more than 200 gardens across 27 London boroughs, including community allotments, prison gardens, squares, rooftop gardens, livery hall gardens, burial grounds and wildlife and ecology areas.
The weekend is for me an opportunity to scratch London’s green underbelly – to explore a range of its many hidden gardens and other curious metropolitan oubliettes. As an admirer of the city’s squares, I usually tackle the visiting of these private clusters in a very organised manner. Indeed, my campaigns are plotted with military precision: I consult modern and historic maps and do some background reading before I hop on the Tube to begin my quest. My plans are invariably over-ambitious, so I often find myself racing from one garden to the next taking in as much as I possibly can, reassuring myself that a quick reconnoitre of a multitude of squares is ultimately more satisfying than a leisurely dawdle through a few. I’m very keen to compare the gardens and their settings, and to do this I prefer to see things in quick succession.
Those who wish to gain a good overview of metropolitan squares could do worse than visit a clutch of gardens in Kensington and Chelsea, including East and West Courtfield Gardens, Earl’s Court Square, Bramham Gardens and Collingham Gardens, Bina Gardens East and Hereford Square (see the Open Garden Squares Weekend website below for information as to opening times and locations).
To familiarise oneself with the innovative Victorian communal gardens that grace the undulating terrain of the Ladbroke Estate in Notting Hill, I would recommend a progress through Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens, Cleveland Square, Cleveland Gardens, Ladbroke Square Gardens and Stanley Crescent Garden. The latter is for my money the crowning glory of the neighbourhood, and a testimony to the masterful application of scenic display. Here the central garden is enclosed entirely by stucco terraces and linked to the outer world by a verdant umbilical path.
It is also well worth visiting individual, outlying squares. I suggest starting at Lloyd Square in Pentonville. This trapezoidal garden, built on a steep sloping field as the centrepiece of the Lloyd Baker Estate, was one of the capital’s more original and bizarre residential developments to be built from the 1820s. Lozenge-shaped Fassett Square off Graham Road in Hackney is no less appealing, being an archetypal Victorian square and the inspiration for the set of the BBC’s EastEnders. South of the Thames in Vauxhall, one ought to visit the bohemian and colourful enclave of Bonnington Square, where every spare scrap of verge and even the bare patches of soil around street trees have been exuberantly planted.
Paying visits to garden curiosities is another treat. The Nursemaids’ Tunnel in Park Square, Regent’s Park, is a must for those who, like me, enjoy a modest bout of urban spelunking (walking in caves). The tunnel was formed in the 1820s to link Park Crescent to neighbouring Park Square. It is approached by long serpentine ramps flanked by brick walls and luxuriantly planted banks before disappearing beneath the square’s railings and the thundering traffic of the Euston Road. It is a curious sensation being sandwiched between one of central London’s busiest roads and a stretch of the world’s first underground railway line (now the Circle Line).
No less interesting – and especially to those who relish historic associations – is the famous round pond at the heart of the Fountain Court in the Middle Temple. The court was formed in 1681-82 and its marble-kerbed basin whose single jet threw water upwards of 30ft high was, and remains, a source of pride to the Society’s Benchers. Readers of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit will know that it was in this “dull, grimy and dark” court with its merrily plashing fountain that Ruth Pinch met John Westlock.
Lovers of urban intricacy and complexity might enjoy a stroll through the Lillington Gardens Estate in Pimlico – a fascinating take on an Italian hill town. Designed in the Sixties by John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke, its design was novel in many regards, and particularly in its rejection of the then-prevalent high-rise approach to town planning. It made generous and imaginative use of landscape: the red-brick housing blocks that line the perimeter of the site project into a series of capacious landscaped areas laid out on boldly undulating terraces linked by steps, creating a variety of intimate interconnected gardens.
Roof gardens always appeal, and none more so than those famed examples of the genre in what was once Derry & Toms department store on Kensington High Street. This venerable grand-daddy of London’s Babylonian pleasure grounds was laid out in 1933. An eccentric one-and-a-half-acre medley of Spanish, Tudor and English woodland gardens replaced a more modest late-Victorian aerial menagerie. It’s certainly the closest thing in the metropolis to the lofty gardens of New York’s Rockefeller Center – indeed, when it was first opened, it was little more than a plagiarism of its American cousin.
Lastly, I would recommend a visit to the Emery Walker House in Hammersmith Terrace – one of west London’s more curious and atmospheric town gardens.
The house, which sits at the centre of a fine row of modest mid-Georgian dwellings whose south-facing gardens abut the River Thames, was the former residence of the eponymous owner, a celebrated typographer, engraver and printer linked to the Arts and Crafts movement. The charm of this picturesque ensemble lies in the marriage of the house’s idiosyncratic period interiors and its delectably raffish cottage garden, complete with gnarled wisteria, billowing shrubs and crumbling Victorian tiles.
Open Garden Squares Weekend, June 8-9. For further details of opening times and travel information for individual gardens, please visit the website. Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is president of the London Parks and Gardens Trust and author of ‘The London Square’ (Yale, £30). This is available from Telegraph Books ((0844 871 1514) at £30 + £1.35 p&p.
Open Garden Squares Weekend: quirky London gardens to visit in pics