With great pleasure I accepted an invitation to guide a walk for Open Garden Squares Weekend under the auspices of the London Parks & Gardens Trust in association with the National Trust. This annual showcase of London’s greenery is now in its 15th year, and a great opportunity to look into those gardens and squares that are not usually open to the public, with visitors’ curiosity often well rewarded.
The City Of London’s gardens are surprisingly accessible if only the public knew it, and this weekend was an excellent opportunity to show them some of the hidden green spots that City workers enjoy during the week. Some of the parks and gardens are on the map, so to speak, but it was rewarding to discover later that my group’s ‘eyes were opened’ to their hidden charms, unusual connections and depth of history.
After introductions at the City Information Centre (designed by MAKE Architects) my colleague chose to go towards the river first but I headed inland to Carter Lane and the Festival Gardens. These were designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and were the forerunners of today’s designed gardens, and the Festival Gardens included the first ‘information centre’. Many changes have taken place over the intervening sixty years, including the removal of the coach park!
The Friendship Tree (common oak) was planted in 1966 to commemorate the visit to London by Mahatma Ghandi, and is the first of many trees and shrubs to celebrate people and events. The newest addition is a model of the Robert Hooke Diversity Bell, cast from Portland stone – the actual bell will be hung over the Isle of Portland to peal when a species becomes extinct. Unsurprisingly, a combined murmur of sadness rippled through the group at this point.
On to happier and grander things! St Paul’s Cathedral Garden is full to the treetops with interesting plants and it is difficult to know what to tell you about. The wisteria (both Chinese & Japanese varieties) are still blooming around the rose garden – so formal after the modern planting outside the iron railings. The gum tree, the formontedendron (California Glory) and strawberry tree, many North American varieties, there for a reason, including the ironwood, limes and giant plane trees, plus the lone Douglas fir. It proved a task to weave a multi-layer history in and out of the branches of all these beauties. Also when my tongue tripped over the Latin names my knowledgeable but modest group were there to assist.
Our next stop is a favourite site for many – Christchurch Greyfriars, which was glorious in the sunshine (yes, I forgot to mention that it was sunny that day!). A gasp of amazement from the walking tour participants as they saw the drift planting in large sections filled with same beautiful perennials, repeated three times. The irises were magnificent; all had survived the extended winter. I think Gertrude Jekyll would be pleased to see that her ideas are still in the forefront of modern gardening. Did you know you should not cut your Box hedge until after Derby Day? This was a little gem presented by one of my group.
Next on the list was Postman’s Park, which is of course the best kept secret as secret parks go, is it not? Reference to the three heroes celebrated in this park, one is obvious but the other two are not! Did you hear the one about Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson and the davidia involucrata?
Forward then to the Goldsmith’s Hall Garden which is owned and managed by the livery company but is open to all. It has recently been restored to the 1950s design by Peter Shepheard, with no cultivars or variegated plants. Have you noticed the bird ‘pied a terre’ in the walls?
We walked into the cold windy ‘tunnel’ created by Terry Farrell’s air rights building and on to the glories of the Barber Surgeons Physic Garden by the Museum of London. A fascinating place with herbs and plants, some are no longer part of the official pharmacopeia, but its interesting to note how many plants are still used in modern medicine today e.g. Feverfew for migraines. I had only recently learnt about the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ – like cures like. It was once thought if a plant resembled part of the body it would also cure it, for example a walnut could help with maladies of the brain.
Then it was off to take a look at what a Section 106 can achieve at Aldermanbury Square – in this case when a developer must ensure that the areas around a new build provides suitable landscaping and places of leisure at their cost. We did not linger long – a bit of forward guiding was required as the drill hammers of the construction to the right were going ‘hammer and tongs’. We moved on quickly to the relative peace and tranquillity of St Mary Aldermanbury.
Sadly what the Blitz left of the church was moved to Fulton, in Missouri but the footings of its great piers still remain and today the garden is a haven to conservation. You will also find a monument to Shakespeare’s trusty friends Heminge and Condell who ensured that his works were gathered together for the enjoyment of the world to come.
We passed St Lawrence Jewry’s beautiful pond garden, and yes the ‘big fella’ (its huge carp) was basking just below the surface. On to St Olaf Jewry garden, tucked in next to the Mercers Hall in Ironmongers Lane which sports the weather vane of a long gone church (St Mildred’s Poultry) but which was sadly not seen on our visit due to the density of the trees.
I then introduced the group to a spot which is often overlooked and was derelict up until 2011, when Studioweave were commissioned to landscape it – St Pancras Soper Lane which is a mysterious and fascinating spot. The site of a church since Saxon times, it was lost in the fire, rebuilt and then lost again to be recreated as a fantastical space with the option of a ‘treasure hunt’ for interesting carvings today.
We wended our weary way to the final stop via Watling Street and past the Cordwainer statue, to Fidelity Gardens. A horticulturists dream, it is full of glowing and gleaming trees, shrubs and plants, many of which I cannot name, and all planted in just 3 feet of soil! It has an immaculate lawn with a shady cool area to the south and a sunny section towards the north where foxgloves and Euphorbia abound. It was privately commissioned by Fidelity Corporation for the use of all.
The walk ended here and my group were delighted with the walk and were ready for a welcome break for lunch before they went on to their other garden choices. The next walk is on 22nd June at 11am and you can book via Eventbrite here.