Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Temples by the Thames

In a week when judges seized the headlines not far away from this Temple hall, I contemplated the gardens lawyers can relax in on the banks of the Thames. The Temple Gardens at  Middle Temple Inn were my focus, just a stone's throw away from the north bank of the Thames and here they are in all their summer splendour.  Trainee barristers eat their dinners here and study to become fully fledged lawyers, in majestic, historic surroundings which date back to the twelfth century, when the site was owned by the Knights Templar.   

The main lawn of the gardens used to be much closer to the river in times gone by; but the vista down to the Thames has retained its beauty today as a landscape to be enjoyed by people through the hard work and vision of its gardener, Kate Jenrick, and her assistant who, between them work an eight-day week planting, weeding and maintaining the lawns.  Two ‘Master Gardeners’ from the inns of court help them plant bulbs and open the gardens for Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Underneath the lawn there is a ginormous tank with 20,000 litres of water collected from the buildings, which is used to keep the lawns green and lush all summer long in a sustainable way. 

As well as the expanse of lawn, most of the gardens comprise a series of courtyards.  This one is Fountain Court, one of the oldest gardens in the whole of London, with three very impressive trees, a plane, horse chestnut and mulberry and a water fountain - one of the earliest public fountains in London. There used to be another plane tree, which died, and its demise has let in more light for new fuchsias and camellias, whilst retaining the feeling of green under the tree canopies.   Charles Dickens had lodgings here at the time he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit.

Gas lamps still light the way around the courtyards in keeping with the cloister and ancient university feel of the architecture.  But Kate has sought to ring the changes during her eight years of stewardship of the gardens, bringing in new planting schemes with more perennials for year-round colour. Currants and gooseberries, a styrax tree as well as rosemary, cosmos, livinias, marigolds and a variety of perennials have been introduced.  Kate is one of three custodians that look after gardens of London Inns of Court, (Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn) who all bring their  common experience of studying at Kew Gardens to their roles and so are known as the Kew Ladies. 

Here is an Agastache with its green candles, planted in front of old roses, of which there is a historic tale.  Shakespeare's play Henry VI Part 1 talks of the plucking of red and white roses in Temple Garden.  People wonder if it refers to Middle Temple or Inner Temple, but the idea certainly came from hereabouts.

Roses float above the courtyard plantings. They are pruned to half their height in December or January, but, alas, some are suffering from honey fungus and will benefit from new plantings shortly. In other areas the traditional combination of rose and lavender has successfully been replaced with Gaura, hibiscus and Agastache rather than summer bedding plants, with spring bulbs, violas and primroses providing spring colour. 

The changes in plantings to the courtyards have been noticed in Elm Court and Church Court, for instance, and recognised in recent years with City in Bloom awards. Plumbago flowers well in the shelter of Elm Court, where the rubble from war bombings has meant lots of compost has had to be imported and dug in. Now there are lilies of the valley in the shady areas, dogwood for winter colour along one side and a carefully designed successional planting scheme has been established.

Middle Temple's emblem is a Paschal Lamb, adorned with a halo and staff, and it reflects the Inn's links with the Knights Templar.   You can see it adorning many of the buildings as you walk around the streets of the Inn. 

I visited the gardens with other Open Garden Squares Coordinators and  had the privilege of a private tour by the Gardener.  We are all volunteers and look after the different areas of London, helping gardens as they get ready for opening for Open Garden Squares Weekend. It's a very rewarding and fascinating role, but one of the drawbacks is that we don't get a lot of chance to visit gardens outside our area over the weekend,  so we came up with the idea of meeting occasionally at different gardens, which has proved very popular.  Just as we started to walk around the gardens, we met a procession of people in full regalia walking the cobbled streets.  It turned out this was in honour of the Middle Temple Treasurer meeting Sheriffs of the City of London for the ‘Quit Rents’ annual ceremony.

In the middle of the Temple we came across this intriguing gate and steps - which invite you to peek through the railings and discover the secrets of the garden inside.  This is part of the charm of  many of the London gardens  which open over Open Garden Squares Weekend - discovering the garden behind the gate, door or fence.    

And here is what we found - the Master's Garden. Just lovely.

Wandering around Middle Temple is a fascinating combination of history and horticulture.  As you turn a corner into a new alleyway, there is a sense sometimes of déjà vu.  Not surprising when you realise that the streets and courtyards have been the setting for Downton Abbey and more recently, the new series, Taboo.  It's a garden well worth discovering.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A Hidden Gem - London's smallest, secret wood.

Sunlight filtering down through trees into a wooden glade in June.  Peaceful and idyllic.  Who would know that this picture is from a mature, natural wood, pretty much entirely surrounded by houses near the centre of London?   It's to be found in Islington and it is one of the hidden gems we have chosen for a special quest for our visitors to gardens during the next  Open Garden Squares Weekend in 2017.

Visitors will be able to enter a new competition if they visit a designated number of hidden gems like this one.  And the prize for the lucky winners will be tea at Duck Island Cottage, the picturesque cottage by the lake in  St James' Park.  For the Islington and St Pancras area, Barnsbury Wood is the chosen hidden gem.

Last year, in addition to guided tours around the wood, Barnsbury Wood hosted a poet, one of several who spent the day in our gardens, providing a taste of poetry in addition to the delights of horticulture.  He loved the wood and the visitors loved him.

The entrance to the wood is through a gap in the terraces of houses which surround it.  Until the mid nineteenth century the whole area was pastoral land, but in the 1840s the member of parliament for Huntingdon, George Thornhill, built houses around the nearby Thornhill Square, and the enclosed triangle of land, which today forms Barnsbury Wood was shown on the first ordnance survey map in 1971 as a private garden to 7 Huntingdon Street, where George Thornhill lived.  By the turn of the century the garden was abandoned.  The land was sold to a developer and in 1974 it was bought by the Borough Counci's Social Services Department, with the intention to develop it.  Local residents then met with the Council in 1977-8 and it was agreed to keep the garden as open space.  At this time it was entirely surrounded by houses, and entrance could only be gained through one of them.  The Council owned the houses at 1 and 2 Crescent Street, which were squatted, but when the squatters were evicted, it was decided to demolish the houses in order to create access from the street for the first time.

Another attempt by a new council to build houses over the wood was foiled by residents' protests in 1980-81 and since then the site has been  very sensitively managed by the Parks Department, achieving Local Nature Reserve status in 1996, the smallest nature reserve in London, measuring a third of a hectare.  A small nature reserve in keeping with its borough, Islington, which has the smallest amount of green space of any London borough.

I met Louise Roscoe, Islington's Nature Conservation Officer with responsibility for Barnsbury Wood for the past 13 years, at the wood in November.  The leaning horse chestnut tree from the opening photograph was a gaunt skeleton then, but still dominated over the entrance to the wood. She was accompanied by a new apprentice on his fourth day in the job, and together they were checking the wood for any litter, of which there was surprisingly little.

The conservation staff seek to keep the balance between access to the wood and wildlife value.  They have built some hurdles using dead wood to guard a circle in the centre from humans, where a fox lives,  and have established good relations with the residents, who let them use water and electricity.  Together they seek to safeguard the wood, with some residents volunteering help in its management.  The residents did save it from development, after all.

"The wood is always changing" explained Louise.  Storms open up change as trees fall and are battered by wind.  The trees are predominantly ash, with some sycamore, lime, cherry, wych elm, English oak  and the horse chestnut, with hawthorn, elder, and hazel underneath. Conservation staff offer guided tree walks in the wood from time to time - I went to one a couple of years ago and learned a great deal about identifying trees, from their fallen twigs as much as from the trees themselves.

Although dead trees fall and create space, they are sometimes allowed to stand, as standing dead wood is a delight for woodpeckers and other wild life.  The tree above is a good example and Louise showed me what fun the woodpeckers have had boring holes into it. Fungi grow on dead wood and the chicken of the woods fungus, which stands out as a bright, yellow, orange, edible mushroom can be found here, as well as the bracket fungus on dead oak wood.   There is a split oak tree in the wood which may end up completely dead too in the not too distant future.  Logs which come from fallen dead wood are now often planted vertically deep into the soil and house lesser stag beetles.

At the back of the wood the area was overrun with poplar trees.  40%  have now been taken out and this has enabled a diverse array of wild flowers and bulbs to flourish.  Lesser celandine, wild garlic and bluebells sprout forth in the spring.  Last year sparrowhawks chose Barnsbury Wood for their nest. 

This circle was created after the space was created by fallen trees.  It is now used for an innovative educational programme for adults and children.  Barnsbury Wood works in partnership with a children's centre and a school which uses the principle of  'forest schools'.  Forest schools originated in Scandinavia and believe in teaching children in the outdoors.  Children come equipped in suitable clothing for the elements, make whistles from whittling elder tree branches, go bug hunting and learn a range of woodland skills in small groups of six or seven. There is also a therapeutic art group for adults recovering from trauma, singing classes and even an amateur dramatic society which will perform Shakespeare's  A Midsummer Night's Dream next July.

What joy it would be to live in a house with a wood at the end of your garden - to be able to walk into central London and enjoy the attractions of a great city as well as spotting toads in a beautiful wood!  Barnsbury Wood is opened by volunteers every Tuesday afternoon,  on Saturday afternoons in summer and on the Sunday of Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Don't miss it in 2017.  It is very special.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Valuing the Volunteers

This was the active scene which greeted me when I visited the Stave Hill Ecological Park in Rotherhithe - volunteers performing a variety of essential roles under the guidance of Rebeka Clark, their magical multi-tasking site manager, just as they do every day.  She has calculated that there are 4500 volunteer visits here each year, and I was seriously impressed at the scale of their presence in the woods, in the vegetable garden and at the Urban Ecology Office of the Conservation Volunteers located here. 

The Ecological Park is run by the Conservation Volunteers (TCV) under TCV Urban Ecology, a national organisation with a small handful of permanent sites.  This one is one of the jewels in their crown, created as part of the redevelopment of the Rotherhithe area in the mid 1980s. This was Surrey Docks, which had degenerated from a large, working London dock into an area of neglect, with rubbish dumped into the tanks which used to store timber for the capital.  Nature is now protected as a mosaic of grassland, woodland, scrub and wetland habitats. One of the curious contrasts of this area is that, from Canada Water station, you walk through long avenues of brick-paved streets and pavements before the nature site reveals itself and the seemingly interminable bricks disappear. It's a forgotten but newish area of London, which makes the discovery of the Park all the more special.  And the views from the enormous mound which makes Stave Hill itself are a new way of seeing Canary Wharf and London's river and skyline.

Volunteers really are at the heart of the park. The website features them prominently and promotes their involvement as as a fun and life-affirming activity.  They help with the large five-acre grassland site and the smaller half-acre compound garden, where there is always a welcome cup of tea and a biscuit for the helpers. The last fourteen years have seen a visitor centre built, a multi-purpose space which doubles as a classroom, and - in keeping with the park's philosophy of using reclaimed or repurposed materials wherever possible - this centre is proud to have given a home to paving slabs from Trafalgar Square.

The central compound has different focal points.  This is a Tea pea, a replica of which will go to a local primary school.  It has been planted with strawberries, horseradish, mange-tout, beetroot and herbs.

And this is the Creature Feature, a series of insect houses, which I thought reflected the external high-rise environment.  The aim is to change the primacy of bees for nature conservation, emphasising the role of ladybirds and lacewings.  Not that they neglect bees - in fact the beehives they used to have in an adjoining field, are expected to return soon, once the field's habitat has been enhanced for them. Around the Creature Feature the plantings are an attractive mixture of pinks, Verbena bonariensis, crow garlic, rose garlic, teasels and crocosmia. 

Over in the vegetable plot, cucamelons, currants, raspberries and cherry tomatoes make happy bedfellows. Pumpkins and onions thrived here this year, with an ingenious system of using a bicycle to pump waste water around the plot. Paul has been its volunteer guardian for many years and he proudly showed off his Jerusalem artichokes and a common chaser dragon fly which flew by and settled on a stalk.

Claire showed me around the compound.  She is one of 28 Natural Network trainees funded through a grant from the Heritage lottery and is seen here in the woodland area, where a fern garden has a section for lilies of the valley and wild strawberries line some of the paths. There are projects galore which she helps Rebeka to coordinate such as a gentlemen's convenience, which will use urine to interact with straw and make compost, a fox box and a sound room being planned from bales of straw.


Exchange students from Spain created this structure, planting herbs and saxifrages in plastic water bottles.

Workers from Price Waterhouse Coopers were being trained by Rebeka on my visit - learning how to use a saw to make noggins (squares of wood) for trellises they were building - cleverly designed to provide homes for yet more insects.  Here they are taking a break from their work for a quick selfie in front of the Creature Feature.  You can see here too the length and size of the Creature Feature - planned to accommodate a visit from a class of schoolchildren so they can all peer inside at the same time and observe insect behaviour. There was so much diverse volunteer activity going on - from the supervision of power scythe training to the assembly of a green roof - all coordinated by a very dedicated site manager and her team of amazing volunteers.

It's a very happy Ecological Park to visit - which takes you through an area not often frequented by tourists, or even Londoners. Put it in your diary for next June and you won't be disappointed.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Constant Gardener

Stephen Crisp has been Head Gardener at Winfield House since 1987. As Winfield House is the Official Residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Court of St.James's, he's seen a lot of presidents and prime ministers come and go - and ambassadors too.  When he started, Margaret Thatcher was best friends with Ronald Reagan. Since then there have been ten ambassadors and it is Stephen who has been the constant gardener throughout this time, shaping and developing the garden in keeping with its different needs, status, and setting - and the results blew me away.

The entrance to Winfield House is through some modest iron gates on the Inner Circle of Regent's Park.  Once through security, I was met by eglantine pink roses at the lodge house, skirting the front of the formal knot-type topiary on the wall and blowing gently in the wind.

The garden is exceedingly big - twelve and a half acres in all and the second largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace. The garden has to be there for the private needs of the Ambassador's family, visits of official guests, and garden parties and BBQs.   All managed by Stephen and two other gardeners. Here they have been rather innovative with what was a traditional pyracantha hedge, pruning it into a cloud hedge.   

There are formal parts to the garden where Stephen has tried to move away from using roses - with some success.  The heleniums and dahlias he has chosen here, alongside pittosporum hedges, tall grasses and verbena bonariensis worked well.  In another part of the garden he replaced some climbing roses with hornbeam to equally good effect.

But roses have not entirely disappeared and still steal the show when they are at their best.
Stephen and his team guard their time and use it to good effect - important if only three of you are managing twelve and a half acres.  Central to his gardening philosophy is the tenet of leaving no bare earth, to minimise the need for weeding. Leaves are swept onto beds in the autumn and wood clippings are shredded and used liberally as cover - in addition to compost.  He also believes that the work you do in January is as important as that in July.

Winfield House and the whole estate was developed by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress. Formerly Hertford Villa, and then St Dunstan's Villa, she bought the house in 1936 as a home for her new son, where he would be safe and secure.  No expense was spared in the renovation, and for a brief time parties were hosted here on a grand scale.  But, with war looming and her marriage failing, she returned to America in 1939.  She came back to the house with her new husband, Cary Grant, after the war but the building had fallen into disrepair and she gave it to the American government for a dollar.  This statue is of Barbara Hutton. 

Near the front of the house roses have also been replaced with hollyhocks, teasels, euphorbia, aquilegia and phormium. They give height to the border and mostly support themselves without any staking.  All the annuals in the garden are grown on site - with the help of some very impressive greenhouses, where we were treated to a tasting of some early sungold cherry tomatoes.

This is known as the gold border, on the right of the main house, with a beautiful yellow and green herbaceous border.  The garden furniture was repainted dark green and the white plastic pots given a Farrow and Ball make-over. Elsewhere plants in the herbaceous borders include phlomis, yellow tree peonies, Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana, Californian tree poppies and geraniums.

The little gate is a cute touch at the edge of this wild area and brings a smile to visitors' faces. Nearby I saw a fox skipping across the grass.  Walking on, the sweep of the land with its natural grass and wild flower planting before Winfield House is superb. You could forget entirely that you were in central London.

Grasses are a strong feature of the garden.  As well as delighting in the open meadow areas, many of the 150 new trees that have been planted are surrounded by large wild grass circles, complementing the deciduous Eurasian hardwoods and exotic ornamentals that have been chosen.

Last year Michelle Obama planted a pear tree in the garden, which stands out as one of the few fruit trees you see.  As she leaves office as First Lady and a new president appoints another ambassador for London, Stephen Crisp will be here to welcome them into their new garden and to continue to keep it so beautifully well tended. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Everlasting Flowers and Meadows

The first time I saw an installation by Rebecca Louise Law, I stood, staring upwards for ages, transfixed by its beauty.  This time her artwork was the first exhibit in the newly established City Centre of the City of London, and it was just as captivating the second time. 

She had created this art installation, entitled 'The City Garden' by collecting flowers and natural materials from across the public gardens and spaces in the City of London. Sponsored by the London Wall Place Partnership, they were hung, using copper wire, across the ceiling of the reception hall of the centre.  They aren't, unfortunately, completely everlasting - this was an art installation of limited duration - but as they hung in their dried state, they reminded me of everlasting flowers like helichrysum and echinops.  And they were one of two gems I saw in the City on Open Garden Squares weekend last June.

Just a  short distance away, the second treat awaited me in the recently planted Beech Gardens in the Barbican, where its designer, Nigel Dunnett was due to come to talk about his new creation. He arrived at the City Centre and we snaked off in ones and twos in his wake to discover the new gardens, escorted by volunteers from the Friends of City Gardens.

Professor Nigel Dunnett, to give him his full title, is the Professor of Planting Design and Horticulture at Sheffield University.  He will go down in history as one of the creators of the meadow-type plantings, which stole the nation's heart at the 2012 London Olympics.  As he said to us, he considered the plants in the Olympic Park to be its best legacy - the plants, not just the buildings, were the stars of the show. 

Nigel recounted to us his childhood love of gardening.  His parents were keen gardeners, which always helps, and he grew up in a world of traditional English gardens, devouring seed catalogues for bedtime reading.  Aged 11, he joined a local garden club, and after the lure of seed catalogues he discovered the now famous paperback book by Christopher Lloyd, The Well Tempered Garden, which opened his eyes.  Living in a village in Kent, he found a teacher who took him on nature walks, where he learned the common names of wild flowers and discovered the joyous, uplifting and happy feelings of being in a woodland environment.  In a woodland you are part of the whole experience, the scent, the smell, and the waft of the breeze. 

Nigel works according to two main principles - the art form, tuned to nature; and a belief in creating healthy cities and liveable places. Here is a pic of him planting Beech Gardens, where he used a framework of woody plants and shrubs, with perennials and annual coming up through and by their growth. He loves the simplicity of wild flower meadows, which often have only two or three plants flowering at one time, but is clear that in his work he does not seek to copy or ape a wild flower meadow but to create something akin but new. 

This plan was his concept for the gardens.  He has now travelled across the world, taking in wild flower meadows in China grazed by yaks, and brought back his findings to help cities as they struggle with climate change - using the experiences of wet meadow land to design plantings capable of sustaining floods and water run-off, reducing road widths, designing storm water cascades, and planting flowers and grasses which are loved by urban dwellers. Loved so much, that the workers at the John Lewis HQ took to eating their packed lunches on the edge of his creation on a roundabout. His work in Sheffield, at the John Lewis HQ and the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace are examples of the diversity of his work.

Nigel sells his seed mixes through his company, appropriately named Pictorial Meadows, and the picture above shows one of his more recent creations. In Trentham Gardens in Stoke on Trent there is even a garden railway running through one of the meadows.