Sunday, 1 June 2014

Walking on Hallowed Ground

There's a very famous and cherished green field in Islington, which was transformed into a modern garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole in 2010.  Yes, you guessed it: it's the former football pitch of Arsenal Football Club at the old Highbury Stadium.   Football was played here for just under a hundred years from 1913 to 2006, when the club said a fond farewell to Highbury and moved up the road and across the tracks to the new Emirates Stadium.   Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Charlie George and countless others played their best football on the beloved Highbury pitch, and although the stadium's buildings were redeveloped into luxury flats, the pitch area was reserved for a garden.

The ashes of many fans lay under the grass and local people yearned for access to the new garden.  So, the garden was enclosed on one side by a Perspex wall, allowing a tantalising glimpse inside, a modern take on the iron railings of traditional London squares.   

Inside, now that the garden is to be opened for the first time to the public as part of this year's Open Garden Squares Weekend, a sense of peace and tranquillity greets visitors, rather than the roar of football fans. The former pitch was retained as the centrepiece of the new development and converted into a two-acre garden square. The minimalist, modern garden comprises evergreen hedges of yew, hornbeam and some box, immaculate green lawns and grasses intersected by glass walls with integrated lighting, water and bubbles features.  There's a row of bamboo and also some birch trees. Along the side there are banks of red roses, with some red tulips breaking into the green earlier in the year. The garden retains the same dimensions as the old pitch, with stone paths reflecting its original chalk lines.  Walking the hallowed grounds along the lines of the pitch and goals is encouraged by its design.

Viewing and stepping out into the garden is an experience in itself.  The viewing room has been created from the former Arsenal boardroom (minus its oak panels, which are now in the new Emirates stadium).  A full panoply of the garden beams out from behind the windows of the viewing room and descending from it to the garden you can imagine yourself as an Arsenal player of old as you go through a tunnel onto the pitch, sorry the garden.
The garden has been maintained by Mark Walker Ltd since 2012 and Pembertons Property Management.   Mark has had his work cut out as the garden is built over a 450-space underground car park, the soil is only 18 inches deep and there is no integrated sprinkling system.  Keeping mature yew and hornbeam hedges happy in these conditions has its challenges.   Mark has faithfully sought to keep to the original design, clipping back ivy from the planters to retain clean lines and replacing yew hedges after dry summers.  A beautifully peaceful memorial garden exists where relatives and friends can pay their respects to loved ones whose ashes are here.

The grasses should be singing in June when the garden opens. Arsenal have now won the FA Cup, their first trophy since leaving Highbury.  Due to its popularity, tickets for visiting the garden have been allocated by ballot, with everyone buying a ticket before 29 May 2014 eligible for the draw.  Enjoy the visit, lucky winners, and look out for the next chance to walk the hallowed grounds in 2015.