Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Havens and Almshouses - The winding walk

You could easily pass by Sycamore House in Hammersmith without any inkling of the garden delights created by the tenants inside.  Managed by Hammersmith United Charities, this is a modern almshouse with sheltered housing and gardening to rejoice about.

Hammersmith United Charities has a clear focus for its work - helping the poor and those of limited means in the former metropolitan borough of Hammersmith.  Sycamore House is one of two housing developments it has championed.   There is a waiting list and need, income and past association with Hammersmith are the main criteria for gaining a place.  

An old garden with mature shrubs and planting was here prior to 2012 , but it had to make way for new building and accommodation.  However, the benefits of a garden was not forgotten in the redevelopment. Sycamore House's Community Gardener, Jackie Thompson, set herself the task of designing an even better garden, and, with the help of the architects, a delightful winding lane of plants now weaves its way between the sheltered housing. 

The new garden is only three years old and has already won the Challenge Cup for large community gardens in almshouses run by the London Gardens' Society not once, but two years in a row, which is a tribute to the efforts of Jackie and her team of volunteer garden residents. 

Founded on the principle of successional planting, there is colour whatever the weather.  In November the Beautyberry (Callicarpa) was showing off its purple fruit, perfectly offset by a planting of pink neriums. A red salvia was in bloom not far away from this arbour and throughout plants have been carefully chosen to reflect scent, touch, colour and seasons.

Throughout the winding walk a variety of different fruits pop up out of the border -  redcurrants, grapes, strawberries, kiwi fruits and an espalier-trained apple tree sit cheek by jowl with flowers, shrubs and grasses. 

Despite designing the garden from scratch, Jackie does not dogmatically follow a set planting pattern and encourages the personalisation of the borders by the residents. Active involvement is key. She stresses that this is not an old people's home and it certainly feels very different.

Residents such as Evelyn (below) are important  to the garden's success.  Jackie is only part-time and relies on residents to water, dead-head and plant to keep the show on the road.

The residents do most of the organisation for the annual Open Garden Squares Weekend opening themselves, from potting plants for sale, to providing tea and cake.  They positively enjoy it, knowing that what they have to offer is just as good, if not better, than many of the grand private squares in London.  The charity runs its own awards to reward and thank them each year for their hard work. 

Sycamore House is lucky to have found Jackie.  A mandolin player in France in a former life, she learned to grow fruits and flowers there, before returning to the UK where she studied for hortcultural qualifications at Capel Manor College and began gardening as a career. She is a firm believer in building communities through active involvement and does it with style - followed everywhere by a faithful and very endearing dog called Tilly

Tilly is a cross between a doughty Scottie and a Jack Russell.  Tilly follows Jackie everywhere, always carrying a ball in his mouth, just in case any passer-by fancies a game.....

I followed them both to their next gardening job of the day - and you can find out where in next month's tale from Duck Island Cottage. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

An Astonishing School Garden

There are not many schools with gardens as astonishing as the ones at Whitgift School.  And although the autumn sunshine we had been having deserted me on the day I visited, the new plantings in these extensive, magnificent gardens were very evident.

Beside the entrance path to the school lie the school playing fields. Lush and green, they are kept immaculate by the grounds staff,  and provide a successfully shared space for both cricket and rugby in their different seasons. A little behind the school name plaque shown below are rhododendrons which are surrounded by bulbs in spring. 

Whitgift School, an independent boys school in Croydon, has an historic association with the Elizabethan era.   Founded in 1596 by John Whitgift, the last Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Elizabeth I, the school chose another Elizabethan connection when it moved to Haling Park, Croydon, in 1931.  The park was the former home of Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord High Admiral of the fleet sent out against the Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth I.  If you look closely in the photo below, you will spot a topiary of sailing ships, enabling you to imagine the boats setting off on their mission nearly half a millennium ago.

This square is known as the Andrew Quadrangle.  As well as the box topiary, it has a wide variety of mature bonsai trees, which thrive outside in all weathers, just like fully-grown trees. They are fascinating.

Strikingly ornate, feathered birds wander around the quadrangle, perfectly at home in their surroundings and with the plants.  I saw white cranes and purple-green peacocks, and elsewhere pink flamingos may cross your path. 

Whitgift's gardener, Sophie Tatzkow, has been working her magic in the formal garden squares of the school (the Andrew Quadrangle, Boarding House Garden and the Founder's Garden) and the Mediterranean Border.  She is assisted by three full-time gardeners and was appointed in order to introduce a new, horticultural element into the garden. It's a great credit to the school to see this commitment to horticulture and to see it enhancing its beautiful, formal, pleached hedges and many shrubs with a variety of perennial and sustainable plants. The results are to soften the formality with succession planting in herbaceous borders, whilst safeguarding the traditional - such as in the stunning, pink rose border.

The new plantings use white, purple and green to good effect, introducing splashes of other colours through the judicious use of bright grasses or perennial flowers.  In autumn rudbeckia brings a splash of yellow cheer and in early summer pink poppies and purple alliums abound.

Sophie aims high and is seeking to make the garden the best school garden of all. I visited during half term so couldn't judge first hand the use made of the garden by the pupils; but if I were a homesick new boarder or a sixth-former seeking inspiration for an essay, these gardens would offer the perfect cure. Some of the boys have already formed a horticultural club and are learning to grow veg in a special area with raised beds.

There is much more to see than the aforementioned gardens when the gates of Whitgift school are flung wide for Open Garden Squares Weekend.  There is a well-established maze and a new wildlife meadow is being developed.

Whitgift opened for the weekend for the first time in 2015.  Local residents were intrigued to see the spectacular gardens on their doorstep and will be sure to come back in 2016 to see the many horticultural developments. Volunteers who understand gardening and planting are welcomed by Sophie.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Airs and Squares

"We are so remarkably airy! - Mr Wingfield thinks the vicinity of Brunswick Square decidedly the most favourable as to air." So spoke Isabella, the sister of Emma in Jane Austen's famous book of the same name.  And although located yards away from the busy Euston Road, lots of residents and workers were enjoying taking in its airs on the sunny September day when I visited.

Brunswick Square started life in what once was the very edge of London.  It was originally surrounded by Georgian houses on three sides with the Foundling Hospital to the East, and although time has taken its toll on the urban architecture, its original plane tree still stands proud. At over 200 years old, it lays claim to being the second oldest plane tree in London.  The oldest is in Berkley Square. The tree was in full splendour before it prepared to shed its autumn leaves, with the dappled sunlight glowing through the green.  

The circular flower bed in the middle of the square has recently been replanted and the new plants were being carefully protected and tended.  They included Thyme, Sedum, pink Cosmos, Verbena Bonariensis, Bergena, Sissirynchium, Red Hot Poker, and Echinacea, alongside assorted grasses.  It's good to see that Camden Council, supported and jollied along by residents and volunteers, can still sometimes give gardens the priority they need in these austere times. 

The Friends of Brunswick Square also organised the planting of some tall, orange, striking, Mexican daisies at the west entrance to the square.  They work with TCV Green Gym in their efforts to upgrade and improve the gardens.

The edges of the square are curved, and, in Jane Austen's day, one could imagine the wide circular sweeps taken up with carriages and horses trotting by. 

Now there is a Grade II listed phone box on the edge of the park, which seems to be perfectly sited for posterity. 

Brunswick Square had lots of famous residents in the past.  Virginia Woolf used to live here with other members of the Bloomsbury group. Most evocative is the image the children's author, J. M. Barrie, conjured up of Peter Pan flying across the park into Wendy's bedroom window.  The Georgian house Barrie lived in was demolished after the war, along with all the others around the park, but this is where it would have stood, just off the square.  Barrie's estate later benefitted the establishment of nearby Great Ormond Street Children's hospital. 

At first glance this London garden square feels like it is missing its Georgian houses and street scene, but the residential and shopping area bordering the park on the west, The Brunswick Centre, built in the 1970s,  is now Grade II listed instead.  It provides a busy and pleasant eating, retail and recreational space, complete with Curzon cinema. 

Nearby there are lots of adjoining garden squares and spaces through which you can wander. You'll need to be accompanied by a child to gain entry to Coram Fields though.  This was the site of  the Foundling Hospital, established by Thomas Coram (1668-1751).  Child poverty was so bad at that time that when it received public funding and opened its doors to all-comers, it was inundated with 100 babies a day. 

St George's Gardens nearby is very pretty - originally a graveyard when the local churches ran out of space for burial.  Oliver Cromwell's favourite granddaughter, Anne, is buried here. Relatives had to guard the graves after burial to avoid the body snatchers taking their loved ones.   Not far away there was a private anatomy school which boasted a tank with 17 cadavers.

This September Susan Jellis and the Friends of Brunswick celebrated 200 years of Jane Austen's association with the square with a wide variety of talks, walks and concerts in the Emma 200 Festival.  They are a creative and energetic bunch of volunteers who promote their square widely, as well as opening it for a variety of events at the Open Garden Squares Weekend (taking place on June 18th and 19th in 2016).

To find out more about Brunswick Square, there is an excellent book by Ricci de Freitas (Tales of Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury's Untold Past) or check out past and future editions of the London Gardener, Journal of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust for articles by Susan Jellis.   In the not too distant future, an article on Peter Pan is planned.

Information on visiting Brunswick Square on Open Garden Squares Weekend

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Painting the Square Red

Maybe it's true that Sir Terry Farrell, designer of the MI6 building and Camden Lock's TV AM studios, painted the doors and windows of Wesley Square red because he found a bargain job lot of the stuff - or maybe it was secretly part of his grand plan to enhance the garden's greenery;  but peek behind the plantings in this tranquil square, and you can easily spot the Wesley Square houses with their distinctive, bright red paintwork. The residents have grown to like the colour and now they repaint in the same red hue after the weather has taken its toll.

Wesley Square was created when a large swathe of slum housing was demolished to make way for new build in the 1970s. The housing is private with joint ownership of the freehold on a 999-year lease.  Managed on a co-ownership basis by a not-for-profit company, the annual rent for the 50 houses in the square covers everything, including window cleaning as well as garden maintenance.

The simple brick houses hide the square from public view.  Reg, its green-fingered gardener, has worked the soil in these parts for the last 30 years.  He started as a postman, and took happily to cutting the grass when he was asked.  He remembers when the main lawn in the centre of Wesley Square resembled a hay field with a big hollow in the middle, which became a pool when there was heavy rainfall.  Jordan is his faithful assistant and they both defer to Hilary, local resident and plantswoman.

Hilary's ideas for planting and Reg and Jordan's skills have transformed Wesley Square. Out went many of the shrubs and now you will find delightful perennials and herbs.  A new bed containing lavender, nasturtium, Swiss chard, sage, horseradish, mint, bay and poppies has recently been planted along a main path. 

The communal central gardens are complemented by the tiny front gardens of houses which lead directly on to the lawns and beds.  

And, reluctant to leave any bare ground unadorned, Wesley Square has also been cheering up its car park, planting Amelanchier trees, snowdrops, hollyhocks and grasses in the spaces between and alongside the cars. 

The various entrances to the square are gradually being adorned with arbours, and trellises have been put on the sides of some of the houses for climbing plants, along which one house sports a mature wisteria.

The site of 10 Rillington Place, the home of John Christie, a notorious serial killer in the 1950s, lies nearby. It belongs to St Andrew's Square.  Having been demolished, the gruesome spot is now appropriately marked by a small, peaceful garden, which Reg also tends.

So successful have been the horticultural efforts of Wesley Square that it has started to win local gardening competitions, beating off several of the prestigious private squares around Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill.   2015 was the first year that the square opened to the public as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend, and we hope that this participation will long continue.   The residents are used to a bit of baking for their annual summer fetes, so teas are definitely worth a visit, as well as a chance to savour the smell of garden roses.

Information on visiting Wesley Square on Open Garden Squares Weekend

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Planting Platforms

The Crossrail construction across London and the closure of Thameslink to Barbican left one platform at the station looking a bit forlorn. Marked by a couple of old terracotta pots, home to some tired and neglected plants, the platform stood forgotten until the eagle eyes of the Friends of City Gardens noticed it and took on the challenge to transform it and cheer up this corner of London.

They needed more than just gardening skills to complete their mission.  Starting in November 2013, they spent eighteen months gathering supporters and sponsors for their vision - with the help of Transport for London.  Along the way they met Gensler, an organisation specialising in global urban landscapes and design thinking, and the design of the new garden began to take shape.  Mischka Ickstadt from Gensler designed the 100 metre long platform garden and Marion Blair, a volunteer, designed the planting.

They had two major obstacles to overcome to achieve their vision.  Firstly the abandoned platform was performing an unbeknown function in the construction of the huge underground tunnel for Crossrail.  On the side wall, lasers had been mounted, whose job was to monitor any movement caused by the tunnel boring machine to the surrounding infrastructure. The two boring machines were also due to meet up at the Barbican, where the abandoned platform will eventually be reconstructed to run from Barbican to Farringdon.  The sight line from these lasers could not be obstructed, so the first design, which involved larger planters, had to be modified.

The second obstacle was that there was no elevator or lift to the platform, so all the construction materials and plants had to be carried down the flights of stairs.  Four Friends of City Gardens, helped by six staff from Kelly ITS, carried 35 concrete planters down these stairs, along with 7,500 litres of soil - the total weight of which has been likened to that of a small elephant.  The large trees were brought in during the night - in fact much of the work was done under cover of darkness when the station was closed. 

And the result is a triumph of design. Based on the concept of movement and speed, the upright red spacers echo the red wiring along the platform and the familiar London tube sign

This red wave design is good seen up close and also from passing trains.  For the best effect, catch an underground train from Moorgate to Farringdon on the Metropolitan Line.  Sit on the left facing forward and watch the garden move as you depart Barbican station and the train picks up speed. 

The Friends, Transport for London, Gensler and Crossrail were all grateful for the help given by Hamptons International, Redrow London, Kingston Smith, Skanska, Kelly ITS, the Barbican Centre, and the City of London Corporation.  The garden was opened by Transport for London on 12th June and then for the Open Garden Squares Weekend in June 2015, when the pre-booked tours were all fully subscribed. Even so, over 100 other eager people turned up on the off-chance of a spare place, such was the interest the pop-up platform garden had generated. 

There are vegetables and herbs as well as flowers and shrubs in the planters - harvesting of the lettuce, kale, broad beans and herbs has already begun. Volunteers from London Underground staff and the Friends water and tend the plants and we all wonder what its future will be after 2016, when building work will start on the platform.

The Friends of City Gardens hope their efforts will bring the odd smile to passing commuters. Unfortunately access to the platform itself is not allowed; but, if you've seen the platform garden and are around Barbican station, you could take the time to pop into the Barbican to see the new plantings there by Nigel Dunnett (of London Olympic Park plantings fame).  There's lots happening on the garden front at the Barbican nowadays. Here's a glimpse of them. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Through Instagrammers' Eyes and Lenses

Open Garden Squares Weekend may be over a month ago but we have been looking at all your wonderful photos from the Weekend on Instagram. There are so many gardens and here at Duck Island we don’t always get to see everything; so it's brilliant to be able to experience the Weekend through your eyes and lenses! We’ve especially enjoyed your perspectives and creative angles on our gardens. Here are some of our favourites!

We love this looking-through photograph of Belgrave Square from @pedroh1962

Using the fencing to frame the garden visitors really captures the idea of unlocking your own secret garden experience!

This wonderful take on the Moroccan mosaic tile floor at MaRoCoCo Garden Rococo Chocolates is from @thesilvercherry

We had the pleasure of the London-based Instagram group @igerslondon joining us on the Saturday for an Instameet.

It was tough to choose a favourite from their meet-up pictures but we loved the simplicity of this image.

Up on the rooftop of the award-winning Nomura International PLC garden there were birds of prey for visitors to meet, and many people were able to learn more about some of the nation's favourite birds. We love this snapshot of the inquisitive beautiful hawk from @homepheonix

This year we teamed up with Instagram sensation @symmetrybreakfast to create a limited number of special breakfast hampers for visitors to enjoy picnic-style in the gardens. Instagrammer @iswanting not only took this fabulous picnic garden photo but also brought her own (symmetrical of course) breakfast trays to enjoy the hamper!

Proof that natural and man-made can exist in harmony, this lovely photo by @monokraum mixes the calm, tranquil gardens with modernist architecture of the Barbican at Beech Gardens, one of the newer gardens.

We absolutely love this photo by @juliakolbeek of The Skip Garden Global Generation near King's Cross.

This clever reflectagram captures the spirit of the garden's organic urban agriculture and also incorporates art and installation.

Speaking of gardens and art, many of our gardens feature sculptures (you can use our on-line sculpture trail to find many of them).

This striking David Harber features in Eaton Square by @pedroh1962

The classical female nude hidden in the trees in Warwick Square by @mjbaker

@neversitstill took this photo of wonderful Dancers by David Wynne in Cadogan Place North Garden. Evidence of the breadth of design of the sculptures and ambiance they bring to our gardens.

We also brought poetry to our gardens this year with The Poetry School’s Mixed Borders collaboration. This photo by @londonse4 was taken in Postman's Park.

Capturing the fantastic source of inspiration and truly moving nature of this garden.

Make sure you visit and follow our Instagram account @opensquaresweekend and our featured Instagrammers for more wonderful photos from the weekend. You can use the tags #ogsw2015 and #opengardensquaresweekend to share your photos.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Bowling in the Backlands

Tucked away near Notting Hill are the backlands, green spaces of different kinds, created for the St Quintin Estate, built between 1880 and 1900.  One of the backlands has been a bowling club since its foundation in 1903, and despite its ups and downs, residents have kept the flag flying for this charming recreational space ever since.

The West London Bowling Club employs a professional greenkeeper to maintain the grass to a good standard for the 40 or so bowlers who use it regularly, but it is volunteers who have been beavering away since 2014 to reclaim the roses which surround it.

Roses have been given pride of place in the restoration of the garden.  Along the side of the green a red rose lives happily next to a berberis, the colours of each complementing one another, while
around the corner, alongside the scoring board for games, a genista was in full yellow bloom when I visited.  Since local people brought back life to the bowling club in 2014, there has been a lot of
propagation of roses with a view to not only maintaining and restoring those around the green, but also reclaiming a wilderness on the east side.  This work is led by Dennis and his merry band of
volunteers from a local allotment site, St Quintin Avenue Community Kitchen Garden, who turn up every Sunday afternoon to restore the garden here, once the eighth rink, where children used to learn to bowl.  Albertine and Seagull roses have been planted, new peach and pink roses grafted to replace those strangled by ivy, brambles restrained, hops trained to climb high with the new roses, and all adorned by beautiful bird songs in the background.  A treat to enjoy on Open Garden Squares weekend.

The bowling green was formally opened in 1920 and bowling has taken place here ever since, pretty much.  Although other backlands on the St Quintin Estate became allotments when war started, here they continued bowling, and fortunately dodged falling bombs.  The beauty of the garden was recognised in successive years from 1968 to 1978, when it was an annual prize winner of the Kensington and Chelsea Gardens Competitions, as well as producing many bowls champions.  In the 1970s the ownership of the estate moved to the Legard family and the club is now one of the three remaining backlands of the area, with the Nursery Road site fighting creeping property development, and the Kelfield sports ground also remaining.  The bowling club boasts a degree of protected status, but supports the other remaining backlands in their attempts to retain green space in the area, as well as improving its own.

Ruth Hillary, Chair of the Association, with the help of the St Helens Residents' Association, has been leading a successful make-over of the club since its re-opening in 2014.  Up with all the new trends, barefoot bowling is possible here, and the clubhouse has an inviting bar and free wifi.  Benches and tables have been sanded and scrubbed, new planters constructed, and there are
good relations with neighbours, with fairs and events for local people in the summer and at Christmas.   There is an emphasis on attracting and engaging local families, with a new orchard
and pleasure ground for picnics and teas planned, not forgetting the local hedgehogs, who will still find shelter here in a wild corner, when the garden is completed.

Information on visiting West London Bowling Club on Open Garden Squares Weekend »