Sunday, 17 May 2015

Waiting for the Bluebells

The bluebells were late appearing this year. I was waiting and waiting for them to come and then suddenly I got the call. No time to lose, I thought, as I wanted to catch that heart-churning moment when a swathe of cobalt blue appears amidst spring’s lush greenery under the sunny, dappled shade of trees as they prepare to unfurl their leaves.

The call came from Durand Gardens in Stockwell, and it was worth the wait. A sunny, showery day did the bluebells proud. Bluebells aplenty are here in spring, right on the doorstep of central London, no need to venture out to the shires to capture the moment. They are not the only flowers in this park woodland. There are early snowdrops in the winter, and violets, primroses and daffodils follow on. The residents of the square are stalwart in their attempts to diversify the flowers of the woodland – to the extent that they remain undaunted after only three white foxgloves survived last year’s planting of 300. Small maples and acers pop up here and there to provide autumn colour, and white Japanese anenomes and a variety of roses have been planted, including the shrub roses, Rosa 'Complicata' and Rosa moyseii and old-fashioned rambling roses such as Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate' and Rosa 'Rambling Rector', to add interest to the evergreen holly trees in the centre of the square.

The residents aim to attract wildlife and bring back the London sparrow to the square, as well as more butterflies and insect life. In addition to the plants and the wildlife, the square has a very pleasant, open feel, as the space by the iron railings is not encumbered by a hedge or dense planting, as is often the case with London squares. You can see through under the trees from one side to the other in many parts.

Durand Gardens was created from an old plague pit, dug centuries ago and said to be the reason for its irregular “D” shape. The first owner of the land was the Cope Derby Estate. The main houses in the square were built gradually over a period of 25 years and for a long time the square was owned by one resident, who rather eccentrically kept a large goat in the garden. The story goes that the goat became enormous and eventually retired to the West Country.

This area of Stockwell used to be the fruit orchard for Covent Garden. There are still fruit trees which survive from the past in the back gardens of some of the houses, and the leases specify that residents may not sell fruit from the front of the house. Other local historical interest for the visitor includes a nearby house in which Van Gogh lived for eighteen months and Marie Lloyd of music hall fame lived here too.

The first trees believed to be planted in the square were the limes, which were probably pleached. Now there is a wide variety of trees, including limes, holly, silver birch, oak, horse chestnut, hornbeam, robina, black walnut, cherry, maple and hawthorn. Like all good things, they need good management. Beautiful wildlife environments do not appear by chance in our inner city, but by residents assiduously digging out brambles and ivy and from time to time pollarding the trees. This year will be the turn of the limes. The sketch of the tree here on the left is the black walnut.

Durand Gardens, as it exists today, is due entirely to the vigilance and care of local residents, and the lucky demise of a local estate agent. The Inland Revenue became the owner of the central gardens when the estate agent was declared bankrupt. In the 1980s residents bought the freehold, clubbed together to restore the iron railings and maintain the garden themselves, collecting an annual charge of £40 from each house.

There is a cheering community spirit to the square, with regular coming together over a collective, summer BBQ and bonfire night. In summer they mow paths through the grass and visitors can wander under the full canopy of the trees and have tea and cakes. In fact, if you google the square and look on Google Street View, you will see Richard and Gloria, active board members, distributing tickets for Open Garden Squares Weekend a few years back. (Link) A view of the entrance, not unlike the sketch below.

With thanks to Richard Rees for sketches and photos.

Further information on visiting Durand Gardens on Open Garden Squares Weekend