Open Garden Squares Weekend 2004

On the Trail of London's Gardens

CATHERINE MILLER on a weekend of garden exploration

IT'S Day 1 and setting up on a sunny Saturday morning under the giant plane trees and blue plaques of Bedford Square's English Heritage Gardeners' Fair are an interesting gathering of stands including the RHS,  RSPB, the London Parks and Gardens Trust and the Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens. 

The square is surprisingly tranquil given its location just off Tottenham Court Road. Partly following the suggested route on the Open Garden Squares Bloomsbury map, I locate the nearby School of Oriental & African Studies. Upstairs via an exhibition of Chinese political posters from the 60's is the Japanese roof garden. This is a beautifully designed space, serene and peaceful, with discreet piped Japanese music. The scheme brought 900 visitors in one day last year.

On to Russell Square, recently revitalised to a high standard with creative herbaceous planting in the corners, where a group of musicians in stripy blazers is attracting many fans. I find myself looking at an eagle owl, one of 25 birds of prey in a falconry display. Sue Mitchell explains that they cannot fly the birds in London as they do at other shows because they would get lost! 
Next is Bloomsbury Square with its shady trees of heaven, underplanted with woodland species of epimediums, geraniums and comfrey. The sunnier seating areas are surrounded by purple swathes of nepeta and foxgloves. 

The Phoenix Community Garden has had a steady stream of visitors all morning from the scheme. This is a tiny garden just off Charing Cross Road, with an astonishing range of habitats and plants. Ken Titmuss, a volunteer, discovered the garden recently and signed up as a Friend. "I'm astonished at the peace and friendly atmosphere of this garden", he says. Many people don't know it's there!" 

Five gardens on the route that I visited made for an enjoyable and interesting morning. 

Sunday, Day 2. Exploring the city at weekends, as the Parks and Gardens Trust's City walk map explains, is very different from the Monday-to-Friday rush. There is time to appreciate the historical layers built up from two millennia of continual working and living. 

I start off in the Cleary Garden, where a wren is singing loudly in a clump of large buddleia. This is a gem, a small garden very well laid out for public use, with about twenty benches on three terraces, the lowest with a green lawn to relax on under mature trees. A piece of an older damaged wall has been integrated into the garden to show that the garden was reclaimed from a bomb site. 
A short walk to 25 Cannon Street, where there is a glorious scent of old-fashioned pinks and lavender next to a bench, along with the chatter of greenfinches, and all within sight of St Paul's! 

St Paul's churchyard garden is busy with tourists and visitors from the scheme. It is formally laid out with fountains and the scent of lime blossom, and a fine rose garden to the side. 

Across the way, Christchurch Greyfriars has a small rose garden with rope pergolas and box edging, and a quiet shady green at the back with large planes and limes filling the air with their fragrance. 

Postman's Park is one of those city spaces with character that can hold its own amid the towering buildings that surround it. Huge old trees mingle with bananas and tree ferns, and a collection of plaques commemorating bravery attracts an interested crowd. 

West Smithfield is a busy circular garden by the market, and Charterhouse square, normally private, is very quiet and peaceful.

I squeeze in a visit to the Garden Barge Square, near Tower Hill, and found Tim Hutton playing a grand piano on a barge in the middle of the Thames. The gardens on the barges include apple trees, herbs and a lavender walk complete with happy bees. There are herbaceous borders with daisies, honeysuckle, rosemary and sage. The many visitors are walking around smiling, intrigued by the quirky creativity of this garden. 
I finish the weekend dismantling my stand back at Bedford Square, where the Gardeners' Fair has been a big success, with 1500 visitors, and several hundred pounds raised for the Parks and Gardens Trust. I have only seen a fraction of the gardens on offer!

Catherine Miller is Outer London Regional Officer for the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens