The annual Open Garden Squares Weekend which takes place this year in London on June 13-14 is a great way of exploring London’s secret gardens. Taking place across 27 London boroughs, the gardens showcase the diversity and value of something which may be taken for granted. Private squares will be open to the public and organisations such as English Heritage will seek to use the occasion to educate, inform and inspire.
Appreciating the time, effort and skill that goes into the upkeep of these valuable resources is a pleasant and fruitful way of spending an afternoon.
Of course, part of the attraction with such an event is the chance to peer into a part of London that we seldom see and the pretty L-shaped gardens of 10 Downing Street – home to the Prime Minister – will be of immense interest given the General Election held here recently in London and its impact on the property market.
Just down the road towards Knightsbridge, Eaton Square will open its doors to the public. Entertainment comes in the form of live music and puppetry for the children. Residents of Earls Court will get the chance to explore Bramham Gardens, a shady oasis among all the red-brick period splendour that typifies the architecture of the neighbourhood. It’s here that they’ll find some of the oldest and tallest plane trees in London.
Green spaces have always played a pivotal role in how Londoners have interacted with each other. After selling their animals at Smithfields Market, medieval farmers would often congregate in what is now Finsbury Square for a spot of rest and recreation. The merchant traders of the City were quite happy to let them stay there as they had their own private patch of greenery in the shape of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and weren’t about to allow it to be trodden on by sheep. However, the 17th century brought cataclysmic changes to London in the shape of a great plague followed by a citywide fire. All of a sudden, the great and the good weren’t too keen on the Square Mile and fled the cramped conditions that caused so much mayhem.
Setting up in Bloomsbury, Belgravia, Kensington and Hampstead, they took advantage of the extra space by constructing miniature pockets of countryside, surrounded by beautiful villas and terraces. This spate of enlightened town planning gave rise to some of the most celebrated squares in the Capital. Grosvenor, Berkeley and Kensington Square were each imaginatively planned, well-tended and to this day, form a central focus in their respective neighbourhoods. The streets that surrounded them reflect the vision of great architects of the past. The imposing Regency stucco of the houses around St James’s Square is the work of John Nash, while Thomas Cubitt was responsible for the early Victorian symmetry that surrounds Grosvenor Square. Kensington Square was the first to have a custom-designed flower garden rather than just an open green space.
Originally London squares were envisioned as mini communities, each having their own church, market and network of streets. This was an early concept of suburban living aimed at beautifying a city that was becoming increasingly prosperous, yet overcrowded. Bloomsbury Square was the first example to be designated as such by town planners and apart from the obvious aesthetic value, there was a humanitarian objective also in mind. A prime example is Gainsborough Gardens, a lovely oval shaped patch of greenery positioned just off Well Walk in Hampstead. It was added to a row of Queen Anne style homes that were earmarked for retired artists as well as writers who had fallen on hard times and today forms one of the most picturesque enclaves in the area.
Garden squares today are usually centres of horticultural excellence which are privately run and funded. Wrought iron railings that were removed as a contribution to the war effort 70 years ago have been painstakingly reworked from old photographs as landlords strive to both protect and improve what was started nearly four centuries ago. The gardens also form vital ecosystems where birds, wild flowers and trees can flourish, safe from traffic and noise pollution. The cooperative effort that goes into these conservation projects is considerable, which is why public awareness is so important.
From livestock pasture to underground car parks – the garden square has often been misused and mistreated, yet it remains an unmistakable feature in the landscape of London. If you imagine London to be a series of interlinked “villages”, then you’ll get an idea of how important green spaces are to this wonderful city. We’re not just talking about the grand royal parks, but also the garden squares and period architecture that are so intrinsic to London’s character. Their evolution in London traces the social changes that turned a Roman garrison outpost into one of the world’s great conurbations.
A list of places participating in the Open Garden Square Weekend is available here. We’d love to see your snaps: tweet us @brletsuk using the hashtag #OGSW2015
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