Many of London’s gardens are private – but once a year, some 200 open up. From the UK’s answer to the High Line to the roses commemorating a Blitz-bombed church, here is a sneak peek.
While the Chelsea Flower Show gets most of the fame, London’s annual Open Garden Squares Weekend (taking place this year from 18 to 19 June) is a lesser-known alternative that opens more than 200 private green spaces to the public. Ranging from a vegetable garden on a skyscraper roof to a skip garden in Kings Cross, we got a sneak peek to capture the scene before the crowds arrive.
The green line
The Underground isn’t known as being particularly green. But central London’s Barbican tube station may be changing that impression: its 100m-long disused platform is filled with planters of flowers and vegetables. One of the challenges of installing the garden was timing; it had to be done in the early hours of the morning, when the trains weren't running. “At 1am we started carrying four tons of soil down the stairs by hand,” said Marion Blair, an area coordinator for Open Garden Squares. The other difficulty with these kinds of community gardens? “Finding people to maintain them,” Blair added.
Nestled amid residential high-rises of the Golden Lane Estate – a council housing project at the northern edge of the City of London – the Golden Baggers community food-growing initiative sprang up in 2010 on the unused site of a former nursery playground. The plot proved highly popular with estate residents keen to grow their own produce in the heart of London. Today, 40 permanent boxes sprout a profusion of fruit, vegetables and salad; there is also a communal herb garden, apple trees and a tiny wildlife garden to encourage bees and butterﬂies. They’ve even planted some vines with the aim of someday, perhaps, making wine.
Some of London’s secret gardens have more historic roots. The courtyard shown here is on the site of the Franciscan Church of Greyfriars, which dates back to 1225. The structure burned down in the Great Fire of London of 1666. The new church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1687 and 1704, was also gutted by fire – this time in 1940 during a WWII raid. Only the west tower remains.
The garden shown here was planted in memory of the blitzed church. Clematis and climbing roses weave up 10 wooden towers which represent the pillars that held the former roof. Box-edged beds of roses indicate where the pews once stood, while an avenue of trees marks the former nave. “And the plants are the parishioners,” Blair said.
London’s High Line?
One of London’s most talked-about green spaces is Beech Gardens, designed by Nigel Dunnett (he also helped create the planting scheme for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park). In the middle of Barbican Estate – a residential estate built in the 1960s and 1970s – Dunnett has installed 30,000 herbaceous plants to soften the Modernist concrete of surrounding residential blocks. Although Dunnett's approach aroused some controversy from residents keener to have a more flower-heavy garden, others compare this “prairie planting” to an international urban zeitgeist that takes direct inspiration from New York City's celebrated High Line – the 21st-century green artery that runs along the route of an old elevated train line.
Leafy law firm
Eversheds, one of the world's largest law firms, is home to a striking roof garden atop their headquarters at 1 Wood Street.
The Eversheds rooftop began as a planting to satisfy rules requiring City buildings to include some greenery. Its base of sedum – a thick-leafed perennial with clusters of star-shaped flowers – was combined with dried wildflower hay bundles and log piles to both provide topographical variety and attract insects and birds. The design also includes several bird boxes that have attracted house martins, peregrine falcons, swifts and the rare black redstart.
In the last couple of years, Eversheds employees Marta Gradek and Julie Bridglan have added a vegetable garden, complete with beehives. “We grow bee-friendly plants to provide food for them – and also supply the staff canteen with herbs,” Bridglan said. The pair won City in Bloom awards for the Most Innovative in Design in 2014 and Outstanding Food Growing in 2015.
First built by the Knights Templar in the 12th Century, this maze of courtyards and alleys between Fleet Street and the banks of the Thames, called Temple, later passed to the Knights Hospitaller – and then on to barristers. It remains the headquarters of the British legal profession today. (Find out more in our story The hidden world of the Knights Templar).
The Master’s House, which belongs to the reverend of Temple Church (also known as Master of the Temple), is a quiet, hidden garden on the north side of the Temple complex. Despite its gorgeous tranquillity today, the site has seen plenty of carnage. Like the Christchurch Greyfriars garden, it was bombed during WWII; several mature trees were among the casualties. The Georgian-style vicarage, shown here, was also destroyed by German bombs – the present building is a picture-perfect rebuild.
Behind closed doors
The 2016 Open Gardens Weekend marks the first time the Master's Garden is accessible to the public. For gardeners, one of the interesting aspects of the space is the difficulty of the soil – which, being situated on a raised plateau, is so free-draining that it is very dry. But, said gardener Bob McMeekin, the garden also comes with plus points: “Central London has its own micro-climate, and the garden is protected from pollution by the surrounding buildings.”
A set for Shakespeare
An imposing medieval hall is the spectacular backdrop to the main garden of Middle Temple – headquarters of one of the most historic barrister’s associations in London – with its mixed shrubs, roses and lawns sweeping down to the River Thames. The ﬁrst performance on record of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night took place here; Shakespeare also chose Temple Gardens as the setting for the meeting between Richard Plantagenet and John Beaufort that sparked the Wars of the Roses, which he chronicled so memorably in a series of eight plays, most famously Richard III.
There was an orchard here in the Middle Ages, augmented by the 14th Century with rose gardens. Terraces and tranquil walkways were laid out in the 1590s; in the early 18th Century, the then-fashionable “William and Mary” Dutch style garden was installed, including three rectangular lawns, dotted with trees and dissected by gravel paths.
But it is not the design that lingers in the mind – it’s a detail: a little vegetable garden in a paved courtyard by the Master's House. Like many spaces shown in the Open Gardens Weekend, it is cared for by a green-fingered amateur – in this case, a legal apprentice at one of the surrounding barristers' chambers who must, like everyone else who sees it, find this secret garden a beautiful place.