Chelsea is the ultimate garden catwalk but a less glamorous walk, and one I do most weekdays in north London, makes an earthy antidote to that show of shows.
The walk runs from Kentish Town (“that healthful suburb dear to the heart of the piano maker,” according to The Piano Journal, 1901) to the FT’s headquarters in Southwark (where Shakespeare worked and sometimes lived) past King’s Cross and various other building sites. The pleasure comes from the gardens, some little-known but usually open and others rarely open other than for the annual Open Squares Weekend, which this year falls on June 9-10.
The first greenery appears in Rochester Terrace, now a triangle of plane trees and grass planted with blue Chionodoxa, along the Regent’s Canal where ducks wander around the herb and salad gardens on the roofs of canal boats, to the King’s Cross development where a skip garden has been moving in harmony with the building work. As one phase completes the skips – ordinary builders’ skips each planted up with anything from beans to ornamentals – are towed on to the next pop-up garden site. Currently they can be found just north of the York Way bridge over the canal.
Further north still, Holloway Prison Garden, where hens now garnish the landscape, will be open by appointment for Open Squares Weekend, a neat foil to one of the gardens at the far end of my walk – at Inner Temple – which is nurtured by the legal profession.
Instead, my usual route runs south from a gazebo of coloured light at the top of a new grand avenue slicing south between St Pancras and King’s Cross stations. Over the thundering Euston Road, one of the arterial routes through London, and into Bloomsbury where an early 20th-century garden by Sir Edwin Lutyens can be found behind the mellow red brick and Portland stone façade of the British Medical Association. Lutyens called the building’s style “Wrenaissance” after Sir Christopher Wren and created the Pond Garden, with a semi-circular terrace and oval pool reflecting an Indian bean tree and medicinal specimens. The garden marks the spot where Charles Dickens lived from 1851-1860.
Dickens’s house at 48 Doughty Street, now a museum in his honour, is just round the corner but I head south to Coram’s Fields. This is London’s first children’s playground although it was originally a hospital, created by philanthropist Captain Thomas Coram in 1739, for poor children.
The area’s elevation since then is expressed in Lamb’s Conduit Street (named after William Lamb, who improved the conduit of fresh water to the area in 1564) with its chichi tailor, Ben Pentreath’s interior design shop, a flower shop and a handy collection of cafés and pubs.
Next comes Gray’s Inn with its Indian bean trees lolling their ancient arms across the lawns. Their latin name, Catalpa bignonioides, rolls off the tongue deliciously. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the statesman and garden maker, laid out the walks here and his essay “Of Gardens” written in 1625 is still sound advice today.
South through London’s largest public square, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, past pristine public lavatories painted in green gloss where visitors are commanded not to loiter, to Lincoln’s Inn Gardens. In the early morning, sun shines through the water jets and spouts around the William Pye water feature at the centre of the quadrangle where herbs, roses and wisteria provide respite from the legal anxieties going on in the surrounding chambers.
Across Fleet Street, where I once worked in the art deco “Black Lubianca” Express Newspapers building overlooking St Bride’s Church, to the three-acre Inner Temple Gardens where Shakespeare set the start of the Wars of the Roses. Today roses mingle with three-metre rockets of Echium and more ancient specimens such as a Japanese Blood Walnut, and a black mulberry set against emerald stripes of lawn.
Out of the gardens, across the traffic roaring along the Embankment, along the Thames where benches are backed surrounded by sweet-smelling Trachelospermum and lavender, over the Millennium Bridge to the high-walled Tate Modern Community. The garden is just visible through its railing gates, three minutes west of the FT’s office. Its pool, painted pebbles and borders make a little bower of escapism from Damien Hirst’s monstrous anatomical model currently decorating the gallery’s forecourt.
I’ve never been allowed to escape there despite requests (although the garden will be open for the Open Squares Weekend) and so instead, when the sunlight glinting on the Thames beckons us out of the office, we have peripatetic meetings through Borough Market to the Red Cross garden, where we walk among the pink-flowered valerian, catmint, hollyhocks, rosemary and lavender. The garden is run by volunteers, which would have pleased its founder, Octavia Hill, the social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust who died a century ago this August.
Sometimes, when the summer sun wakes me early, I take a longer route, west along Regent’s Canal, across Regent’s Park, taking in Queen Mary’s Rose garden where the duck killing scene in About A Boy was shot, down Baker Street, along the edge of Hyde and Green Parks and then across my favourite park, St James’s, with its exquisite views and salacious history, and into Parliament Square.
It is there that I only recently discovered peaceful gardens, open to the public, with some of the finest eyecatchers in London – the gothic towers of Westminster Abbey. The hard landscaping in St Catherine’s garden is good too – the ruins of the 12th-century chapel. The College Garden has a new herb garden for the Queen’s Jubilee and there are quince trees, black and white mulberry trees, figs and walnuts cared for by the head gardener Jan Pancheri.
One other favourite hidden garden: the Phoenix Garden with its more prosaic eyecatcher – Centre Point. This informal undulating garden has ponds, trees, benches and raised beds in a relatively small area. The clever use of space is probably down to the head gardener Chris Raeburn, who trained in fine art. Its charming detail reminds me of Wemmick’s garden in Dickens’s Great Expectations, which was set in Walworth, just down the road from the FT:
“ ‘At the back, there’s a pig, and there are fowls and rabbits; then I knock together my own little frame, you see, and grow cucumbers; and you’ll judge at supper what sort of salad I can raise … ’ said Wemmick …
“Then he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at; and in this retreat our glasses were already set forth. Our punch was cooling in an ornamental lake, on whose margin the bower was raised. This piece of water … was of a circular form, and he had constructed a fountain in it, which, when you set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, played to that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quite wet.”
I wonder how Wemmick’s modest, low-tech approach would go down at Chelsea.
Jane Owen is a Chelsea gold medal winner
Open Squares Weekend, June 9-10, is organised by the London Parks and Gardens Trust, which has assembled a comprehensive capital gardens guide www.londongardenstrust.org
For more detailed maps, tickets and opening times of the participating spaces and events, see www.opensquares.org