Secret garden

MUCH OF GREATER LONDON is green space, which has not been built on. According to one source of information, Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (‘GiGL’; http://www.gigl.org.uk):

“Roughly 47% of Greater London is ‘green’; 33% of London is natural habitats within open space according to surveyed habitat information and an additional 14% is estimated to be vegetated private, domestic garden land.”

Of this ‘green space’, much is accessible to the public either free of charge (e.g. Regents Park) or for a fee (e.g. Kew Gardens). This piece is about an example of a type of green space in London that is open to a select few. I am referring to many of the gardens in London squares that are or were surrounded by residential buildings. Some of these (e.g. Gordon Square in Bloomsbury) have been taken over by local councils and are now open to the public in general. However, many of these garden squares contain gardens that may only be entered by people who are eligible to be able to pay a fee for a key to unlock them. Some of the squares confine those eligible for keys to residents in the square or in neighbouring streets. I know of one privately owned garden, that within Princes Square near Bayswater, which is open to anyone who can afford the annual fee. This square garden, being privately owned, is dependent for membership fees to ensure its maintenance. Those eligible to use the gardens within squares, whether privately or partially privately maintained, can be expected to pay something towards the maintenance of these often-beautiful local amenities.

Recently, a friend admitted us to the garden of Norland Square in Kensington. Like many of these limited access gardens, it is surrounded by formidable cast-iron railings. These railings were removed during the Second World War when metals required for war materials were in short supply. They were only replaced in 2007. Like most of these squares, the passer-by cannot see much within the garden beyond the railings because of hedges and other vegetation grown just within them to preserve the privacy of those using the garden. So, being allowed to enter Norland Square provided us a rare opportunity to examine the interior of one of these ‘secret’ gardens.

Norland Square takes its name from the Norland Estate, 52 acres of land bounded to the south by Holland Park Avenue, on the east by roads now named ‘Pottery Lane’ and ‘Portland Road’, on the west  by the boundaries of the parishes of Kensington and Hammersmith (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp276-297). The northern edge of the estate was roughly 200 yards north of the present Wilsham Street. The estate passed through several owners in the 18th century. They lived in a mansion, demolished long ago, which used to stand close to the present number 130 Holland Park Avenue. The name ‘Norland’ was used as early as 1599 to describe the ‘Northlands’, the land in the northern part of the Parish of Kensington (north of the present Holland Park Avenue), which includes the estate (www.rbkc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Norland%20CAPS.pdf).

Writing in 1878, Edward Walford, author of a series of books called “Old and New London”, noted that during the reign of William IV, the then well-wooded estate belonged to one of the Drummonds, a family of bankers of Charing Cross. Prior to these occupants, the first to live in the former Norland House was Thomas Marquois (died 1802), ‘Professor of Artillery and Fortification’, who used the building as an academy to teach both civil and military subjects to sons of the gentry, who were hoping to join the British Army. According to the website about the Norland Estate mentioned above:

“Board and lodging, plus instruction in Greek, Latin, French, writing and arithmetic could be had for thirty guineas a year, but fortification, mathematics, navigation, drawing, geography, dancing, fencing and riding were all charged as extras. Marquois’ prospectus contains a plan of the academy and its grounds, which were indeed very well suited to his purposes. Besides the house itself there were stables, a manege or riding house, a fives court, a cricket ground, gravelled drives for hack riding, and an artificial ‘mount’ from which the various activities of the pupils could be kept under constant review.”

Marquois relinquished the property after only four years in 1765.

In 1825, fire destroyed Norland House. In 1838, Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780-1854), clockmaker to the Crown, who then owned the Norland Estate, sold it and the ruins of the mansion to a solicitor Charles Richardson, who raised money to develop the estate for building purposes. The layout and design of the southern part of the estate, including Norland Square, was carried out by the architect Robert Cantwell (c1793-1859). The houses on Norland Square were leased to their first occupiers by Charles Richardson in 1842 and 1843.

Except for Norland Square Mansions on the south-west corner of the square, which has a few features slightly suggestive of art-deco style, the other houses surrounding the square are those built in the early 1840s. The mansion block occupies numbers 53 to 57 Norland Square. Interestingly, these plots do not figure in a list of the original lessees of the other plots in the square. Number 52, which neighbours the mansion block was leased to Robert Cantwell in 1842. A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows that where Norland Square Mansions stands today, there were no houses but instead a garden extending between number 52 and a house, now no longer standing, on the corner of the square and Holland Park Avenue (then named ‘Uxbridge Road’). On a map dated 1913, the position of the mansion block was occupied by a school. This same building, which has a different ground plan to the current block of flats was still present on a detailed map surveyed in 1938. So, it would be reasonable to say that the mansion block was built after 1938.

Getting back to the present, we found that the ‘secret garden’ in the centre of Norland Square is both attractive and well-maintained. In addition to an extensive lawn furnished with occasional wooden benches and a table, there are plenty of shrubs and trees. There is a small well-equipped children’s play area at one end of the garden and tennis courts at the opposite end. While we spent time in the garden, a couple of elderly women were taking their daily walk around it and a young lady was exercising her dog. Areas like this are invaluable during periods of ‘lockdown’ during the current covid19 pandemic, offering lucky city-dwellers a welcome respite from being ‘confined to barracks’ and if they are fortunate to have a garden, they provide a much larger open space to ‘take the air’ than their own smaller patches. We were both grateful and happy to have been able to see and experience what is usually hidden from us by iron railings and curtains of dense vegetation.

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