Gardening and me

I LOVE GARDENS BUT I am not, and never have been, a great gardener. As a child, I used to mow the lawn and cut parts of the privet hedge surrounding our garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Neither of these activities endeared me to gardening. In 1983, I became a homeowner in Gillingham, Kent. My house had a 180-foot-long garden which was about 30 feet wide. About 120 feet of it was lawn bordered by narrow beds and the rest of it was, I imagine, once dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables. On taking possession of my new home, I was determined to make a success of the garden.

For a few weeks, I dug up weeds, hoping to clear a space to plant potatoes and onions. Day after day, I would return home from a session of pulling out teeth and other dental activities and then get down to pulling up weeds. It was disheartening to discover that a patch, which I had cleared a day earlier, was already becoming refilled with weeds. What I did not know at the time was that my garden was infested with a weed that was extremely difficult to eradicate manually or even with chemicals. The smallest fragment of this horrendous plant was enough to ensure its rapid and thorough propagation.

After a while, I abandoned my grand ground clearance plans and lowered my ambitions. I decided to clear a small patch to grow some parsley, a herb that was only available in local shops at Christmas time. I planted the seeds as instructed on the packet, watered them as required, and inspected the parsley patch every day.  Soon, tiny green shoots began appearing. I was horrified. I thought that once again the weeds were beginning to defeat me. So, I plucked them out to clear the ground for my parsley to have the best chance of its survival. It was only later that I realised that what I had regarded as weeds was in fact the parsley I was hoping to grow.

My solution to managing my garden was simple and effective. I began visiting garden centres to buy fast-growing shrubs. I had decided to let them compete with the weeds instead of me. This plan was successful. Soon, I had plenty of attractive plants that were growing larger in height and volume at high speed.

The long lawn proved problematic after a while. I bought an electric mowing machine that trimmed the grass nicely. However, it was not long before I began sneezing violently whilst mowing the lawn or even driving past a lawn that was being mowed. I tried mowing while wearing a paper face mask such as is commonly seen today during the covid19 pandemic. The mask proved to be useless even though it covered nose and mouth. My solution was to abandon mowing and just to let the grass do ‘its own thing’.

My neighbours were not happy about my wild looking garden, which, incidentally, became a haven for butterflies. They complained to me. My solution was to mow a winding path, the width of the mowing machine, through the savannah that was developing on my lawn. I explained to my neighbours that this was a carefully conceived plan to create a wildlife garden. I am not sure that this convinced them, but the level of complaining diminished. My neighbours were not so keen on wildlife as the following will demonstrate. One evening, someone living in my neighbourhood rang my doorbell. He asked me whether I wanted to contribute some money to help pay for the hire of a professional gun man to shoot the local foxes. I sent him away empty handed.

One evening, I returned from dinner with friends and as it was a pleasant night, I stepped out into my garden. I was surprised to smell burning but could see no fire. On the next morning, I met one of my neighbours and mentioned the burning to him. He told me that he had extinguished the fire before it reached my house. He said that the elderly lady who lived on the other side of my house had become fed up with the state of my garden and had set fire to it hoping that might prevent the spread of weeds from my garden to hers.

What is interesting is that when I came to sell my house back in 1995, at a time when the property market in the area was sluggish, it was the garden that appealed to the buyers. Apart from the fact that the house was the kind that they were seeking, it was the prospect of taming the garden, which the estate agent had described as being “in its natural state”, that appealed to the buyers. Sometime after the purchase was over, we dropped in to say hello to the new buyers. They showed us the garden. It looked as if it had been sprayed with a strong herbicide. The grass had gone, so had the atmosphere of wildness; the garden seemed sterile. However, I noted that all my shrubs had been preserved.

Now, I do not want you to get the impression that I have something against gardening. I do not like doing it, but I admire those who do it. Gardening is a complex art form in which human beings have to harmonise with nature to produce aesthetically pleasing results. Not only does the geometry of the laying out of plants have to look good, but garden planning must take into consideration the passage of time, the seasons, meteorology, the behaviour of pests and weeds, and ecology. In addition, there is also the distribution of form, colour, and odour that must be planned. And above all, the maintenance of healthy growth adds to the complexity of gardening successfully. A successful garden is multi-dimensional artform involving all the six senses as well as the relentless passage of time and the endless changes in the weather.

Rather like music, which I enjoy listening but cannot perform, I gain great pleasure from gardens, but prefer others to create and maintain them.

Pleasure Gardens then and now

BATTERSEA PARK IS but a very few miles (only three!) from where we live in London, yet it is a place that until now we have hardly ever visited. Maybe, this is because it is across the River Thames on its south bank. To those who live on the north side of the Thames, anything across the Thames seems extremely far away and almost in another country. That sounds ridiculous, but it is the case. The river is like a psychological barrier to us ‘northerners’, but it is well worth crossing it. We parked our car in Chelsea close to the Albert Bridge, an elegant structure built in the early 1870s. A short stroll across the bridge brings you to Battersea Park, which stretches along the south bank of the Thames to Chelsea Bridge, which is downstream from the Albert Bridge.

Before 1858, when the park was opened, the land on which it now stands was marshland reclaimed from the Thames and used by market gardeners. Prior to the opening of the park, the area was a popular location for duels. The Duke of Wellington challenged the Duke of Winchilsea in this area in 1829.

The name Battersea is derived from the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Badrices īeg’, meaning ‘Badric’s Island’. In the Domesday Book, it was called ‘Patricesy’. Gradually, the name evolved into its present form. The park was laid out between 1846 and 1854 by the architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), but when it opened in 1858, the year that Chelsea Bridge was completed, it differed somewhat from his original plans. In 1889, the year when the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris, the park came under the control of London County Council (‘LCC’). Moving forwards to 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, much of which took place near Waterloo Station on what is now called the South Bank, Battersea park was used to stage a part of the festival known as the ‘Pleasure Gardens’.

You can read much about the Pleasure Gardens on an interesting and informative illustrated website at https://alondoninheritance.com/eventsandceremonies/the-festival-of-britain-pleasure-gardens-battersea-park/ . In contrast to the rest of the Festival, the aim of the Pleasure Gardens:

“… was to balance the other events and add an element of fun to an otherwise mainly serious festival.”

Unlike other parts of the great event, the Pleasure gardens allowed commercial sponsorship. This was because the cost of these gardens was greatly in excess of what the government could afford. The Pleasure Gardens’ attractions included: a shopping area, ‘The Parade’; the Grand Vista with its fountains, arcades, towers, eating areas, and firework displays; a miniature passenger-carrying railway with two stations (Oyster Creek and Far Tottering); a fun fair; lawns and flower gardens; a dance pavilion; specially designated areas for children’s performances such as ‘Punch and Judy’; and a zoo. It must have been quite a wondrous place and a great relief for many people who had suffered hardships during WW2 and just after it. Many of the structures in the Pleasure Gardens were designed by well-known artists of the time including, to mention a few, John Piper, Osbert Lancaster, and Hugh Casson.

The former Pleasure Gardens were on the north side of Battersea Park close to the river. Little remains of what must have been a wonderful sight. The Children’s Zoo flourishes. It is the descendant of the zoo created in 1951. It nearly closed in 2003, but was rescued by Carol and Roger Heap, a couple intensely interested in wildlife education and conservation. Their son Ed is involved with the zoo’s management and his wife Claire is the zoo’s resident vet. I have yet to see the zoo, which we did not visit recently on account of the rain.

Hardly anything remains of the other parts of the Pleasure Gardens. The funfair that was opened in 1951 continued to operate until the early 1970s when an accident involving the Big Dipper occurred on the 30th of May 1972 hastened the fairground’s demise. What little remains of the Pleasure Gardens today has been conserved well by Wandsworth Council. This includes, The Parade (a tree-lined avenue running inside the park parallel to the riverbank), the Fountain Lake, and a few remnants of the Grand Vista. The prominent Peace Pagoda (erected 1985) with its gold coloured Buddha stands where once the Mermaid Fountain (sponsored by Lockheed Hydraulic Brakes) stood.

We visited Battersea Park on a grey weekday when few other people were in the park. The remnants of the Pleasure Gardens, where many people once congregated to have fun, was eerily empty, almost surrealist in appearance. Next year, it will be 70 years since the Festival of Britain. Being optimistic, it would be nice to imagine that maybe the pandemic will have subsided significantly, and we might be able to celebrate again, possibly with an element of ‘socialdistancing’ as one of the ‘attractions’.

Ten places to breathe and relax

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Another list for you, now that the weather is improving.

Here are ten open public spaces in London north of the River Thames. These are places, which I particularly enjoy. They are listed in no particular order:

1 Golders Hill Park

2 Kenwood

3 Kensington Gardens

4 Regents Park

5 St James Park

6 Holland Park

7 Hampstead Heath

8 Thames Barrier Park

9 Postmans Park

10 Soho Square

 

Picture taken in the Kyoto Garden at Holland Park