London is notorious for its North/South divide, in terms of cultural venues, transport links, and not least in respect of its parks and gardens. The North boasts the expanse of Hampstead Heath where the South claims Kew Gardens and Richmond Park. What both sides of the Thames have in common in this great city is a generous allocation of local parks: spaces in which the local community continue to mingle, where other spaces for interaction (post offices, independent food shops) have contracted or disappeared. In winter, local parks are the domain of diligent dog walkers; in summer these spaces come alive with cultural events, impromptu picnics, contemplative octogenarians and disenfranchised teenagers, co-existing (relatively) harmoniously. These two groups – the young and the elderly – have few spaces to claim their own, and there is something uniquely liberating about public parks for those whose lives are otherwise confined or controlled.
What I am interested in, however, is not only the cultural and political significance of these public gardens, but what we can learn from them about gardening. Despite the squeeze on public funding, many of these spaces are maintained to a very high standard, thanks to the resourcefulness and creativity of those who manage and work in these gardens. For North Londoners, there are, to my mind, two particularly shining examples: Waterlow Park in Highgate, and the Hill Garden in Hampstead.
By 1856 Sydney Waterlow was living in a house within grounds that were to become part of Waterlow Park. He soon acquired the neighbouring properties, and in 1889 he made his momentous decision to present the entire estate to the London County Council as a public park and ‘a garden for the gardenless’. A successful lottery bid allowed not only the restoration of garden walls and paths and statuary, but various innovations, including a wooden play area with carved animals and rolling logs, and a large drought-resistant border with an exemplary planting scheme for hot dry summers. Instead of wasteful temporary bedding, this ‘rockery garden’ offers a low-maintenance border full of interest, and the planting plan for is available on a noticeboard for all to learn from. Nearby, a kitchen garden was established and local community organizations were invited to submit applications if they wished to manage one of the plots. The organisers selected two schools, one mental health unit, a dementia organization, the Friends of Waterlow Park, Highgate Climate Action Network, and three local gardening groups. It is an invaluable resource for anyone taking on an allotment, planting vegetables in their own garden, or wanting to create an ornamental potager.
The style and mood of the Hill Garden is a complete contrast to the bustle and energy of Waterlow Park. I discovered it by chance, walking my dog in a more secluded part of Hampstead Heath. The Pergola rose up like a mirage as I emerged from the woods, a thing of extraordinary beauty. It’s impossible to believe such an elaborate edifice could be hidden in heart of North London. The dimensions are breathtaking: the Pergola, like a suspended walkway, is as long as Canary Wharf is tall. The brick and timber structure supports an enormous number of mature climbers and wall shrubs: If you want tips for pruning climbers, you need look no further, as these plants are skilfully maintained, under the auspices of the City of London Corporation, who are responsible for a spectacular amount of green spaces in London, from Bunhill Fields to Epping Forest. Go in winter if you want to learn how to prune a wisteria or a vine; go in early spring if you want to learn about pruning late-flowering clematis; go in late summer or autumn to learn about pruning summer jasmine, passion flower, or the common honeysuckle (lonicera pericyclamen). Or just go for a spell of meditation in a vary atmospheric location, and if you are lucky, on a late spring or early summer’s evening, you may be keeping company with roosting long-eared bats.
These are only two of many examples of local green and open spaces to explore in North London. You don’t need to visit the Hampton Court or Chelsea flower shows to learn about plants when your local park offer such a cornucopia of ideas and imaginative planting.
Town Gardens & SpaceLift Garden Design
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