Great Gardens of London
Text by Victoria Summerley
Photographs by Marianne Majerus and Hugo Rittson Thomas
Francis Lincoln Ltd., 2015, pp. 208, £30
This substantial coffee table book (it weighs in at around two kilos) is sumptuously illustrated and contains a sometimes quirky selection of great gardens in London. However you can admire but rarely experience. 30 gardens are featured but 13 are totally private, nine are occasionally open (by arrangement or under the National Gardens Scheme) and only the remaining eight are more accessible. The horticultural equivalent, perhaps, of those gorgeous cookery books we drool over all the time knowing that we are never going to cook any of the recipes!
The chapter headings are enticing. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ includes royal gardens past (Eltham Palace) and present (Clarence House) and political gardens (Downing Street and Winfield House). ‘Wild in the City’ is the most eclectic and fascinating selection. It includes a sub-tropical garden in Islington, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that is the mid-18th century Malplaquet House and its garden on the Mile End Road and the Downings Road Floating Gardens of Bermondsey. The latter (a great project that is under threat) is a little under-served by the photography. An aerial shot would have displayed it superbly. The chapter ‘Gardeners’ Worlds’ includes some of the most accessible gardens: the well-known (Chelsea Physic Garden) and unknown (the Bushy Park allotments). I was personally pleased to see included the Old English Garden in Battersea Park, now beautifully restored. The horticultural therapy charity Thrive works in this and two other gardens within the Park and I was a Thrive volunteer before I moved to Winchester. Then, if we took a work party to the Old English Garden, the first task was to patrol it with a litter-picker looking for discarded needles and other drug debris. It is always heartening to see how a public garden can be brought back from the brink – and a reminder that they are again under threat from funding cutbacks.
The last two chapters: ‘High Rise Retreats’ and ‘Private Paradises’ describe mostly out-of-bounds gardens (unless you have wealthy business, celebrity or aristocratic acquaintances!). They are written in a flattering ‘Country Life’ style but the choices do reveal passionate owners and enterprising head gardeners. There are some surprises too. Who knew about the Coutts Skyline Garden in Charing Cross? Windswept, pigeon pestered, very narrow terraces at roof level contain a Herb Garden, Kitchen Garden, Fruit Garden and Cottage Garden. Look up next time you’re passing. It is clear that this book is aimed at the knowledgeable plantsman or woman as the text is full of lists of plants with both botanical and common names given, but this is not always consistent throughout. It is also a little irritating that the text is peppered with ‘box (Buxus)’ and ‘yew (Taxus)’ while the botanical names of some less well-known plants are not given. There is also some plant ‘one-upmanship’. On spotting a strawberry tree the author asks ‘Is that Arbutus unedo?’ ‘No’ comes the reply ‘too boring, it’s A. menziesii’. There is no further elucidation and I am sure many of you plantsmen will know it but I had to look it up!
Almost all the gardens have interesting histories, some stretching back centuries and snippets enhance the interest of the text. But it is the lavish colour photography that makes this book: half to three-quarters of every page is occupied by sunlight-flooded images. Admire and dream!