I’ve offered to write a review of this book, simply because I enjoyed it. Such books don’t always live up their hype but this is one I’m happy to add to my collection. And whenever I can get to London again I have a new list of gardens to see.
It’s relatively simple to present impressive photographs of gardens but it’s the text that ultimately proves the worth of a book about gardens. I’ve read descriptions of overseas gardens that to me were at odds with what I later saw for myself, and many more that are simply rote descriptions of the main features or historical timeline of a garden. Important information, sure, but boring and insipid.
Victoria Summerley’s text shone for me in this book. What started as a quick flip through to get the idea of the book, quickly became a sit-there-and-read-every-word interlude as I became engrossed in her stories. This is a rare skill in non-fiction. I learned a great deal of English history, woven into her tales, and not just the dry stuff but the behind-the-scenes, intimate details of the characters involved, and insights into what brought their gardens to life. I liked the interviews with the head gardeners, to see the garden through their eyes, and learn about the practical issues of maintaining them. Of course there’s information about the plants and garden layouts too, accompanied by plenty of well-captioned photographs.
I’ll probably never get to see Winfield House, the home of the US ambassador in London (not the actual US embassy). But I long to, having read that Barack Obama had a brief stroll around the 5 ha garden to stretch his legs after landing by helicopter. His comment?
“If I had known this property was so nice, I would have applied to be ambassador to London rather than president of the United States.”
And well it might be “nice”, as it sits in the middle of Regent’s Park and is the second-largest private garden in London (after Buckingham Palace). Head gardener Stephen Crisp obviously loves it too, as he’s been there since 1987, lovingly tending the grounds with two assistants. They raise 6-8000 plants a year in four glasshouses for bedding, flowers for the house and the vegetable garden, so the budget, we can be sure, is generous.
Other gardens in this chapter titled “Pomp and Circumstance” include 10 Downing St, Clarence House and the much more accessible gardens of Inner Temple. The domain of barristers, situated along the Victoria Embankment where it’s easily seen by passers-by, Inner Temple has a fascinating history from the 12th century when the Knights Templars came to the site. A gardener lived there as far back as 1307. More recently, Joseph Jekyll, grandfather of Gertrude Jekyll was superintendent from 1810 to 1819, and it was the site of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Spring Shows from 1888 to 1911, until the show’s growing popularity forced a move to Chelsea Hospital where it became the Chelsea Flower Show. The garden at Inner Temple today is a triumph of bold rudbeckias, dahlias, cannas and modern grasses in the summer High Border, which enjoy the mild microclimate formed by buildings on three sides. It’s open to the public weekdays from 12.30-3pm.
The Chapter on “Wild in the City” includes some newer gardens such as the floating barge gardens on the Thames, and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park at Stratford. Covering 560ha of the original Olympic site, it’s been one of the biggest urban park projects in Europe for 150 years, according to Summerley. She’s not afraid to criticise, and takes issue with the lack of meaningful signage, but describes the planting as “fabulous….It’s like having a masterclass in the New Perennial style..” Here’s her amusing introductory paragraph to this site to give you a feel for her prose:
“Surprisingly for a nation that has been trying to boss the rest of the world around for several centuries, the British do not tend to have much faith in the ability of their own governments or institutions to organize anything. The London 2012 Olympics, therefore, came as something of a pleasant shock. It took place on schedule, Team GB won lots of gold medals, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even better, much of the enjoyment was provided by the planting in the Olympic Park. Colleagues and friends who previously had never expressed any interest in horticulture whatsoever came home from an Olympic event raving about the meadows filled with colourful flowers.”
There are several wonderful stories associated with Battersea Park, where the Old English Garden is one of three associated with Thrive, a charity that provides horticultural training and therapy to gardeners with physical or mental health challenges. Part of the park’s history is associated with Thomas Cubitt, a master builder whose name is wonderful example of nominative determinism, and who by all accounts was an extraordinary character of the 1900s. This is a romantic garden that I’d love to visit, redesigned by noted designer Sarah Price in 2012, preserving the original features of pond, pergola and fountain but amping up the perfume and perennial planting. It is in the chapter “Gardener’s Worlds”, which also covers two healing gardens: the Royal College of Physicians (lust-provoking herbs, laxatives, poisons and cancer cures get a mention) and the Chelsea Physic Garden (a garden I’m familiar with but learn the gates that open on to Chelsea Embankment are only opened on two occasions: when the royals visit and when the manure is delivered).
In “High-Rise Retreats” I was impressed by her coverage of Kensington Roof Gardens, one of my favourites to visit. This amazing 0.6ha garden is on the roof of what was once a department store in Kensington High St, constructed in 1936-1938. There is a stream and pond, replete with pink flamingoes (yes real ones). The woodland has mature trees that defy their 45cm depth of soil. The Tudor Garden boasts mock Tudor stonework and typical English roses, while the Spanish Garden amazes with its formal layout, colourful plantings and bell tower. The restaurant Babylon operates from the rooftop, and there is a nightclub on Friday and Saturday night, or you can visit during office hours whenever the garden is not in use for functions. Phone first to check.
“Private Paradises” includes another garden I’ve visited many times, taking my garden tour groups to St Georges Rd in Twickenham, home to Jenny and Richard Raworth. If you want to see a quintessential private English garden (albeit of the wealthy and horticulturally gifted), their sculpted knot garden, the sunken front garden, pleached lime hedges, velvet lawn and the voluptuous perennial borders will leave you torn between admiration and envy. Two of the famous London private squares are also featured, Cadogan Estate in Knightsbridge and Ladbroke Square Garden in Notting Hill.
There’s much more of course – designer and Chelsea darling Cleve West’s allotment garden (I find his partner intriguingly is Christine Eatwell, another case of nominative determinism for a keen allotmenteer) – and a insider’s peek at the roof garden of private bank Coutts’ productive roof garden, and….well I can’t tell you everything.
Helpfully, there are details in the appendix of how and when the featured gardens can be seen by us plebs, as well as details of many other great gardens and events open to the public.
If you’re planning a trip to London, this will add some exciting options to your itinerary. And if you’re an armchair traveller, you’ll enjoy the read – and the history lessons.
GREAT GARDENS OF LONDON
Text by Victoria Summerley, photographs by Marianne Majerus and Hugo Rittson Thomas
Published by Francis Lincoln Limited, distributed in Australia by Murdoch Books
RRP $59.99 Hardcover