The thing I love about writing these blog posts on behalf of the MPGA is the way in which I get gently nudged towards visiting gardens I never even knew existed, and often in areas I wouldn’t necessarily associate with lush green spaces. For example, take my most recent horticultural discovery: the Red Cross Garden in London, SE1. For me, growing up in South East London, I have always thought of this area – the approach to London Bridge that is – as the very entrance to London proper!
I imagine the fast pedestrian pace of the place reflects the main reasons why so many people are in the area: working commuters, tourists, Guy’s Hospital, Borough Market, Tate Modern etc. It is, and always has been, a very busy place indeed! However, a two minute stroll away from all this activity, using The Shard’s midday shadow as your guide, and you’ll find yourself in one of the most pleasant and relaxing gardens in London.
Almost everything I had read regarding the Red Cross Garden told me it was going to be small: ‘this small but delightful garden…’ a ‘tiny gem of a garden in the heart of SE1’ and so on. To be honest, I was expecting to be in and out of there within twenty minutes. How wrong I was!
What slowed my pace to a virtual halt were the numerous beds and borders, plus of course the depth of planting within them, testament to the lasting appeal of the English Cottage garden, jam packed with variety and colour, height and texture. In one border alone I saw Sedums, Lavenders, Santolinas (Cotton Lavender) Nepeta, Perovskias and magnificent Hydrangeas, plus so much more!
Originally established in 1887 by the philanthropist Octavia Hill, the Red Cross Garden was designed to offer the local poor a sanctuary – a community away from the grease and grime of Victorian London – a place of refuge for ‘the tired inhabitants of Southwark’ to quote the garden’s well-designed leaflet.
The volume of history surrounding both the garden and Octavia Hill is fascinating. With her desire to build ‘happy homes’ for the tenants, Octavia designed six picturesque cottages at the rear of the garden to act as a charming backdrop. Adjacent to these homes a community hall was built, designed by the architect Elijah Hoole, and decorated with wonderful murals. This hall was used to stage theatrical performances for the residents, as well as regular concerts, poetry readings and an annual flower show.
As with many such London Gardens, Red Cross fell into a state of neglect at the end of World War II, with most of its detailing lost during the 1950’s. However, through the determination of local residents, supported by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST), a decade of hard work finally brought the garden and its history back to the people of SE1.
What made my visit to Red Cross even more interesting was the strong link which exists between this garden and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA). Over the years the MPGA has provided several grants to Red Cross Garden, as well as to other gardens managed by BOST. In addition, at their AGM last year the MPGA gave their annual Spade Award to BOST in recognition of their work in maintaining and improving North Southwark’s green spaces.
However, as I discovered even closer bonds exist within their shared histories as Fanny Wilkinson, who worked for both the MPGA and the Kyrle Society, designed Red Cross Garden, working alongside Emmeline Sieveking. Fanny Wilkinson was England’s first professional female landscape designer, who was responsible for the design of over 75 London gardens.
On the day of my visit I was fortunate to meet up with Mary O’Connell, the Co-ordinator of Community Parks for BOST, who very generously gave some of her valuable time to tell me more about the history of Red Cross. She showed me pictures of the garden, revealing the architect’s original vision for the area and the changes that took place over the next 80 years.
Further photo-boards illustrated the huge restoration project that took place in 2005. It was fascinating to hear how they discovered part of the original railings, removed during WWII, and how exact replicas now fenced the garden. Also, how despite no design masterplan ever being discovered, archaeological surveys of the garden revealed the layout of its original pond and paths.
Mary told me of the many community events that take place there each year, such as this year’s poet in residence formed as part of the Open Garden Squares Weekend. The high standard of the poetry submitted was reflected by the two winners: Scott Mailey (Adult category) and Madeleine (under 14’s) who both received their winning certificates from Mary.
I would really recommend you visit this garden, and take little or no notice of any descriptions including such words as ‘small’ or ‘tiny’… it really is neither! In doing so, you’ll step off a modern street close to the city and enter a place that instantly transports you back to Victorian London.
Picturesque cottages provide a foil to a garden with mixed beds and borders, with a depth of planting which reflects its Victorian origins: a quintessential ‘Cottage Garden’ style. There’s a pond, full of life! A very contemporary-looking naturalistic border with astilbes, grasses (Stipa tenuissima) and sedges softly swaying in the breeze. There are many herbaceous borders, a lovely rockery and even a bandstand. What more could you ask for from this absolute Tardis of a garden!
Please do check out BOST’s website (see below) and better still, do make your way over there this summer. You won’t be disappointed. I promise!