This month, my search for good companions and great London gardens took me to Twickenham, the home of English rugby. Funnily enough, I believe it was the first time I had ever taken a train out from Waterloo and headed West, the station’s display boards illuminating such exotic-sounding destinations as Chandler’s Ford, Kempton Park and the Winnersh Triangle. So alighting at Twickenham station felt all very knew to me: the roof of the stadium rising up to my right; very low Heathrow-bound airlines skimming the tops of trees, and a major event (still unknown to me?) had crowd and security staff stationed all around the area. As I say, to someone who has spent his entire life living along the A21 corridor (a road connecting London to Hastings, slicing neatly through East and West Kent) it all felt very foreign indeed.
Julie Hill, a major force in the construction and installation of the garden, had given me some good instructions on how to locate Sherland Road from the station and in a little under ten minutes I had found her house and garden, where I was kindly offered a variety of teas. So with a warm cup of PG Tips in hand, much welcomed on a surprisingly nippy August morning, she took me to the site of Sherland Road’s rain garden. And a lovely little space it was too!
Sherland Road resembles a typical London street: cosy 2-up & 2-downs, forming parallel rows of neat terraced housing. A nice quiet road, feeling safe and secure with a strong scent of community spirit. Just across the road from Julie’s house, and sited in a rather curious gap between houses sits the rain garden. Considering work on the garden only really started in October 2008 (and 2012 proper!) It now looks quite mature and incredibly well-suited to the road.
It was incendiary bombs landing in November 1940 that first created this gap in Sherland Road, taking out six of twelve cottages numbered 90 – 104: the rain garden is known locally as number 98. Back in 1991, when Julie first move there, the site was being occupied by council-owned garages; a ‘rather bleak’ outlook to say the least, not entirely enhanced by the addition of black bollards installed to thwart pavement parking.
In front of these garages sat Sherland Road’s first attempt at a small community garden. Then, back in 2008, having discovered that the garages were to be sold off for further development (to create parking for an additional six cars!) the community began an earnest campaign, eventually convincing both the council and the developers to hand over the land, thus creating the much expanded garden we see there today. The ‘Friends of Sherland Road’ was formed, and together with generous funding from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (and Taylors Bulbs of Holbeach) the planting up of the site commenced.
Fast forward a few years, and following on from m.p.g.a’s original donation of a 1000 bulbs, the residents of Sherland Rd requested further funding towards the creation of a rain garden. The central part of the site had always been rather damp and boggy, and so in the horticultural spirit of working with what you have, they set about turning it into a rain garden proper! Funds donated by m.p.g.a went towards the purchasing of plants suitable for boggy soils and a new feature water butt.
As well as Julie Hill I was also greeted by three other Sherland Road residents, Daniel and Filipa and their 3-year old son Afonso. I was thoroughly delighted by what I saw there that morning. The planting was lush and abundant with an incredible amount of variety for such a small area: you really felt immersed in both flowers and foliage, which seemed to share equal billing! The circular paths were almost hidden by plants spilling over from their loose borders. Yet, somehow you still felt the pull of curiosity, motivating you to explore every nook and cranny of the garden.
As I walked around the garden, ever the plant ‘twitcher’, I began enumerating the many different plant species I saw there, also looking out for such design flaws as easy repetition; struggling plants (wrong plant, wrong place!) or those simply hidden from view. Having seen, and worked in so many borders over the years, it’s hard to close that one critical eye of mine! However, I’m very pleased to report that I saw no such thing, without even a single plant looking out of place or worthy of criticism. The tall Rudbeckias gave sturdy height and colour, contrasting with the many varied foliage plants: the purple-leaved Cotinus; tough, tactile & fragrant Rosemary; the delicacy of the hardy geraniums and the ever-lovely (moisture-loving) Lythrums.
As mentioned, the centre of site – the rain garden – was always a rather damp and depressed area, hence the design being guided towards that aim. Even so, with sustainability as a primary focus, water is cleverly captured from a nearby corrugated roof, fed into the Cascade Water Butt (plastic but incredibly terracotta-looking) and then fed further along into the rain garden itself through the use of a perforated pipe. Great stuff!
Again, as with my recent visit to Arlington Square in Islington, what really came across during my visit to Sherland Road was that (apart from the creation of a great garden and a beautiful use of space) one of the major benefits of such a project is in bringing people and communities together. Having spent the first 30 years of my life living in London, on streets very similar to that of Sherland Rd, I know very well the common paradox for so many city-dwellers who, despite living so closely together, often feel quite lonely and isolated, rarely recognising or even speaking to their neighbours. For small communities to come together and share a focus such as a gardening project… Well, it’s always a great way to bring people together.
Personally, I can’t wait to revisit the garden… maybe at Xmas to see the installation (and illumination!) of the annual Xmas tree, or in the Spring to see the garden laid low, yet alive with the many spring bulbs m.p.g.a has provided and the good residents have planted. Great stuff!