When the MPGA mentioned The Rookery Garden to me, I must confess a slight dragging of heels on my part. Being a South East London chap, and now a man of Kent, South West London has always been a bit of a mystery to me, and in truth, I often avoid that part of London altogether!
This was the case recently when I set off from my home in Sevenoaks to go and see the progress and recent changes being made at The Rookery Garden at the top of Streatham Common. However, I had chosen a cracking day of glorious late summer sun in which to make my visit. The common itself was laid fully open to a huge blue sky, with just the slightest cooling wind blowing over it.
Arriving at the top of the common, I was greeted by two incredible sights. To my right was a fantastic view of a large slice of South West London and to my left was a charming little café, where my travel efforts were rewarded with a gorgeous sausage sandwich and a nice mug of tea: old style service, with old style prices. Excellent!
The garden itself sits within the grounds of what was once a large house called The Rookery, which included the Streatham Spa and formal gardens. Formally opened in 1913 the gardens contain a 30m (98ft) double herbaceous border, created as a white garden, even predating Vita Sackville-West’s creation at Sissinghurst. In fact, there appears to be some evidence that it was through Vita visiting a nearby Rookery-relative that she first got the idea of re-creating the same back at her Kent castle.
The MPGA connection also started way back in 1912, when one of the Association’s members, Stenton Covington, led the campaign to save the garden from development (what’s new!). Since then the MPGA have continued to fund and support The Rookery.
Stepping into The White Garden I was greeted by the sight of Dominic Leary (Head Gardener) and a few of his regular volunteers, all seated on a bench having downed tools for a quick tea break. An obvious photo opportunity!
Dominic very kindly showed me around the garden and spoke, amongst other things, about the financial challenges facing the garden over the next year or two. Proof, if ever it were needed, that our age of austerity continues. I can easily imagine how difficult it must be to achieve progress and to continue the development of a public garden as bountiful as The Rookery.
The garden celebrated its centenary in 2013, with the Friends of Streatham Common successfully gaining financial help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Lambeth Council and local partners, as well as a grant from the MPGA, who also presented them with the London Spade Award. In 2014, with these funds secured, over 40 volunteers began the work of restoring The White Garden back to its Edwardian splendour. Local researchers began looking into how the garden was originally laid out, and soon after over 40 species of white-form plants were purchased including standard roses, foxgloves and hellebores. In fact, some 230 plants and 1,200 bulbs were purchased and planted in the borders.
Other recent developments within The Rookery include new crazy paving in the Old English Garden as well as some new initiatives such as heritage workshops, community planting days and even film nights.
I was truly impressed; not only by the gardens themselves, but also by the work Dominic and the local community are doing there. As soon as you turn into The Rookery, you are presented with a huge sloping staircase with a mighty Lebanese Cedar standing sentinel at the top. The garden’s formality creates an instant welcome, with the many layers of trees and shrubs making you feel somewhat cradled in its bowl, all helped by a soft and warm palette of plants. The Old English garden offers you exactly what it says on the tin, yet with some contemporary additions, both subtle and bold: lilacs saddle up to Melianthus major; wisterias overhang tall Calamogrostis grasses; tall purple Verbena bonariensis sit housed within low-cut box hedging, and tall Rudbeckia laciniata stand proud at the back of the border. There was even an Astelia sitting there in the border. This silvery-leaved, strap-like plant (resembling the more common Phormium) is not seen very often in gardens, especially within ‘Old English’ borders.
At one end of the The White Garden also sat a rather large Colletia Paradoxa. This, quite rare, evergreen shrub originating from Brazil, is an absolutely viscous plant with hard and pointed modified branches that form triangular, flat spikes. Probably the best burglar-proof tree you could ever plant! I can recall having seen this thug only once before, and that was in the grounds of my previous employers (Hadlow College) where it formed a rather low and compact rounded shrub. Here, with its skirt lifted to a sensible height (for a public garden) it was being allowed to reach its full potential as a small tree. Well worth checking out!
I left The Rookery still bathed in autumn sunshine. Both the low light of the day together with the time of year had removed most of the summer glare that would have been exciting the flowers a month or so before.
I guess the warm glow I felt within The Rookery garden not only emanated from its
planting, design and the overall spirit of the place, but also the welcome and all-round good feeling I received from Dominic and the volunteers working there that day.
To read more about this outstanding garden please follow the link below. However, do also make the time to go and see the gardens for yourself and the work that’s being carried out there. I promise, you will be both surprised and grateful to discover an absolute gem of a garden so close to Streatham.