Christ Church Garden

Following something of an 18-month Covid-induced moratorium, it feels so good to be back visiting gardens again and meeting the countless horticultural folk who help create and maintain London’s green spaces. London, who I often consider one of my closest relatives, has been eerily quiet since last Spring. The few visits I did make during lockdown gaps felt very strange indeed. Anyway, the way I see it, and perhaps the healthiest way I’ve decided to see it, is that London had a rest for a few months. A much needed rest.

Well, let us only look forward, and once again turn towards what we care about most, the green lungs of London, the floral oases, the parks and gardens of London. Again, let’s celebrate them, rest and relax in them, find fun, laughter and enjoyment in them! The call to nature is in our very DNA, and no matter what’s going on in this crazy world of ours, for me at least, there’s always plants and gardens.

Today, I find myself visiting Christ Church Garden in Blackfriars, now managed by BOST (Bankside Open Spaces Trust), an environmental charity based near London Bridge, who do incredible work, with limited resources, managing and protecting the many parks and gardens based in and around SE1. BOST were indeed worthy recipients of the MPGA’s very own London Spade Award back in 2015.

Unfortunately, with a history dating back some 400 years, my time and attention will have to scurry past such ‘recent’ events as the Romanesque church that was completed in 1741 and subsequently destroyed in the blitz bombings of 1941. Apparently, a burning cross fell from the church that night and scorched the very ground it landed upon, the position of which is now marked by a stone cross.

Also, just yards from that cross stands a grade 2 listed fountain, a gift from the philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, erected by the MPGA in October 1900. The church of 1741 was in fact the second church to be built on that site, the first (built in 1671) slowly sank into its own boggy ground.

Following further, and severe, Second World War damage, a new church was completed in 1959, and although the church itself is worthy of my attention (large sequences of stained glass, a sculpture by Ian Walters and further glassworks by Frederik Cole) my interest, of course, lies in the garden itself. The churchyard was closed to burials in 1856, and in 1900 the MPGA converted it and laid it out as a public garden. It was designed by Fanny Wilkinson, the first professional female garden designer, who was responsible for the design and layout of over 75 public gardens across London. A ceremony held at the site on the 16th June 1900 was commemorated by a plaque which can still be seen on one of the garden walls.

Restoration Stone
The Mayor of Southwark, Councillor Harry Canagasabey unveiling the restoration stone on 16th June 2000

Fast forward to the 1970’s, the rapid decline of several riverside industries (printing, food processing and engineering) motivated many people to leave the area, resulting in the locale quickly becoming run down and in desperate need of regeneration. So, in the year 2000, the centenary of its original layout, and by using funds gathered from various sources – private, public and charitable – the architects Marcus Beale, in conjunction with the MPGA and the Christ Church Garden group, progressed with a major renovation of the garden, its beds and borders, and of course, the drinking fountain.

The fountain donated by the philanthropist John Passmore Edwards and erected by the MPGA in October 1900

With such little information regarding the design style of Fanny Wilkinson and with none of her original garden plans in existence, it remains pure speculation as to whether this particular garden reflects her design style: an excellent subject for a potential PhD may I suggest, or maybe not, depending on your level of studious tenacity and commitment. You may recall that I completed a Masters in Garden History at London University a couple of years ago, and despite much effort, I too came up wanting when it came to information regarding Fanny Wilkinson’s design plans.

As mentioned, following the garden’s refurbishment back in 2000, BOST took over the maintenance of the site, bringing the local community together and forming an active steering group, ensuring the grounds remained the tranquil, green oasis they continue to be today.

On my mid-week, midday visit, and sitting softly under the ubiquitous canopy of London Plane trees, I saw all the usual shade-loving suspects: hardy Geraniums, Epimediums, Liriope, Hellebores and ferns, all mingled together with the shrubby stalwarts of Euonymous, various Euphorbias and Senecio. There was a designated rose border with many good specimens in full flower, along with countless pink and white Japanese Anemones, standing sentinel and doing their late summer thing. The lush foliage of persicaria sat waist-high covering the bare legs of Choysia ‘Sundance’ whilst 2-metre tall yellow Rudbeckia laciniata demonstrated how a North American prairie plant can succeed, even in a shady London graveyard.

As always, in areas of deep shade, and when left to their own devices, plants will find their own way in and settle down with good neighbours, completely of their own volition. In this situation, there’s always the risk of simply walking past and ignoring the plantings contained within these little shady enclaves. However, my advice would be to stop for a moment, peer into these dark caverns, and admire the plant communities that exist there. These areas often house a mix of cultivated plants (bought, paid for and placed there by human hand) together with those that have simply flown in or emerged to fill the gaps in-between: ground-covering Ivy perhaps, or a rogue Acanthus spike.

A dell of deep shade. Always worthy of further investigation

Again, it need not be said, but it’s these somewhat secret spaces which makes London so special. Given its size, and the way in which its streets are connected, Central London is a place that needs to be explored on foot. Very often, I’ll walk from one side of London to the other. Say perhaps, from London Bridge to Regent’s Park: my walks are sustained by the odd coffee shop, with the occasional need for a rest granted by garden spaces such as Christ Church.

These places are only made attractive and available by the commitment of the communities that look after them, and by the financial donations and help offered by the likes of the MPGA.

I see that in the Annual Report for the year 2000, and with regard to the regeneration of the Christ Church garden, The Report states that ‘one of the major strengths of the MPGA has been the association’s continuity of purpose for over more than a century [and that] nowhere is this better illustrated than in relation to gardens created from churchyards and burial grounds’.

An ample blend of form, height, structure and texture, demonstrating the often-maligned and overlooked aesthetic of the shrub border

So next time you find yourself in the area of Blackfriars, do pop your head into the gardens there at Christ Church. Take the opportunity for a little rest and respite, and whilst there, do take a closer look at the plantings and see how, as plant communities, they manage to co-exist in order to form a unified cohesive aesthetic.

Until next time.

Marc Owen

Marc’s Gardens