Today's date is 4/4/16. This kind of thing doesn't happen very often. So I've been to visit four squares.
1) Addington Square, Camberwell First to Southwark, to an unusual and attractive backwater off the Camberwell Road. Addington Square owes its existence to the Grand Surrey Canal, a speculative waterway dug from Rotherhithe in the early 18th century. The square was built alongside Camberwell Basin, which proved to be the western terminus as to go any further would have involved building a lock and the canal wasn't as solvent as had been hoped. First to move in was the canal's chief engineer, in what's still the largest house, and the remainder of the square followed between 1810 and 1844. This long gestation period is unusual for a London garden square, and gives the perimeter a somewhat mixed flavour. The longer eastern side is one long terrace of disjoint parts, four or five storeys tall, with long sets of steps up to the main entrances and further flats down at cellar level. The next time a complete house goes for sale it'll be worth a million, but the square's not so posh that an old sofa dumped out front by the wheelie bins looks out of place. The chief engineer's house now belongs to Fourth World, an anti-poverty organisation, while number 33a used to belong to the Richardson gang, arch South London enemies of the Kray brothers. The central garden is beautifully maintained by the council, with beds of vibrant flowers in red, white and blue, and an abstract geometric sculpture for good measure. A sign on the railings suggested public access was possible, but I never found a way in, not even a locked gate. Meanwhile the narrow north side of the square now provides open access to neighbouring Burgess Park, the canal and basin long filled in, and is occupied by tennis courts and The Tennis Cafe. It must be a lovely place to live, although not quite as lively as suggested in this 2008 video by Goldfrapp in which a bloke in a linen suit bounces all around the square, in utter Happiness. [map][4 photos]
2) Arbour Square, Stepney In amongst Tower Hamlets' more modern flats, a few 19th century boltholes remain. Stepney has quite a few, including this late Georgian square just off the Commercial Road. It's not quite square, but then few London squares are, and started out life as a garden enclosure. By 1830 terraced houses had been built on all four sides, two of which remain and are Grade II listed. These flat-fronted houses have two or three storeys, respectively three and two windows wide, with doorways and lower windows topped by arched brick recesses, and a certain regular elegance. In Clerkenwell they'd cost rather more, but a no bedroom studio flat in one of these currently sells for £350000 which just shows how out of control the market is. The houses on the eastern side of the square were torn down in 1913 to make way for Raine's Foundation School, formerly of Wapping, in an imposingly symmetrical brick building itself now Grade II listed. Pupils moved out in 1985, and part of Tower Hamlets College is on site. Yet another era is represented on the northern side, a block of prewar flats with bright green copper tiles, which holds its own and adds rather than detracts from the scene. The central garden is beautifully maintained by the council, with beds of pansies and white hyacinths encircling three fluffy-trunked palm trees, and adjacent shrubby seating areas that nod towards the Arbour in the square's title. There was nobody here when I visited yesterday, at least not in the attractive central zone, although several almost-residents wandered by outside the railings. And it was almost quiet, apart from the double deckers parked up all along one side, what with Arbour Square being used as a temporary terminus for the number 115 due to Cycle Superhighway roadworks disruption up the road in Aldgate. But all in all, a fortunate survivor. [map][4 photos]
3) Cadogan Square, Knightsbridge Moving onwards, westwards, and most definitely upwards, we come to this prime late 19th century enclave. The Cadogan Estate runs down the western side of Sloane Street, between Harrods and Sloane Square, and was built in two bursts approximately a century apart. Cadogan Square dates from the second burst, built between 1877 and 1888, as Chelsea became attached to the metropolis for the first time. Many of the buildings are in Queen Anne style, huge mansion blocks in red brick and stucco, the trademark architectural style of the estate. Five storeys is common, and six isn't unknown, with the greatest uniformity along the eastern and southern flanks. The western side has rather more diversity, within carefully defined parameters, included several tall thin Dutch style houses. Number 68 is one of a handful of listed dwellings, designed by Norman Shaw and seemingly mostly sash window, now a posh private school (most famous alumnus, Daniel Radcliffe). But most of the buildings facing the square are residential, indeed Cadogan Square has some the most expensive property in the country, it not being unknown for flats to sell for sums over ten million. The cars parked outside don't quite match this level of exclusivity, but those who park up and emerge are immaculately turned out, or effortlessly suave in that carefree manner only the very richest can pull off. The central garden is beautifully maintained by the Cadogan Estate for the benefit of the residents, so mere plebs aren't granted access, and carefully positioned shrubbery obscures most of the interior. I did spot a couple of games of tennis underway, and a Dad practising lacrosse with his daughter, while a group of Mums (or au pairs) sat chatting around the central statue. You'd probably never stumble upon the square unless you knew it was here, indeed I'd never been here before, but that's how the residents like it, assuming they're actually in the country to enjoy their investment. [map][4 photos]
4) Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb Jumping ahead a few more decades, and several miles to the north, this unusual square sits at the heart of a pioneering early 20th century development. Henrietta Barnett set up the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust in 1906 with a plan to build low-density housing, Letchworth-style, for people of all income groups to live together. She succeeded in creating an extensive (and gorgeous) estate to the north of Hampstead Heath, with broad tree-lined avenues and hedges instead of walls. Central Square was to sit at the highpoint of the development, and is by far the largest of the four squares I've described today. The architect Edwin Lutyens was brought in to design the two churches which would sit on either side of a large grassy expanse, the most impressive of which is St Jude-on-the-Hill. Its fat grey spire dominates the skyline, set against the dome of the free church opposite, while a Quaker meeting house is tucked away in one corner to provide ecumenical balance. The eastern side of the square is watched over by The Institute, home to the estate's main school, whose recently opened extension almost (but not quite) merges in with the adjacent housing. Henrietta saved the house nearest to the main church for herself, a plaque reveals, close to a ironwork-and-stone memorial celebrating her beneficence. Here too are a pair of tennis courts, far more easily accessible than those in Knightsbridge, hence more likely to be used for skateboard practice and teenage slouching. The entire estate has proved a wildly impressive legacy, even if it's unlikely anybody below the upper middle class now lives anywhere nearby, such is the scale of each individual property. And whereas Central Square might once have looked like the future, the actual evolution of London's residential squares has headed from terraced splendour to flat-packed piazza, and I didn't fancy visiting anything tediously modern like that when so many classic quadrangles remain. [map][4 photos]