For one weekend each June, the capital's hidden horticultural heritage is placed on show. This is Open Garden Squares Weekend, the outdoor equivalent of September's Open House, and you've just missed it. For a ten pound fee you can take a look inside various private gardens, well over a hundred in total, and enjoy the views normally only a select few see. There's a fine guidebook, which helps you to avoid visiting 'ordinary' gardens that have free daily access. It also has some excellent maps (Open House, take heed), which clearly show clusters of gardens within easy walking distance. So I paid up, picked Sunday over Saturday because far more was open, and mapped out a route from NottingHill toPimlico. It took all day, but I got inside twenty private enclaves to admire the facilities, the space and the planting. And, unashamedly, to snoop.
Garden squares are a particular feature of residential London, more inner than outer, more north and west than south and east. Where well-to-do estates were built with no back gardens, the idea was to provide a communal green space for everyone on an adjacent plot. Some have since been opened up, for example Russell Square and Finsbury Circus, but many remain gated and secure. A garden committee is usually appointed to oversee management, and the lawns and borders kept pristine. When you or I fancy a picnic or need to walk the dog we go to the park. Garden squares are parks for rich people, only with better foliage, and nicer lawns, and probably no dogs allowed.
One thing you'll find in most garden squares is a compost corner, tucked away, and maybe a shed corner too. Someone has to do the work, and it helps to have all the tools conveniently on site. Tennis courts are popular too, generally hardstanding but occasionally grass. Only keyholders are permitted access, but then only keyholders are permitted access to these squares anyway. Mini-playgrounds give very-local children somewhere exclusive to play, and Thurloe Square even has its own basketball hoop. I don't think wind quartets are normal though - Earl's Court Square had one of those, as well as a National Trust tent that few were visiting.
A cheery volunteer greeted me at every gate. Some were rather keener to see my ticket than others, perhaps keen to keep out the riffraff, until proven otherwise. Some spoke with splendidly clipped vowels, some tried to unload unclaimed guide books, while the Notting Hill ladies at Norland Square offered me a slice of lemon drizzle cake which I gladly accepted. Most of the squares run by the GrosvenorEstate handed out a Tree Trail to follow, which was clear and informative and a particularly interesting way to look round. Hereford Square had the most interesting handouts, with a detailed four-page history as well as a complete list of everything planted in the garden. Bramham Gardens kept it briefer, but their "please return this leaflet" gave the best insight into what it's actually like to live alongside.
Usually there's a path around the edge, and then a border. What goes in the middle of the square varies, sometimes just grass, but more usually a mix of lawn and beds and amenities. Sometimes the public can look straight in and see the lot, as at Collingham Gardens in Knightsbridge. In other squares there's a ring of shrubbery, maybe two, to provide a degree of privacy for those within. Some of the squares back directly onto their adjacent houses, allowing fortunate ground floor residents immediate access. Such proximity also provided visitors with a fine view back, for example of a pair of helium "I love you" balloons in a living room off Bramham Gardens and a bloke playing his grand piano overlooking Gledhow Gardens.
In most cases, the garden's regular residents continued to use the facilities undeterred. In Edwardes Square two parents were attempting to teach their children to ride a bike, with as yet unsuccessful results. In Eccleston Square several parties braved the summer chill to dine out with a picnic, some quaffing champagne, others Capri-Sun. In Royal Crescent Gardens one small child proved that even rich toddlers pee in the flowerbed when they think nobody's looking. And in Courtfield Gardens (West) a crowd of excited children played a strange "grab the hoodie" team game, jabbering in Russian as their au pair held court. In these wealthy quarters of London, not every local resident is local.
London plane trees are much in evidence, mostly mature specimens providing broad leaf cover. Rhododendrons are common too, and bursts of purple alliums which almost every square seemed to have in bloom at the moment. Sometimes the gardener was present to answer questions, in other places a local volunteer had to respond as best they could. I particularly admired Chester Square, previously Mrs Thatcher's local, for its pristine simplicity. But I'd vote Eccleston Square the best, I think, my vote in line with the number of annual OGSW award plaques pinned up on the glasshouse. A shame they were only open for three hours yesterday, that's a mere three hours a year for the rest of us to enjoy their kaleidoscopic planting.
I did feel as if I was 20 years below the average age of an OGSW viistor, and most definitely of the minority sex. That said there were a few younger folk, generally in tow to an older relative, including one lad in a bright red baseball cap with neck tattoo. Most visitors were here to admire the planting, and to point at the borders and call out the names of plants to friends. "Fennel, petunia, and I think that's a skinnia." One retired gentleman at Edwardes Square was unimpressed, announcing "dreadful gardening" to his other half as they passed a bed of spears. I thought it looked lovely, but then what do I know.
Top of the exclusivity list, on my West London stroll at least, was Belgrave Square. This is the giant quadrangle at the heart of Belgravia, surrounded by embassy buildings and some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Normally the entire space is shielded by shrubbery, bar a few gaps over the shoulders of statues at the corners. Yesterday the place was most welcoming, complete with cakes for sale and £5 burgers being grilled beside the inner lawn. Here ticketholders mingled with those who pay a mighty annual service charge to hide here, as if this were entirely normal. Only Eaton Square provided comparable distraction, with a traditional Punch and Judy show delighting similarly mixed crowds, and a kiosk by the water fountain dispensing stir-fry.
It's a shame Sunday's weather was so relentlessly overcast, as the gardens failed to properly sparkle and all but ahandful ofmy photos came out rather flat. But I learned a lot from my day out, not necessarily plant-related, more from exploring a normally invisible side of the capital. This was a privileged insight into how the privileged live, a minor brushing of shoulders with the property-owning elite. It's clear the presence of a garden square helps communities to come together - a point of focus, a shared amenity. But when I need time to rest awhile outdoors I guess I'll have to make do with a patch of grass in my local park, and mind where I sit.