diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 23, 2013

100 years ago today, on 23rd July 1913, Streatham's Rookery gardens opened to the public. If you've ever been to Streatham Common you may have found them, up the top end, beyond the cattle trough and the Italian cafe. Step through the gate to discover a beautiful enclosure tumbling down from lawns to formal gardens, immaculately presented, courtesy of Lambeth's crack horticulture team. And if you have ever discovered this space, I'll bet you've been back.

Step back beyond today's centenary and this spot was rather more famous. Mineral springs were discovered in Streatham in 1659, and a house was built by the wellspring in the early 18th century to service visitors. The arrival of the railways spurred numbers further, making Streatham Spa a fashionable resort, and thousands flocked to The Rookery to taste the waters. Here's part of an advert from 1878.

This celebrated MINERAL WATER was first discovered in the year 1659. It rises at a temperature of 52° Fahrenheit. When recently pumped up, it has a slight odour of Sulphur, is sparkling and bright, and, although it contains much Sulphate of Magnesia, is not unpleasant to the taste; on the contrary, it leaves behind a freshness grateful to the palate. It is strongly impregnated with Iron, passing in its course through several strata of that metal.

This CHALYBEATE WATER has been celebrated for upwards of two Centuries, for its great efficacy in renovating the impaired functions of Life, and is strongly recommended by the Faculty in all obstinate Diseases of the Skin and Lymphatic Glands, especially in that afflicting disease called Scrofula... It is a most valuable remedy for persons labouring under Nervous Debility.

No trend lasts forever, and the spa water business soon began to fade. That left the big house and its grounds up for sale, which didn't please the local population so they clubbed together to protect it from development and raised £3075 for its purchase. In turn they presented The Rookery to the London County Council, who removed the old house and transformed these three acres into an ornamental garden. That took another year, until a brand new public park was opened on the edge of Streatham Common, with no pomp or circumstance, on 23rd July 1913.

The prettiest part of The Rookery is the ornamental garden, especially in the blaze of summer. A network of paved geometrical paths twist between formal beds surrounding a central sundial. That's been renovated for the centenary, with a pristine black dial presented by the Friends of Streatham Common. Two long pergolas drip with roses, and the original well remains beneath a rustic wooden gable. Ideal for sitting around, if the weather's fine, and if you can find a bench to spare. Do check behind the wall for The White Garden, whose flowers are the obvious colour, where you might find an employee wielding a hosepipe to keep the beds from drying out.

Leading gently up the slope to one side is a rockery dotted with herbaceous plants, where a narrow channel of water cascades down through the stones to a lower pond. At the top is a long terrace lined with wooden benches, looking down over a sloping lawn. A tall cedar dominates, beneath which (while I was there) a group of local women gyrated and waved their arms in tai-chi joy. A centenary flowerbed has been installed in a roundel near the top gate, although to prevent damage it's had to be surrounded by metal barriers which diminishes the effect somewhat. And watch out for the perimeter path that's the Woodland Walk, easily missed as it wiggles through shady trees.

Anniversary celebrations have been underway, in a muted manner, for a few months now. The main event, with music and tours, took place a couple of Saturdays ago (presumably to avoid clashing with the Lambeth Country Show last weekend). Romeo and Juliet is being performed here, in the open air, next Sunday evening. And if you turn up this evening at 7.30pm, thunderstorms permitting, a centenary plaque will be unveiled near the entrance to the White Garden. They treasure their ornamental hideaway hereabouts, but then The Rookery is definitely one up on your average 100-year-old park garden.

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