What is a Pleasaunce? An archaic word for pleasure-garden, i.e. a garden with the sole purpose of giving pleasure to the senses.
How rare are Pleasaunces? I believe there are only two in London, perhaps in the whole of the UK.
Where are these Pleasaunces? They are both in the London borough of Greenwich.
Which is the best Pleasaunce? The second one.
East Greenwich Pleasaunce
Where is it?East Greenwich, specifically between Maze Hill and Westcombe Park stations. This will turn out to be relevant. But because it's set back from the Woolwich Road it's easily missed, indeed I had never been inside before.
How big is it? About 5 acres and approximately rectangular in shape.
What does it look like? A part-grassy, part-woody slope with runaround bits, playground bits and a stripe of gravestones across the middle. From the top half you can look north and see the masts on the Millennium Dome and the towers of Docklands. It's quite nice but it's not really nice.
How did it get here? It's all thanks to Greenwich Hospital (now the Old Royal Naval College) a mile to the west. This opened in 1694 as an institution to house old and infirm former naval officers, the Greenwich Pensioners. By 1857 the burial ground was full so the Royal Navy bought an orchard in East Greenwich and opened a new cemetery as an overflow. The remains of 3000 more seamen had to be shifted here in 1875 when the Maze Hill railway tunnel was built through the old cemetery site. In 1926 the cemetery was handed over to Greenwich council who opened it as a park. Nowhere else in London can you picnic on top of the remains of sailors who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and in the Crimea.
What's the prettiest bit? Probably the edge because a hedge of pleached European Lime runs all the way round. It was planted in the 1930s so has had a good chance to look smartly ornamental, although it is savagely pruned once a year to promote side-growth so I bet it'll look prettier later.
Is it busy? Heavens yes, mainly with locals walking dogs. Small yappy things seem to be preferred, and a full circuit can take ages what with all the greeting, barking and sniffing that goes on. The northeast corner of the park was however entirely empty because it's the 'no dogs' zone and none of the visitors wanted to go in there, additionally because it's not yet warm enough for picnics when you probably wouldn't risk sitting down elsewhere.
What are the pancakes like? A bit on the trendy side. Pistachios in the Park opened an eco-cafe with solar panels and a grass roof in 2008, and their savoury crepe menu mostly involves combinations of spinach, artichoke and cheese (goats or otherwise). A plain old Nutella, banana and hazelnuts goes for 5.5 because they're not ashamed to do that rounding to one decimal place thing. I can't believe adding hash browns to your Full English now costs 2.
What else should you look for? The ping pong table, the tree trail, the Commonwealth War Graves and the fruit trees, the latter a nice throwback to the Pleasaunce's original function.
Well Hall Pleasaunce
Where is it?Eltham, very close to the station and even closer to the A2 Rochester Relief Road which runs immediately alongside (but in a cutting so it won't disturb your visit).
How big is it? About 10 acres and irregular in shape.
What does it look like? Astonishingly varied. Part formal, part sylvan, part open, part actual Tudor moat. The site is deliberately divided up into different zones ('garden rooms') so you step almost immediately from the heather garden to the Italian sunken pool to the walled garden to the woodland glen. It's really nice.
How did it get here? The manor of Well Hall's been around since medieval times but the Tudor Barn within the moat is plainly Tudor. William Roper who owned it was married to Thomas More's daughter Margaret, such was the draw of nearby Eltham Palace. In 1733 a new house was added beside the main road and in 1899 Hubert and Edith moved in, she much better known as children's author E Nesbit. During her 23 year stay she wrote The Railway Children and Five Children and It, and Woolwich council celebrated her legacy by demolishing the house ten years later. They were admittedly transforming the site into a public park, now grade II listed, and the Tudor Barn was simultaneously repurposed as a restaurant and art gallery.
What's the prettiest bit? Tough choice, which is saying something for a council park. It might be the enormous walled garden with its central fountain, fruit trees and artisanal shelter. It might be the colourful rockery by the sunken garden, sharply boosted by it being blossom time at present. It might be the daffodil-banked fake stream drawing the eye from the Sunday morning football taking place over the fence. It perhaps ought to be the floral shield, except the crack team of on-site gardeners don't seem to have planted that with annuals this year. Next month it might be the pergola dripping with wisteria. But it's probably the moat because it's a genuine loop and you can get some cracking reflections in that, plus it's not every moat in London which has an actual Tudor building to reflect in it.
Is it busy? Not as busy as East Greenwich, despite being much more visible to passers-by, or maybe that's because I turned up early before the restaurant opened. But there were still families looking excitedly at ducks, small children riding toy cars on the back lawn, a small number of being-walked dogs, glum men hovering in the arbour and pensioners chatting on the bench by the psammead.
Hang on, psammead? Yes, it's one of three wooden sculptures on Moat Island erected in tribute to E Nesbit. The psammead was the eponymous It in Five Children and It, a sand fairy who granted wishes that ended at sunset causing all sorts of high jinks. The other sculpted creatures are a dragon from her Book of Beasts and a phoenix from The Phoenix and the Carpet, presumably because a sculpture of a carpet isn't quite so appealing.
What did you spend most of your time watching? Two robins battling the hell out of each other. They were so engrossed in fighting beak-to-beak that they ignored me and flapped violently around the Woodland Path for a good five minutes, at times right beside my feet. Their anger was feral, the two birds effectively inseparable until they eventually flew off into the shrubbery by the bowls pavillion. I assumed it wasn't a courtship ritual, unless a claw in the face is what turns birds on these days, but my opinion of our lovable Christmas mascots has been irreparably damaged.
What's the cafe like? Don't let the Tudor Barn hear you calling them a cafe, they prefer to see themselves as a luxury wedding venue, gastropub and restaurant. That's why they don't do jacket potatoes, they do Fish Finger Focaccia, Roasted Garlic Linguine and charcuterie to share. If you want something to takeaway their offering is restricted to Afternoon Tea or a Sunday Roast, but they will allow you to take a Strawberry Nojito or a bottle of Volandas Sauvignon Blanc out into the garden. Also the venue's closed if someone's getting married, so that's next Saturday scuppered, but in good news you can already book for Christmas and New Year.
What else should you look for? The bog garden, the fernery, the treetrail, the vine grown from a cutting from the world's oldest living grapevine, the bee boles, the rose garden, the sundial and the footbridge part-paid-for by Tesco Bags for Life.
Both Pleasaunces have Friendsgroups should you care to become deeper involved. I'd recommend the latter.