Some of London's best small parks were once a rich man's garden.
Here's a fine example in Finchley.
It's called Stephens House and Gardens and it covers a dozen acres off East End Road, not far from Finchley central station. If what you need is a kickabout space and somewhere to exercise a big dog it's not for you, but if instead you want rockeries, rare trees, walled gardens, woods, artificial hillocks, water features, climbing frames, salt beef bagels, pebbledash and the chance to sit next to Spike Milligan then it's perfect.
The rich man in question was Henry Stephens, better known to his friends as 'Inky'. In 1832 his father Charles, a doctor who liked to dabble in chemistry, had invented an indelible blue-black writing fluid which didn't clog fountain pens and he become wealthy on the proceeds. Henry took over the family firm at the age of 23 after the sudden death of his father, expanding production and developing a reputation as a local benefactor and philanthropist. Such was his status locally that he was considered "the uncrowned king of Finchley", which helps explain how he got to be their MP for 13 years. For over four decades he lived in Avenue House on East End Road, transforming it and the adjacent field into something more to his liking, and on his death in 1918 bequeathed it all into the care of Finchley Urban District Council. Thanks Henry.
You won't get into the house without an appointment, a ticket to an event or an invite to a wedding, because the charity that now runs the estate needs every penny it can raise. But you can roam freely across the gardens, which are lovely, and also lavishly appointed with information boards so you can tell exactly what it is that you're enjoying.
The main entrance is through a turrety courtyard past a former stable block. Inside is a cafe called Inky's with a menu that's tried and tested rather than over-fussy or expensive, and also a set of toilets paid for by a lottery grant. There's also, I think, a Visitors Centre, but it wasn't open on my visit so may just be somewhere that volunteers hide away to natter and drink tea. To reach the gardens you continue underneath the arch and, oh yes very nice.
The corner nearest the house has a big lawn which sweeps up towards a humpy rockery, all fringed with trees. Such features were the preferred 'gardenesque' style of the designer Robert Marnock, who's also the horticulturalist responsible for Sheffield's Botanical Garden and the first garden in the centre of Regent's Park. The arboretum includes several unusual species brought in from across the world, including gingko, swamp cypress, mulberry, Bhutan pine, medlar and Californian redwood. In the northwest corner is a coniferous mound called Monkey Hill, a brief but attractive climb up meandering earthen steps for those on a diversion from the perimeter path. I still can't work out why someone had abandoned a set of bathroom scales on the summit.
Near the centre of the garden is a small pond - not Stephens' original but instead his former Japanese sunken garden, which I guess was appropriately contoured. It's fed by a cascade from the bog garden above and can be inspected from various angles along surrounding paths. Stephens was particularly interested in water supply and, as a keen chemist, was so unimpressed by the quality of the local supply that he built his own self-sufficient system. It includes what's thought to be the world's first reinforced concrete water tower, a 9m high structure with castellated top and pebbledash render, again restored using lottery cash. This is not your average park.
Pebbledash concrete crenellations are also the chief feature of The Bothy, a walled smallholding on the far side of the garden. It once housed the kitchen garden and accommodation for estate workers, and perhaps the abattoir because Stephens kept sheep and cattle and liked to be self-sufficient in meat too. Today, somewhat unexpectedly, the accommodation hosts a child psychology training association called Terapia. The gardens meanwhile are tended by volunteers and look lovely, but I only know this because I slipped through the electronic gate behind a client and was promptly kicked out... with the advice to come back on a Friday between ten and one if I wanted to stay longer.
The most intriguing object in the gardens is probably Spike Milligan's bench. The great comedian lived in Finchley for many years and was a founder member of The Finchley Society, a preservation body who hold their monthly meetings in Avenue House. The bench was commissioned in 2013 and includes a seated statue with borderline resemblance, and is called A Conversation With Spike in the hope you'll sit down and do just that. The decoration on the bench is extreme, and includes fellow Goons, elephants (because he was born in India), fairies (because they inspired him to write poetry) and two enormous letter Qs (for reasons which should be obvious if you enjoyed TV comedy in the 1970s).
They lock the gates at six, and from next week four (because winter and all that). They also host regular events, such as a Hallowe'en ghost hunt in the cellars (Oct), the 12th annual Finchley Women's Institute Frost Fair (Nov) and a talk on Spike's private life (Dec). If you're vaguely local then Stephens House and Gardens should already be on your radar, and if not then it might make a very nice change.