Monthly Archives: June 2011

Sunshine and gardens in London, oh my!

It all started with having missed out. The London Parks & Gardens Trust (and if any city needed one of those, it’s London) runs an Open Garden Squares weekend every year, usually in June, where any punter willing to plonk down the cash for a ticket finds that the gates of a great many otherwise private gardens are thrown wide open for his (or her, of course), viewing pleasure. I think it’s a terrific idea, but last year I only found out about it after it was over. This yeah, having seen a poster on the way to work, I was determined to make sure I didn’t miss out again. So, with the marvellous powers of the Internet having granted me a magic pass, I gathered up my camera, my umbrella, my waterbottle and my favourite teddybear and headed out.

I had no plan of action; there are over 200 gardens on the list, which is far more than can be seen in a single weekend. So I chose an area fairly close to home that had a cluster of gardens all open on Saturday, and worked my way down from top to bottom. This was an unexpectedly successful strategy, considering how much I know about gardens and gardening. Clearly fortune favours the ignorant.

I started out at the British Medical Association Council Garden in Tavistock Square – walked through the gates and presented my fairy pass to the man at the gate, and entered a magical little world. These gardens shouldn’t be hidden away! Not when they are gems like this:

British Medical Association Council Garden

British Medical Association Council Garden

The forecast for the day was rain, but I’m pleased to note that they were entirely wrong. The sun blazed down from a faultlessly blue sky, and the occasional passing cloud only helped reinforce it all. After a pleasant interlude at the BMAC, I crossed the road into Tavistock Square Gardens, and stopped briefly to pay my respects to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi:

Tavistock Square Gardens

Then I trundled onwards to Gordon Square, but didn’t stay long, since it’s open to the public anyway, and visiting isn’t a problem. Stopped long enough to take a few photographs, of course:

Gordon Square

Something I was quite looking forward to was the SOAS Japanese-Inspired roof garden at the Brunei Gallery, described in my little guide as “a space for quiet contemplation and meditation”. Unfortunately, SOAS had chosen this weekend to have an alumni reunion, so the space for quiet contemplation was overrun by awkwardly interacting people all being formally polite to each other while the eager-eyed garden tourists peeked around the door and shuffled nervously around the crowds. It’s a curious garden, very minimalist, with a large stone structure and scalloped pebble beds in the middle, and some lovely shaded seats along one side.

SOAS Japanese-inspired roof garden

SOAS Japanese-inspired roof garden

My fellow garden-ramblers were an interesting mix, from the hardened tweed-and-Doc-Martens-wearing contingent in their identical green macs, through chic Europeans in sunglasses and high heels, to families dragging various kids around by their ears and heels. Plenty of cameras in evidence, of course, and much weighty discussion about the various benefits of Dianthus carthusianorum and Eryngium giganteum. The amount that people here have learned about garden plants and are willing to argue about them in public is a never-ending source of astonishment for me. Plenty of commentary on the merits of the various gardens and plants, far above my head.

I stopped for lunch in Russell Square, and was very pleased to note that there’s at least one other person in the world who gets caught on camera laying on the floor looking like a complete twerp:

A quick stop at the very long, thin and beautiful Ridgemont Gardens was worthwhile, but as time was pressing, I hurried onwards.

Ridgemont Gardens

The Academy, of Virginia Woolf fame, was an interesting change of pace, with a large and ornate house to inspect along with a small garden:

The Academy Gardens

A leisurely half-hour in the much grander-looking Bedford Square was a welcome break from tramping around, and I overheard a woman complaining to her companion: “There aren’t any bloody flowers! What’s the use of a bloody garden with no bloody flowers?” Well, you judge for yourself.

Bedford Square

This led on to the only real disappointment of the day, a garden whose name I can’t be bothered to look up, and which I walked out of after a few minutes because it wasn’t a garden so much as a collection of geraniums in pots, and I’m glad I did, because that allowed me to go on to the final garden of the day and spend some more time there; another little gem, but this time hidden away behind the bustle of Shaftesbury Avenue. I must have walked within a hundred meters of this restored bomb-site but had no idea it was there. The Phoenix Garden is a fantastic little place. Go there if you can. It’s not so much that it’s a grand or ornate garden, because I’ve seen better and more impressive, of course, but it’s just because it’s just so wonderful to unexpectedly stumble across this in the heart of the West End. A good way to end; mirroring the magic of the start.

The Phoenix Garden

You can find the rest of the pictures from the day here. There will be more garden-going tomorrow, and presumably more photographs to add!

And the word of the day is – petrichor

This is something I discovered recently, and is a woefully underused word, though it’s been around a long time. It’s the fantastically evocative word that describes the ineffable smell of earth after rain, that rich, earthy scent that rises from baked soil when the first showers of summer strike.

You don’t really get petrichor in England; the best you can get is a faint hint of it during a summer shower, but in Bangalore in April, when the first huge cumulo-nimbus thunderheads start to build up with the promise of summer thunderstorms and then dump their shiver-inducing load of rain on parched, dusty fields and streets, then petrichor abounds.

Mixing stone with the fluid that runs in the veins of the gods; what a heady mix.

In Which We Try to Give Away a Ticket, and Fail

You would have thought I was trying to get rid of something illicit. I felt awkward and exposed, in the middle of a crowd, trying to make eye contact with likely looking people while keeping one eye out for approaching officialdom in case what I was doing was actually illegal.

I wasn’t dealing drugs. I wasn’t selling stolen goods. I wasn’t soliciting anything. I was merely trying to give away a railway ticket that I couldn’t use, and naively thought that perhaps someone else could. I’d bought a return from London to Brighton, but realised that staying overnight made more sense, and felt that doing a charitable good deed would be a good way to end the day. Full of cheer and hope, I sauntered out onto the station entrance at Brighton, convinced that it would take me mere minutes to find someone who would equally cheerfully and gratefully accept my ticket with a warm smile and get on a train to London, their faith in human nature restored by my kind offer.

All I can say is that it’s incredibly hard to give something away in England – nearly as hard as it would be to ask for it. Clearly, I’ve lived in England long enough to absorb the essential feature of English life, as wittily identified by Kate Fox: embarrassment. About everything. Embarrassment about monetary transactions; about giving or receiving charity; about drawing attention to yourself in public; embarrassment about being embarrassed about all these things. It’s a subtle, complex, irresistible vortex of spiralling awkwardness that can have only one result: hopeless paralysis in all social situations and a deep disinclination to take any action that might deviate even slightly from the norm.

My early optimism was, I regret to say, short-lived. Bright-eyed sauntering rapidly became hunched, shifty shuffling. Every time I managed to bring my courage to the sticking-place and approach someone, they had already bought their tickets. The two people I managed to speak to weren’t going to London, and pointed this out rather quickly. They looked rather startled when approached in this fashion, and I can’t blame them. I’d be wary of being approached by total strangers at a train station myself, especially shifty, wild-eyed characters that crab-shuffle up from behind, nervously looking over their shoulders from time to time, enquiring huskily but sincerely if people are going to London. My instinct would be to deny everything, just in case, and clearly, these people came from the same school of thought. Alternatively, of course, they were just not going to London. I was thinking many things – what if I offended someone through this? What if they thought I was trying to scam them in some way? What if someone called the police on this suspicious behaviour? We live, after all, in an age when “If you suspect it, report it!” is the slightly hysterical exhortation from every corner. Paranoid? Certainly. But it was also quite interesting, from a personal perspective, that I was unable to overcome this deep-seated anxiety and just get on with giving the damn ticket away.

The scheme was a total bust. I just got more and more tongue-tied, shifty and hoarse, eventually admitting defeat and giving up without even a faint glimmer of success. The ticket was still burning a hole in my pocket, however, so, urged on by the equally altruistic and charitable encouragement of a friend, we went back later that evening to give it another chance. Brighton station at around 10:30pm is not the most salubrious place for two men to stand and size up passers-by for their suitability for a spot of friendly ticket-giving-away. On all sides, we were beset by packs of students returning from a night on the town, in various states of undress and sozzlement, yelping to each other in unintelligible near-ultrasonic voices. Not a single person looked sober, industrious and serious – the sort of person to whom we could hand over the ticket with a clean conscience, knowing that he or she would take good care of it, appreciate it, look after it, and in due course, send it to the great ticket machine in the sky. We stood around for quite a while, hopeful that some miracle would bring us such a saint of clear-eyed acceptance, but eventually, we gave up and silently slunk away in defeat. Not the most glorious of endings to a venture that started with such high hopes, but it was interesting.