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Chelsea Fringe | London’s garden route

May 7, 2012

Tom Turner and I choose one of London’s wettest afternoons to meet, and by the time I reach Victoria Tower Gardens my boots have sprung a leak.  We’re here to do the first part of his London Gardens Walking Tour, using an interactive Google map designed for a smart phone or tablet.  Tom’s map is a virtual part of the Chelsea Fringe, and promises an epic self-guided stroll through the capital’s gardening past, present and future.  We couldn’t have picked a better day for such time travels.

A confession.  Not only do I lack sensible shoes, I also have an extraordinarily old phone.  Someone recently called it ‘vintage’. Thankfully I have a friend trusting enough to lend me her more modern mobile.  I feel better when I discover that not only does Tom lack a smart phone of his own, he’s also turned up in sandals.   His feet will surely end up the wetter of the two.  The weather hasn’t dampened Tom’s irrepressible good spirits, and so we begin.

“All garden styles are represented in London – it’s the world capital of gardening” says Tom.  “People who travel here for the Chelsea Flower Show should be looking at our gardens too.  I’ve been thinking about this map for ages – the Chelsea Fringe has given me an excuse to do it.” For Tom, there’s more to gardens than mere pleasure – they offer a different way of thinking about the city.

“People don’t know about our garden heritage but it’s a really important part of London’s status as a cultural capital.  I moved here in 1973 and it’s taken me years to find everything out.  I’ve written books and websites – the map is another way of the telling the story. I want to give an overview, to show people what’s been done before and what’s possible in the future. My favourite section of the walk is the first part.  It’s the most scenically beautiful and historically interesting.”

So that, of course, is the part we will do.  Victoria Tower Gardens seems a good place to start a London landscape walk, framed as it is by the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames.  The big old plane trees are just coming into leaf and are slick with wet.  We cross Millbank and head down some steps to the Jewel Tower and a snatch of sunken lawn in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

Tom hands me a garden style spotters’ guide, which is a bit like a bird ID chart but for landscape design and you can find on the website.  It turns out we’re standing in an example of a castle garden dating back to the 1300s.  He explains that in medieval times this would have been home to flowers and food plants rather than close clipped grass.

We walk on, past queues of people waiting outside the Abbey, and head round the back.  It’s possible to get in for free if you’re just looking at the Cloisters.  This is point three on the map, although the phone struggles for a signal down here. The Small Cloister is a well kept secret.  It’s beautifully planted with delicate pale silvers and greens.

Close by is the College Garden, a bigger space with trees heavy with pink blossom.  The wind has whipped the blooms up and the paths are painted with slippery petals.  A medieval style herb garden has appeared here since his last visit and Tom’s delighted.  “It’s not quite right but much better than it was.”  I start to learn that Tom – a stickler for historical accuracy – is quite hard to please.  We pass the plain lawn of the Great Cloister on the way out.  “How boring”, he declares, “it should be a meadow.”

Next stop on the map is Whitehall and another dull patch of lawn with a fascinating past.  This stretch of road was once the site of Whitehall Palace and the grass outside the Ministry of Defence is a faint hint at a privy garden that belonged to Henry VIII.  We race ahead through history to Duck Island Cottage on the edge of St James’ Park.  It’s a storybook building surrounded by flowerbeds like brush strokes in the Arts and Crafts style.

Looking at the online map, I discover that Duck Island dates from the seventeenth century, when St James’ was the deer park for Whitehall Palace. The cottage was built in the 19th century in the style of a cottage ornée, and was given an Arts and Crafts cottage garden in the 20th – a symbol of England’s peasant culture in the heart of the government quarter.

“My grandfather used to buy fresh milk from a cow stationed in St James’ Park” says Tom, going on to dream of a day when the cows return during a future Chelsea Fringe.  So why does London need this new garden festival?

“The things that are outside the mainstream often become the most interesting and memorable. I’m originally from Edinburgh – I find the official festival rather dull but the Fringe is wonderful and far more fun. All sorts of surprises are possible.  I love the Chelsea Flower Show.  It’s a bit like a reunion, as lots of my students from the University of Greenwich have shown there.  But it’s always been a regret of mine that the gardens are destroyed.

“There could be a longer lasting, urban regeneration element to the Chelsea Fringe.  It’s a way of showing what London’s future could be. The Fringe should be many things, but part of it should be political and an argument for change – instead of creating pamphlets, we’ll create gardens!”

We discuss urban greening and Tom’s excitement about possibilities for the future, like living roofs and walls.  He believes the new landscape to add to his spotters’ guide will be called the ‘sustainable style’, and that gardens should help shape urban design. The conversation then turns to park management.  Tom believes things have improved massively since the 1990s, but that there’s a long way to go.

“Gardens are works of art, artefacts. In the 1950s there were very few garden historians, now there are quite a lot.  But park management hasn’t caught up.  There’s an avenue of sweet chestnuts in Greenwich Park that’s the oldest of its kind in Britain, but the Royal Parks have built a bin store that blocks it.  It displays an extraordinary level of artistic and historical ignorance putting it there.”

Defeated by time and weather we fast forward to the final dot on the 20 mile garden route – Trafalgar Square which, according to the map, is conceptually a terrace with the layout of a nineteenth century landscape garden. The map explains that it was designed by Charles Barry, who also designed Italianate terraces for several Victorian gardens.

Tom leaves me soggy but satiated with new knowledge, looking out over one of London’s biggest tourist traps.  It’s a place decidedly devoid of green that’s been given new life by the map. For Tom, understanding the past is an important way of coming up with ideas for the future and that’s what he hopes his walk through history will encourage people to do.

How it works

The London Gardens Walk is a free and interactive online map, which you can access on a computer or on a smart phone via  It plots out the route from A to B, with info attached to each point on the map that you can read as you wander.  There are 40 points of interest, and the walk follows a long loop that finishes almost where it begins in central London.  A more comprehensive e-book guide will be on offer as a free download on the 19th and 20th May – the first weekend of the Chelsea Fringe.

This feature was originally written for The Telegraph


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