Book Review: London’s Parks and Gardens

The next time anybody says to you that he does not like London – too crowded, not enough open space – press a copy of this book into his hands and force him to read it, cover to cover, lest you tie him into more knots than has the great wisteria at Fulham Palace.

The sheer range of the city’s open spaces is breathtaking, from the several thousands of acres of Richmond Park and the 790 acres of Hampstead Heath, through the many plane-treed West End squares, to the zesty annual beds of the Horniman Museum and the floral displays at the barge moorings of Little Venice.

‘Over centuries, despite regular threats of enclosure and urbanisation, London has managed to retain, create and develop green areas in large sweeps and small pockets-sometimes flushed with flowers or studded with splendid trees, sometimes wild, sometimes made magnificent by the hand of man,’ advises the author, and she has triumphantly explored 109 examples for this book.

Chapter headings hint at the range. ‘Ancient and Modern: the City, Docklands and the East End’ includes Bunhill Fields (where John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake are laid to rest), potted gardens and balconies of the Barbican, new gardens at Canary Wharf, and Thames Barrier Park. The last is ‘the first new riverside park to be opened in London for fifty years’. It looks a triumph. The chapter ‘Parks and Pleasances’includes the great central London parks, as well as more intimate museum spaces and even the delightfully crammed and stylish garden centre of Clifton Nurseries.

The importance of open space to the human life of Britain’s capital is emphasised,and encapsulated in life-enhancing photographs; and there is no doubt that the author has thoroughly explored this key angle. I wondered about the parallel crucial values to wildlife. But that is well covered in the section on Barnes Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which I was glad to see takes up four pages of excellent analysis of its habitats and visitors (they include reed buntings, cattle egrets and even goshawks).

The only letdown here is that human visitors have to put up with what must be local authority architecture at its most clumpy and pedestrian, which must have been difficult to achieve in a place that sets out to celebrate the airy lightness associated with birds and water. London’s parks and gardens are truly diverse, incalculably valuable and, in the end, deserve the very best treatment that a really great capital can muster.

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