(Thursday 30 June 2016)
At first the way into the gardens is hard to locate amongst the the chaotic commotion of the London Wall Place development site (high rise office buildings and new landscaped gardens, hyped as the ‘most dynamic and exciting places in the City of London’.). I’m about to give up when I see a worker jetwashing dust off a path and I catch a reflection of green in the wet. There’s a narrow passage between hoardings with a sign overhead reading SITE ENTRANCE.
Part of the eastern section of this little strip of garden (a little less than 1½ acres
) is sectioned off behind more hoardings. A mature magnolia and an oak tree are
protectively boxed in. The magnolia end has signs reading ‘SMOKING AREA!’ and the area around the oak is the designated ‘VAPING AREA!’ The benches are occupied by construction workers, smoking, vaping and eating and not appearing too bothered by the signs. The garden is bounded on its north side with a long section of London Wall
, topped with a band of eroded Tudor diamond brickwork, abundant with plants bursting and twining from its cracks and crevices. Beneath is a flowerbed, bursting with yellow loosestrife.
This piece of ground is shouting distance from Cripplegate
(the name probably originated from the Old English crypel: to creep, as you had to duck down under the original low arch
). Orginally the northern entrance to the Roman fort of Londinium
, built in 120AD, a defensive bastion which housed barracks for over 1000 men. Cripplegate was built of stone, superseded by later brick gateway buildings until 1760, when it was demolished to widen the road.
In 1331, William Elsing
, mercer of London was so distressed at the number of destitute blind and semi- paralysed beggars in the streets of the city, that he founded a hospital here. It was taken over by the Augustinian
order 10 years later. This is where the churchyard lay for the priory church of St Mary (later to be rededicated to St Alphage, the patron saint of kidnap victims
). The hospital was ordered to close in 1536, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries
. All that now remains of the priory buildings and church, after centuries of fire, dilapidation, neglect and the Blitz, is the stump of the original 14th Century tower, just to the south of this garden. At the moment, though, it crouches in the midst of the building site, shrouded in protective plastic (architects’ simulations show it incorporated into the proposed new garden space, populated with lots of young, shiny and smart business people!
A flaking stone plaque in the wall states that the churchyard was closed by Act of Parliament and laid out as a public garden in 1872. After the second world war, a lower
section was added to the garden, to the west, partially created from the cellar of a bombed out adjacent building; you can still see the soot blackened brickwork and an old fireplace.
I descend the wooden steps into the paved lower garden and feel like I’m climbing down through time, the space is dominated by a further butt of the old London Wall, its textures catching and refracting the sunlight. This section of wall was an important part of London’s defensive fortifications until Saxon
times. Over the following centuries, the remains of the wall were butchered, plundered, patched up, and incorporated into other buildings. There are still surviving fragments
of the wall throughout the City. It’s enthralling to be so close to this stonework. I run my fingers along its rough flank, feeling the planes and edges of ragstones and flint bedded here by Roman, Saxon and medieval hands.
There are four rectangular wooden planters with lilies and a mix of bedding plants. A single bench sits, empty, at the end. Half the garden’s width has been built up into 3 tiers of planted beds, colourfully laid out with precise ranks of geraniums and nicotiana. The beds curve around to the far end, where the garden jams up against the 10 storeyed block of Roman House.
This whole area sprouts tall and massive with glass and concrete office buildings. And a
little north, the brutalist Barbican Estate. They are the result of regeneration schemes to resurrect a new business and residential district, covering some 28 acres, from the ashes and devastation of wartime bombing. Developed and then redeveloped. I’m acutely aware of this today: a constant percussion section of drilling, hammering and battering, pierced by the shrill toot toot toot
of reversing cement lorries.
I climb up behind the shrubs to the topmost tier and draw the view back down into the deep well of this space, guarded by the crag of the ancient wall and fringed with magnolia tree, fern and shrub foliage. A glimpse of sky flickering though. Hidden birdsong from the undergrowth: teep teep teep. Behind me a rickety trellis over which construction workers lean and smoke. One nods and says “alright?” with east European inflection and flicks his fag end down into a shaggy privet bush.
There’s an access gate through to the Salter’s Garden
, which underlines Basil Spence
‘s dramatic modernist Salter’s Hall
. Laid out with lawn, box hedges, pergolas and paths, with three fountains and pond. It’s supposed to be open to the public from 9 – 5 on weekdays and I’d love to look closely at the other side of London Wall. But today the
gate is locked.
No one comes to this lower garden for the whole 2 hours until, just as I’m finishing, a young builder comes down and saunters over to the bench, lays his hard hat beside him and puts in his earphones.
This little space is enclosed on all sides but no feeling of claustrophobia here. Surrounded by clamour and clatter but down here is strangely tranquil. Overshadowed on all four sides by monumental blocks but still full of light.
(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. www.nickandrew.co.uk )
St. Alphage Gardens, London. EC2Y 5EL
Google earth view here