One of the few things that I miss about the UK even after nearly 20 years living in France, is the totally wonderful Yellow Book scheme. For those who don’t know, the Yellow Book is an indispensable guide to largely private gardens across the UK that are open for visits, mainly in the warmer months, to raise money for charity. For small sums, owners welcome you to their gardens, sell small plants to you, even afternoon teas (another delight) and are often willing to chat to you about their gardens and plants. It is such a brilliant and simple idea- and a source of great inspiration. By chance, I was in London in mid June, just for a few days and was able to catch the NGS Spitalfields Gardens event.
Spitalfields is a fascinating area on the edge of East London, squeezed between Bishopsgate and Brick Lane surrounding the temple-like Hawksmoor church, Christ Church. It has a rich history, an area that was always teeming with new waves of immigation from the 17th century onwards, and was home to the largest group of Georgian artisan housing in London. Much of this legacy was threatened by city reconstruction and slum clearance, only halted by the brave and militant group that later became the Spitalfields Trust. Around 200 houses in the Spitalfields streets have been saved, and restored or repurposed.
So, on a sunny Saturday, a good handful of restored Georgian houses opened their gardens to us, the gardening nuts, the nosey people and their own neighbours probably. These small back courtyards, with the exception of the rectory garden next door to Christ Church, were bounded by high brick walls and some were being seriously gardened, whilst others aimed for a more theatrical use of a small, largely shady space. You walked through the narrow entrance hall of the house, allowing a few quick peeks into living rooms, which curiously heightened the drama of emerging into the garden spaces. Some gardens went further adding a few extra touches such as the ‘gateway’ below using a good brick that chimed well with the original bricks of the house.
The garden below had a more contemporary feel. Massive iron giders spanned the garden planted with climbing roses, drawing the eye up to the four windows placed asymetrically at the back of the house.
The ground floor level had been opened up with a curved bridge over a new retaining wall creating a pool. Not my cup of tea really. It just felt a bit gimmicky and the planting wasn’t loved enough to wash that feeling away.
Another garden had taken a different approach to that basement situation. This was a much loved garden tended by a gifted and enthusiastic young man, who, faced with the drop to a dark basement, had planted a tree fern, which had grown to create a fabulous natural umbrella shape and was almost level with the ground floor of the courtyard. Some owners did a ‘meet and greet’ at the entrance, but this young man was in the garden, talking enthusiastically about his plants and their well-being.
The Rectory garden was a more expansive space. The Rector’s partner was on hand, to explain that the garden is tended by a devoted volunteer, as the house itself is very much a communal space for the local community. There is such love for this space in evidence here. The domestic rather than the theatrical is the theme of the garden, with home-made plant frames from repurposed wood and shrubs and herbaceous plants growing happily. The borrowed landscape of back windows from the neighbouring houses, and the great presence of the church itself framed the garden beautifully.
In one of the tiniest back garden spaces, a dedicated owner gardener had gone big time on the Italianate. Huge urns and pots were raised on stone plinths, with a superabundance of Dracaenas, Yuccas and flowering annuals. It was a crazy Waddesdon in miniature, with so many plants that it was almost impossible to take a photograph without falling in an urn.
I don’t remember which garden contained this calming collection below. The warm tones of the Salvia and the Penstemon with the foxglove and the glaucous foliage behind was one of the best memories of a charmed few hours. Thank you, Yellow Book.