Peter Slater is an English teacher, living in London. He was a recent prizewinner in The London Magazine essay competition. This is the twenty-seventh article in our regular “My London” series.
I have long been fascinated by how small things often have an impact and influence out of proportion to their size. Consider those infinitely tiny, barely perceptible movements of bone and muscle that the rider uses to control a horse, the minute subtleties of balance that a child must effect when learning to ride a bike, or the surely unquantifiable change in the expression of an eye that can convey either a jolly twinkle or a vile leer. In a world where it seems that it is often only the big events that get heard or noticed, it is worth remembering that, in the end, it is the quiet voice and the slight and seemingly insignificant action that can bring about change as effectively as the shout or the bomb.
As with action, so with place. All things connect. In London, it is the myriad small green spaces that perform the seemingly impossible and give the city an air of general cheer. Fly into Heathrow on a summer’s day and hope that the pilot has to circle whilst waiting for a free runway. Look down: that flash of sharp light is a pond, that smudge of green a grassy patch, the cloudy blur thick bushes. And then they’re gone; but the brief, small glimpses are enough to gladden one’s heart.
Back gardens seen from train windows are always a delight: each one reveals something about the characters of its owners. I have names for some of them adjacent to the Gospel Oak to Barking Line: Miss Havisham is the one that was clearly well-tended in its day but has since been left to wither; The Micawbers is relentlessly good-humoured, populated with children’s footballs, bikes, cars and a rusty swing; Rogue Riderhood is a villainous, narrow rectangle of mud that was once a lawn but which has
been paced upon and stamped upon ruthlessly and enclosed by a mean wooden fence; Mr Wemmick has a tree house surrounded by a moat of crazy paving. (Well, it’s hard to escape the shade of Dickens when writing about our city).
Pretend to be inebriate (or a poet) and stop and look up at a tree in full leaf on the busiest street and you will be transported to a strange world of insects, bees, and even small birds living amongst the leaves and trailing vines of sunlight. There you have the most perfect garden in miniature.
You may have observed that all the gardens I have mentioned are not those places where you, Reader, might wander or sit and read a book. My aim is to point out the secret, or the not well-noticed, and thus far our sites have been too secret to access easily. But this is not fair: no secret is quite so delicious or so welcome to the tired mind in a city as a garden and the very idea of a secret garden conjures hopeful images of high hedges, a pond graced by water lilies, blackbirds fussing hidden in undergrowth, a robin perched on a fork. A garden is more than itself. It is a safe place, a haven from the rush; a quiet corner of one’s mind. Gardens are a breathing space – literally, because of photosynthesis, and metaphorically: they help one gather one’s thoughts: or, by reading a good book, gather the thoughts of others and continue the painstaking work of a lifetime to make sense of the world. In the midst of a noisy city gardens offer a reminder that there is a world beyond the bricks and concrete. So if this essay is to have any practical use I must now reveal at least one of my favourite, less famous spaces that may be visited without difficulty.
The Phoenix Garden is a third of an acre hidden a stone’s throw from Charing Cross Road, wedged in a corner behind the Phoenix Theatre and the Odeon, Shaftesbury Avenue. Created in 1984 on the site of a car park, it has acquired a pleasantly naturalistic feel: ornamental without being too fussy. There is a patch of lawn on which to loll, numerous benches and logs which serve as benches. A pergola, splashed with wisteria and shaded by the flowing branches of a huge wild cherry, stands in front of a wide-fronted shed-like structure whose homeliness is only slightly marred by the
heavy padlocks and wire-protected windows.
There’s a barbecue space and a children’s playground (although whenever I’ve been there the kids have always seemed to favour the better equipped play area in the grounds of St Giles church, next door). Crazy-paving paths lead to nowhere. A series of stepping stones hewn from a giant tree trunk invites you to wander around the pond – which is well-stocked with arum lilies, kingcups, water lilies.
Feeders and nest boxes encourage a diversity of birds – including house sparrows (now rare elsewhere), blue tits, robins and blackbirds. I’ve yet to see a magpie, but there is a magpie quality to some of the bits and pieces with which the garden is filled: large concrete urns that appear to have been swiped from some bleak Sixties inner-city housing estate, heavy statuary, odd gargoylish things hidden amongst the undergrowth. There are also bees and the West End’s only frogs.
The garden is staffed and tended by volunteers from the local community – the eccentricity and lack of central planning in its design testifies to the benevolence of its managers: it’s clear that everyone who has ever lent a hand has been given a say in its layout. It’s like a Mozart symphony played on steel drums, penny whistles, milk bottles and car horns: there is an underlying order but it’s presented in the most chaotic way imaginable – and it’s glorious! Also noticeable is the complete lack of litter (and coming from the municipal dump that is the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road you really do appreciate an absence of burger cartons and milkshake cups).
It is funded entirely by private donations and the management committee invite subscriptions from the public to become ‘A Friend of the Phoenix’ at £12.00 per year.
So take your book, sandwich, bottle of water and sit for an hour. A small thing, but you’ll go forth refreshed, relaxed and somehow better.