The cult of nature
Historically, the city of London has been carved out of three components: its river, its fog, and its parks. Surprisingly for such a vast metropolis, leader of naval trade, and cradle of the first industrial revolution, its oases of green have the strongest imprint: London’s parks and gardens have played an important role in the development of the city’s architecture, the evolution of its social stratification, and the shape of people’s lifestyles and culture.
Sir Victor Pritchett used to say that “London has grown not by planning, but by swallowing up the countryside, village by village.” It is, indeed, not surprising that the echo of that long-gone countryside can still be felt in London’s magnificent parks, most of them remnants of monastic gardens or orchards of the Middle-Ages. No one dared to sacrifice them, not even the nobles, who, as landlords for life, have carte blanche to tear down, build and speculate. They did nothing of the sort; on the contrary, they made sure to build prestigious houses around them, including theirs. And when that was not possible, they planted garden squares to admire from across their windows. For most Londoners, parks are not merely near to home: they are home.
Despite being located in the heart of the urban landscape, the parks of London feel completely disconnected from it. That’s because they are exuberant, larger-than-life, wild; their flora is flashy and surreal; a short walk can reveal magnificent ponds, lakes, rare bird species, fearless squirrels, and exotic flowers of a perfume so intoxicating it makes you forget that it’s just a park in the city.
Hippolyte Taine’s remark was spot-on: “The French garden,” he said, “that of Louis XIV is a living room or an open-air gallery ideal for strolling and chatting in company; in the English garden […] one is better by himself; the eyes and soul make conversation with nature.” Indeed, the -much smaller- parks in Paris offer themselves for the perfect Instagram picture frame; they provide the most romantic backdrop for a special date, or a memorable walk with a friend you‘ve been waiting to see for a long time. In London parks, it is nature the one you will be connecting with; and it’s such a thrilling companion you are likely to forget all about taking pictures or concentrating on your chat with the friend you brought along.
A French critic and historian, Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) was obsessed with rendering descriptions of 19th-century societies with photographic accuracy. Eminent novelists of French realism, such as Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, were largely inspired by his methods. In his Notes of England, Taine composes well-studied portraits of landscapes, people, customs, and lifestyles of London. In the selected extract, the reader can find a beautiful portrait of the Londoner in need of fresh air.
French writer and diplomat Paul Morand (1888 – 1976) moves on the same wavelength. His work reflects an extensive knowledge of the English history combined with acquaintances he made with Londoners from every social class – Lords and dockworkers, bankers and dandies, poets and merchants. In his book, Londres, Morand renders a well-studied analysis of local lifestyles and behaviors in relation to history and politics. In the selected extract, he rewinds the clock to a time when the first parks of London belonged to the clergy, and describes a glorious Sunday morning in Hyde Park.
Peter Ackroyd (1949) is a passionate biographer of London, recognized for the depth of his research. He has recounted the lives of London’s popular public figures -such as Oscar Wilde, John Dee, Karl Marx, and Christopher Wren- and used them as a backdrop to identify the city’s timeless trademarks. In the two following extracts, Ackroyd travels us back to a time when the City’s secret gardens and flowers had become the object of speculation. Finally, he talks about window gardening and how popular an alternative it has always been for citizens deprived of the chance to own private gardens.
The lungs of the city
What makes the air of the capital city less unhealthy, especially during the summer, is its parks and squares. We call them “lungs of London”, a phrase not so pretty; but it is obvious that the oxygen of all these trees strives to neutralize the acid carbon of all the chimneys. These islets of green strike at first the foreign traveler as strange, in this chaos of houses with no plan or logic.
For three years, I lived next to Hyde Park. I was gazing at it through my house windows at all hours and in every season. Before the war, on Sunday mornings I saw […] gentlemen in tall hats parading around with their families between noon and one p.m. after church, against a backdrop of rhododendrons and azaleas. […] I heard orators predict the end of the world and that of the Lords Chamber, in the same speeches as today; I saw old gentlemen taking a winter swim in the Serpentine, greeted by the peacocks’ cries…
Parks connect London to history more deeply than buildings, because the latter disappear much faster than trees, in this country that has the love and the sense of nature.
[…] Parks are the last vestiges of conventual gardens and monastic orchards in which they were trimmed, following the confiscation of the clergy’s property. […] Their thick turf and wild grass, their symphony of colors treated by great masses of flowers, their sheep, peacocks and squirrels engift London with the beauty of a private park, inexistent in the Bois de Boulogne, the Prater or the Tiergarten. They ignore our staggered rows. Their trees are never pruned, their nature does not become architecture; flowers grow without order or perspective.
Paul Morand, Londres, Plon, 1962.
In need of fresh air
Same impression when you visit the parks: their style and dimensions are quite different from ours. Saint-James Park is a real countryside, and an English one: huge old trees, real meadows, a large pond populated with ducks and swimming birds, cows and parked sheep grazing on grass, always so fresh. […] These people love the countryside with all their heart. One only needs to read their literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Thompson to Wordsworth and Shelley, to have proof of it. What a contrast with the Tuileries, the Champs-Elysées, and Luxembourg gardens! In general, the French garden, that of Louis XIV, is a living room or an open-air gallery ideal for strolling and chatting in company; in the English garden […] one is better by himself; the eyes and soul make conversation with nature. In the Bois de Boulogne, we built a park on this model, but made the mistake to insert a group of rocks and waterfalls; an artificial impression immediately escapes it and shocks; the English eyes would have surely felt it. […]
I have often noticed that our life seems cloistered, cramped to them; they need air and space more than we do; The Englishmen I met in Paris leave their windows open all night long at all times; whence their need for motion and for races on horseback and on foot in the countryside.
Stendhal rightly said that a young English girl can walk more in a week than a young Roman girl in a whole year; the man of the North, with his athletic temperament, needs to breathe fresh air and exercise.
This park (i.e. the Regent’s Park) is in a secluded neighborhood; you can no longer hear the rolling of cars; you forget about London, you are in solitude. The sun was shining, but the air was always laden with moist clouds, which, like mobile watering cans, melted into rain every quarter of the hour. Great wet meadows had a charming softness, and the greenery dripped with a little monotonous noise on the still water of the ponds. I entered a greenhouse: splendid orchids, some of them dressed in the opulent velvet of the iris, others in skin colors of indescribable, delicious, melted tones, all penetrated by a light with which a living flesh palpitates, a woman’s breast; the hand is eager and afraid to rest on it; palm trees raise their bole in a lukewarm atmosphere close by.
Hippolyte Taine, Notes sur l’Angleterre, Hachette, 1890.
A gardener sleeps at the heart of every Englishman, city dweller or country man. No shopkeeper would dream of living in the apartment above his shop to merely save time, strength or money. No, he needs a private house and a resemblance of the countryside. […] The love of nature is a British feeling.
Michel Déon, Le flâneur de Londres, Robert Laffont, 1995.
The secret gardens of the City
Albert Camus once wrote: “I remember London as a city of gardens where the birds woke me in the morning.”
It may come as a surprise to those who see nothing but narrow streets and acres of rooftops that, according to the latest Land Cover Map taken from the Landsat satellite, “over a third” of London’s total land area “is semi-natural or mown grass, tilled land and deciduous woodland.”
From the early medieval period onward, almshouses and taverns, schools and hospitals had their own gardens and private orchards. The city’s first chronicler, William Fitz-Stephen, noted that “the citizens of London had large and beautiful gardens to their villas”. Stow recorded that the grand houses along the Strand had “gardens for profit” while within the city and its liberties there were many “working gardeners” who produced “sufficient to furnish the town with garden ware.” […]
Today, there are many “secret gardens” within the City itself, those remnants of old churchyards resting among the burnished buildings of modern finance. These City gardens, sometimes comprising only a few square of grass, or bush or tree, are unique to the capital; they have their origin in the medieval or Saxon period but, like the city itself, they have survived many centuries of building and rebuilding. Seventy three of them still exist, gardens of silence and easefulness. They can be seen as territories where the past may linger […].
The image of the garden haunts the imaginations of many Londoners. Among the first painted London gardens is Chiswick from the River by Jacob Knyff. This urban garden is small in scale, and set among other houses. It is dated between 1675 and 1680; a woman walks along a gravelled path, while a gardener bends down towards the earth. They might have appeared in the twentieth century. Albert Camus wrote, in the middle of that century, “I remember London as a city of gardens where the birds woke me in the morning.” In the western areas of London of the twenty-first century almost every house either has its own garden or shares a community garden; in northern areas such as Islington and Canonbury, and in the southern suburbs, gardens are an integral feature of the urban landscape. In that sense, perhaps…
… A Londoner needs a garden in order to maintain a sense of belonging. In a city where speed and uniformity, noise and bustle, are characteristic, and where many houses are produced to a standard design, a garden may afford the only prospect of variety. It is also a place for recreation, contemplation and satisfaction.
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, Vintage, 2001.
It has always been said that Londoners love flowers; the craze for “window gardening” in the 1880s represented only the most prominent manifestation of the window boxes or window pots to be seen in almost all prints of the London streets from generation to generation. But the most striking sign of the London passion for flowers comes with the London flower-seller. Scented violets were sold upon the streets, while in early spring primroses were “first cried.” […] Then as the taste for floral decoration extended, particularly among middle-class Londoners, flowers, like everything else in the city, became a commercial proposition, and many of the outlying suburbs began production and distribution on a large scale. The entire north-western corner of Covent Garden Market was given over to the wholesale vendors of roses and geraniums and pinks and lilacs, which were then sold on to shops and other dealers.
Very quickly, too, flowers became the object of commercial speculation. The fuchsia arrived in London in the early 1830s, for example, and the traders prospered. The interest in flowers spread ineluctably down to the “humbler classes” with hawkers at street corners selling a bunch of mixed flowers for a penny, while in the market were sold basket-loads of cabbage roses and carnations.
Female vendors at the Royal Exchange or the Inns of Court hawked moss-roses; the violet girl was to be seen on every street and the “travelling gardener” sold wares which were notorious for their short lives. The price of commerce, in London, is often death and the city became nature’s graveyard. Many millions of flowers were brought into London only to wither and expire. The establishment of large extra-mural public cemeteries, located in the suburbs, in turn led to an enormous increase in the demand for flowers to place upon the newly laid tombs.
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, Vintage, 2001.
Chelsea Flower Shows attract visitors from all over the UK. Fans in tube and jackets mingle with a crowd much less chic. Ladies wear amazing hats. They bend their chests to breathe the scent without touching a tea rose. In London bookstores the main aisle is filled with an incredible amount of publications on gardening and plant care. Immediately after come the animals. Literature and history are far behind.
Michel Déon, Le flâneur de Londres, Robert Laffont, 1995.
London for nature lovers
Check-out our favorite gardens, cafés and restaurants to feel the freshness of a meadow in the middle of London.