Reading time: 5min.

by Polly Loughlin

Trapped in eden

Sometimes in London you can forget greenery exists. Between brutalist buildings, pollution, pavements covered in chewing gum and empty chocolate wrappers, there’s no natural beauty around.

Out exploring Pimlico, a friend and I came across a little square garden, a square of natural loveliness surrounded by neo-classical houses. The gate was open so we obliviously wandered in, closing it behind us as a fierce sign instructed.

We didn’t know at the time, but we had stumbled into Warwick Gardens, one of many little squares all over London that were created in the Victorian era.

Mere few minutes from the station, it felt worlds away. Immaculately kept flowers, elegant benches adorned with carefully worded inscriptions to deceased loved ones, tennis courts and marble statues. We wandered round taking pictures, the bitter winter sun creeping through tall tree branches. When we decided to leave we discovered the gate on one side of the oasis was locked. Unperturbed we tried the other – the gate we had come in through and realised we were trapped.iPanic stricken, we had another look at the notice to see that this was a private garden for “key holding residents and their friends” – and a number to call for assistance. We called the number to reach a voicemail relaying an emergency out of hours’ number, which we tried. A clearly irritated man didn’t take too kindly to our predicament – he was clearly a lowly employee as opposed to a wealthy local with a fabled key. He crossly told us he’d make some phone calls and see if he could find somebody to rescue us.

As we sat on a bench lamenting our lot in life, we saw a family let themselves in. We scrambled to our feet and begged them to let us out. The man sounded like Louis Van Gaal, I’m guessing they were Dutch and somewhat surprised to see two crazed, trespassing English plebs.

Five minutes later we were in the nearest pub laughing about the whole incident.

The idea of the ‘commons’ comes from Garrett Hardin’s famous thesis of the tragedy of the commons – the idea that an area will deteriorate if allowed for public consumption, it’s essentially a mantra for privatisation. A quick Google search told me that Warwick Square has grade ii listed status and was designed by Thomas Cubitt, a carpenter’s son from Norfolk who climbed the ‘greasy pole’ of the Victorian era to become a famous and much lauded architect. A contemporary of his, Thomas Carlyle, whom he designed a soundproof study for, claimed the masses are full of “beer and nonsense”.

The gardens are part of the opensquare scheme that operates for a weekend in the month of June, but perhaps all year round access to these squares of perfection would lead to beer and nonsense spoiling these hidden Victorian gems all over London.

Thomas Cubitt’s story is one of social mobility – perhaps his designs and life serve as a testament to the British meritocratic vision, a world where everybody can aspire to be a key holder.

Now I see these squares everywhere. I notice them as I pass by on busses or on foot. It does seem a strange shame to have private verdant spots in the heart of a capital city. A Guardian article confirmed the liberal consensus about private gardens, basically they’re bourgeois squares, which must be turned over to the commons. [1]

What would the commons do with these precious squares? Build over them to create housing?

That certainly seems an option for London mayoral candidate Labour’s Sadiq Khan who is prepared to build on the green belt.

A glance at Zac Goldsmith’s CV shows a deep seeded commitment and interest in green issues, former editor of the Ecologist magazine, he insists he will “protect and enhance” London’s green spaces, perhaps in doing so the creation of places as green but less exclusive, so that we may all enjoy some greenery with our beer and nonsense.