TOWN GARDENS

Few people will deny the peace of mind a sheet of green grass can give,
but few people, one imagines, trouble to think how they are preserved in
large Towns and Cities. If it were not for Societies many little open
spaces would years ago have been covered with streets of houses, many
fair trees have fallen, none have been planted, and those growing have
been neglected and allowed to die. Of the many Societies whose work has
been to preserve for the Public pleasure grounds, good trees, parks, and
flower gardens, not one deserves such praise as the Metropolitan Public
Gardens Association, whose great work has been carried on since 1882.

When one considers that in Hampstead over six hundred acres have been
preserved by energetic Committees from the hands of builders it is easy
to see how great is the debt of London to those who voluntarily work for
this and other Open Space Societies.

It is not, however, by these large tracts of open country that the towns
and cities alone benefit. Seats, fountains, flower beds, and pavements
have been placed in old church-yards and disused burial-grounds opened
for the benefit of the public. One has only to look at the map of the
Metropolitan Public Gardens Association to see how wonderful their work
has been and still is.

To dwellers in Towns the sight of flowers in the streets is like a
breath of the country. The long line of flower-sellers in the High
Street, Kensington, one group of women in Piccadilly Circus, in Oxford
Circus, in other spots where the place of their flower baskets brightens
all the neighbourhood, are doctors, though they do not know it, of high
degree. They bring the message of the changing year. They are a
perpetual flower calendar, people to whom a reverence is due. One looks
in Piccadilly Circus for the first Snowdrops, the little knots of their
delicate white faces peering over the edge of the flower baskets. From
the tops of omnibuses the first Violets are seen. Anemones have their
turn, and Mimosa, and Cowslips, and Roses soon glow in the midst of the
traffic, and elegant Carnations in their silver grass, and great piles
of Asters. So we may read the year. All through the grey and desolate
Winter these flower women hold their own, through cold and rain, and
pale Winter sun they keep the day alive with the glowing colours of
flowers. I often wonder, as I see them sit there so patiently, if they
know the joy they give the passer-by, or if they are more like the rocks
on whom flowers grow by nature. They are a curious race, these
flower-women, untidy, with a screw of hair twisted up under a battered
hat of black straw, with faded shawls wrapped round them, and the
weapons of their craft arranged about them—jam jars of water, wire,
bass, rows of little sticks on the end of which buttonholes are stuck.
And they have wonderful contrivances for keeping their money, ancient
purses rusty like many of themselves, in which greasy pennies and wet
sixpences wallow in litters of dirty paper. I would not vouch for the
truth of all they say, for it would appear from their words that every
flower in their baskets is but just picked, or only that second from the
market. And they regard such evidence as withered and wet flower stalks
with half-humorous scorn. For all they may not be well favoured, and a
pretty flower-woman is as rare as a dead donkey, still, for me, they
have a certain dingy dignity, or rather a natural picturesque quality as
of lichen on the pavements.

[Illustration: AZALEAS IN BLOOM, ROTTEN ROW.]

These people are the town’s gardens of odd corners, while another tribe
of them are perambulating gardens bringing sudden colour into the
soberest of streets. There are those who carry enormous baskets on their
heads, and cry in some incomprehensible tongue words intended to convey
a message such as “All fresh.” To see a gorgeous glowing mass of
Daffodils sway down the street borne triumphantly aloft like the litter
of some Princess is one of those sights to repay many grey days. Then
the brothers to this tribe are those who carry from street to street
Ferns and Lilies on carts, drawn often by a patient ass. I own feeling a
distrust for these men, they do not dispense their goods with much love.
They are not eloquent, as are many flower women in praise of the
beauties of the India plant, or the Shuttle-cock Ferns. I feel that they
are interlopers in the business, and have failed at the hardware trade,
or have no capacity for the selling of rush baskets, or the grinding of
scissors. At the heels of all those who sell flowers in the streets are
the out-cast members of the tribe, men with brutal faces who follow
lonely women in unfrequented streets trying to thrust dead plants upon
them, and cursing if they are not bought. And there are the aged crones
who sit by the railings of little squares and hold out a tray of boot
laces, matches, a few very suspicious-looking Apples, and, in the
corner, a bunch of dead flowers—a kind of æsthetic appeal.

Your true flower-lover will search as carefully among their baskets for
the object of his desire as will the collector the musty curiosity shops
for prizes for his collection. There comes the time when the first
Snowdrops, their stalks tied with wool, appear here and there and may be
brought home as rare prizes. A word here of flower vases. Clear glass is
the only form of vessel for any kind of flower. I feel certain of that.
No crock, no form of pottery gives out greater the real value to your
cut flowers. The stalks are part of the beauty of the flower, the
submerged leaf as lovely as the leaf above. And, above and beyond all
things, glass shows at once if your water is pure, and if your vase is
full. Nowadays beautiful striped glass vases are made and sold so
cheaply that there is no excuse for the old, and often ugly, pot vases
so many people use. I own to a certain liking to seeing roses in old
China bowls, but have a lurking suspicion that I am Philistine in this.

There is, of course, a distinction between Town Gardens and gardens in
Towns. The one being the open free spaces dedicated to the pleasure of
Duke and tramp alike: the other the hidden and hallowed spots where the
town dweller fights soot, grime, smoke, and lack of sun, and fights them
in many cases wonderfully well. One finds, though, that many people
fancy that only Ivy, cats, and dustbins will flourish in the heart of a
smoky City. This is not the case. Broom, Lilac, Trumpet Flower,
Traveller’s Joy, many kinds of Honeysuckle, Passion Flower, Tulip Tree,
many kinds of Cherry and Plum Trees bearing beautiful blossoms,
Barberry, and Almond Trees—all these will grow well and strongly even in
the worst parts of London. Five kinds of Honeysuckle will flourish; they
are:

Lonicera Lepebouri
„ Flexuosam
„ Brachypoda aurea
„ Serotinum
„ Belgicum

Besides these, pink and white Brambles, Meadowsweet, Weigela, and
Rhododendrons all grow fairly easily.

One of the first sights the traveller notices on approaching any large
town is the numerous and gay back gardens of the little houses. The
contents of these gardens are a true index to the inhabitants of the
houses. Where one garden boasts little but old packing-cases, drying
linen, a few stalks of hollyhocks, and one or two giant sunflowers, the
very next will show borders full of all varieties of flowers in season,
an eloquent picture of what may be done with a little trouble. The
consolation and pleasure these little town gardens give is out of all
proportion to their size. The man who can come home to a villa, however
badly built and hideous, and it often appears that some competition in
ugliness has won suburban prizes, can find a delight all good gardeners
know in working his plot of land.

One thing we can see at a glance, that the good influence of one
well-kept garden in a row will very soon have its effect. There is one
street I know within the bounds of London, a street of new houses with
little gardens in front of them running down to the pavement. I watched
this street with interest from its very beginning. At first it was a
thing of beauty, the men at work on the buildings, the scaffolding
against the sky, the horses and carts waiting with loads of brick, the
gradual growth of the houses from foundation to roof. Even the ugliest
building is beautiful in the course of construction, the poles and
ladders hiding the coarse design. Then there came a day when the street
was finished. It is not an entire street, but about half, being a row of
twenty or so houses built in flats, three flats in each house. When the
men left and the houses stood naked, after the plan of the builder,
looking pitiful and commonplace, the new red brick was raw, the little
balconies very white and staring, the windows like blind eyes. Every
ground-floor flat had the disadvantage of less light and air than the
others, but it was the possessor of about nine feet of land between the
door and the pavement. For a long time I waited to see what would become
of this tenant-less row of houses. I gained a kind of affection for
them, and walked past the white signboards once or twice a week reading
always “To Let” written on the windows, painted on the notice board,
pasted on papers across the doors. The melancholy aspect of these houses
appealed to me; they had a look of dumb anxiety as if they longed to
hear the sound of voices in their empty rooms. At last I saw one day
three huge furniture vans drawn up in front of the houses, and during
the next two weeks more vans arrived and there was a sound of hammering
in the street, and a smell of unpacking. Men came there with boxes and
parcels, and tradesmen began to drive up in carts and motor-cars. I felt
that those houses still standing empty had a jealous look in their
windows, like little girls who had been left to sit out at a dance. The
notice boards were all shifted to their front gardens, their bell wires
still hung unconnected from holes by the front door.

The thing I was really waiting to see happened at Number Two. The
builder, after finishing the houses had, I suppose, come to the
conclusion that a little help from Nature would do no harm. Some good
fairy prompted him to plant Almond and May Trees alternately in the
front gardens. To each house an Almond and a May. I had waited eagerly,
determining by some fantastic twist that the spirit of the new houses
would first make her appearance in one of these trees. So far the street
had possessed no character except that vague rawness that all new places
wear. The great event occurred at Number Two. Very delicately an Almond
tree put out the first blossom. The life of the street began. I did not
wonder about the favoured owners of the ground floor of Number Two. I
knew.

Not long after the Almond tree had bloomed a cart drew up before Number
Two, and three men began to wheel barrow loads of earth into the front
garden. They were directed by a gentleman of some age, but of cheerful
countenance. He smiled as each load of earth was neatly placed. He
looked at the earth as if he already saw it covered with flowers. In his
mind’s eye he was arranging a surprise for the street.

The next event of notice in the street was the appearance of Number Two
garden, a blaze of flowers set in a desert of red brick. A balcony of
Number Sixteen, far down the road, entered into friendly competition.
Numbers Five and Nine worked like slaves. Three followed suit with
carpet-bedding on a tiny scale. A Laburnam and a Lilac sprang like magic
from the soil of Number Ten. Then, one day, the whole of Number One
burst into flower from top to toe. The tenant of each floor having
apparently been secretly at work to surprise the rest. Two, who had
started, and was indeed the father of the street, put forth more
strenuous efforts.

To-day I am certain of a pleasant walk, and can come out of a wilderness
of bricks and mortar to my charming oasis flowering in the land. I
wonder if the people who live in those flats and who compete with each
other in a friendly rivalry of blossom realise what they are doing for
the hundreds who pass by in the day and are cheered.




The Association I have named before, the Metropolitan Public Gardens
Association, give in their statement for 1907 a list of their window
garden competitions for that year. One sees that many of the poorer
parts of London have taken the idea, and this note I quote from South
Hackney shows the result: “Twelve entries. Eight prizes of the total
amount of One Pound, Ten Shillings. Remarks: Clean, fresh-looking, more
creepers than last year; example set is improving character of roads, as
others, not competitors, have started gardens.”

Any one who knows the dreary and desolate appearance of town streets,
especially in those parts where life is lived at the hardest, and
surroundings are of the most sordid, will encourage a work which induced
in one year over five hundred people in London slums to take an interest
in growing flowers.

The _Spectator_, of September 6, 1712, contains a charming essay upon
the English Garden, and the writer draws attention to Kensington Gardens
in the following words:

“I shall take notice of that part in the upper gardens at
Kensington, which was at first nothing but a Gravel Pit. It must
have been a fine Genius for gardening, that could have thought
of forming such an unsightly Hollow into so beautiful an Area,
and to have hit the eye with so uncommon and agreeable a Scene
as that which it is now wrought into. To give this peculiar spot
of ground the greater effect, they have made a very pleasing
contrast; for as on one side of the Walk you see this hollow
Bason, with its several little Plantations lying so conveniently
under the Eye of the Beholder; on the other side of it there
appears a seeming Mound, made up of trees rising one higher than
another in proportion as they approach the Centre. A Spectator
who has not heard this account of it, would think this Circular
Mount was not only a real one, but that it had been actually
scooped out of that hollow space which I have before mentioned.
I never yet met with anyone who has walked in this Garden, who
was not struck with that Part of it which I have mentioned.”

The writer finishes his essay with a simple and rather delightful
passage:

“You must know, Sir, that I look upon the Pleasure which we take
in a Garden, as one of the innocent Delights in human Life. A
Garden was the Habitation of our first Parents before the Fall.
It is naturally apt to fill the mind with Calmness and
Tranquillity, and to lay all its turbulent Passions at rest. It
gives us a great Insight into the Contrivance and Wisdom of
Providence, and suggests innumerable subjects for Meditation. I
cannot but think the very Complacency and Satisfaction which a
man takes in these Works of Nature, to be a laudable, if not a
virtuous Habit of Mind.”

Our opinion has not altered in these two hundred years. The enjoyment of
a garden is certainly one of the most innocent delights in human life,
the enjoyment of the garden he mentions in particular is one of the most
innocent pleasures in London. Kensington Gardens have inspired many
people, the classic of them is undoubtedly Mr. J. M. Barrie’s “Little
White Bird.” The patron Saint of them is, and I think ever will be,
“Peter Pan.” One has only to walk down the Babies Mile to hear games
from Peter Pan going on in all directions. This peculiar spirit haunted
the Gardens long before the days of Mr. Barrie, and whispered much of
his charming story in the ears of a bewigged gentleman—Mr. Tickell, by
name—who, in a poem of some considerable length, sang Kensington’s
praises. Those tiny fairy trumpets sounding in the walks of Kensington
sounded a tune which has never left the air, and one fancies the creator
of Peter Pan catching sight of a dim ghost now and again, the ghost of
Mr. Tickell, Joseph Addison’s friend, as he walks in full-bottomed wig,
his wide skirted coat, and sees the fairies too. He begins:

Where Kensington high o’er the neighb’ring lands
’Midst greens and sweets, a regal fabric stands,
And sees each spring, luxuriant in her bowers,
A snow of blossoms, and a wild of flowers,
The dames of Britain oft in crowds repair
To groves and lawns, and unpolluted air.
Here, while the town in damps and darkness lies,
They breathe in sunshine, and see azure skies;
Each walk, with robes of various dyes bespread,
Seems from afar a moving tulip-bed,
Where rich biscades and glossy damasks glow,
And chints, the rival of the show’ry bow.

* * * * *

Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies play’d
On every hill, and danced in every shade.
But, foes to sunshine, most they took delight
In dells and dales conceal’d from human sight:
There hew’d their houses in the arching rock;
Or scoop’d the bosom of the blasted oak;

There is no doubt about it that these are the very same fairies who are
still at work in the Gardens, and who have admitted Mr. Barrie into
their confidence. All gardens have ghosts, and Kensington Gardens, I
think, more ghosts than any other. What a club it must be to belong to,
to visit when all London is asleep. Here’s Mr. Tickell with his version
of the Peter Pan story:

No mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed.

But beyond these, the vaguest hints, Mr. Tickell does not carry. His
story has no likeness to the immortal tale of Peter Pan, but has, in
common with it, the same knowledge that there are fairies in the Gardens
living just as both he and Mr. Barrie know so well under the roots of
trees. And then there are the children. It is they who are the sweetest
flowers of the town gardens.

[Illustration: IN HYDE PARK.]

If any man wants an argument in favour of keeping every available space
open in towns and cities let him go into some crowded neighbourhood and
watch the children playing in the gutters of the streets. Then let him
find one of those places, a disused burial ground, or the garden of an
old square, which has been preserved, and kept open, and laid out for
the benefit of the children, and he will see the difference at once.
There are two such places easy for the Londoner to visit, the one
Browning Hall Garden, now a garden, once the York Road Burial Ground,
Walworth, the other Meath Gardens, eleven acres of public garden, once
The Victoria Park Cemetery, Bethnal Green.

They say that one half of London doesn’t know how the other half lives.
They do not know, but worse still they don’t care. It is equally true
that half the people who profess to care for flowers are ignorant of the
wonderful flower-beds carefully grown for their pleasure within a
two-penny ’bus ride of most parts of London. The row of beds facing Park
Lane; the flower walk (where the babies walk, too) in Kensington
Gardens; the flower walk in Regent’s Park, the Houses at Kew, are sights
as well worth an afternoon’s excursion as any other form of amusement.
Most people almost unconsciously absorb the colour of cities, vaguely
realising grey streets, red streets, white streets, spaces of grass and
trees, big blots of colour—like the huge beds of scarlet geraniums in
front of Buckingham Palace, but they do not trouble to get the value of
their impressions. People look on the way from Hyde Park Corner to the
Marble Arch as a convenient means of crossing London instead of one of
the most interesting and delightful experiences to be had. They go crazy
over trees and sky in the country, when they have at their doors sights
the country can never equal. The sun in late autumn setting behind the
trees of Hyde Park and glowing over the murky smoke-laden skies is a
sight for the gods. Smoke has its disadvantages, but it certainly gives
one æsthetic joys unknown in clear skies, for instance alone the
reflection of the lights of Piccadilly on the evening sky.

After all, the time to see the wonder of town gardens is at night. The
streets are empty of people. Here and there a few night workers walk the
lonely streets, a policeman tramps his beat, the huge carts bringing the
provisions for the city lumber along with sleepy carters swaddled in
sacks perched high among the heaps of baskets. Here and there men with
long hoses are washing down the roads. The Parks and Gardens lie bathed
in peace, mysterious shadows make velvet caves sheltered by leaves.
Those trees standing close to the road are lit by the electric lamps and
fringe the street with vivid green. Only the flowers seem really awake,
alive, in a tremendous dream city. Along the lines of houses, blinds
down, shutters closed, a window box here and there breaks the monotony
and seems to be the only real thing there. If it is Spring, then from
Hyde Park Corner to the Kensington High Street, all along the side of
the Park, behind the railings are regiments of Crocus flowers, spikes of
Narcissus, and of Daffodil. Their sweetness fills the air, their very
presence fills the town with gentleness, and purifies and softens its
grimness. Far above, in some citadel of flats, a solitary light burns,
some one is at work, or ill, or watching. Above all hang the blazing
stars.