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the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Book Review: “The London Garden Book A-Z” by Abigail Willis

Emma Knowles, GiGL Partnership Officer

This book is, more or less, what it says on the cover, an A to Z of London’s Gardens, but with various quirks. As well as listing the gardens that you would expect to find – the sort that would appear as individual sites in our open space database – this book has entries for gardens and types of gardening that are more abstract or dispersed, such as “Guerrilla Gardener”, “Front Gardens” and “Topiary”.

This enables the author, Abigail Willis, to illustrate the breadth of the concept of a “London Garden”, and acknowledge the variety of places where gardens can be found in our city. As she writes in the introduction, London gardens are about the people as much as the plants.

The first thing I did when I opened this book was to see if there was a map of where the gardens can be found. Disappointingly, it didn’t; turns out it’s not that sort of A to Z. However, many of the sites mentioned in the book can be found on GiGL’s Discover-London map, which fills the gap very well. I was looking for a map because I wanted to find some good places to visit, and whether a garden is worth the trip depends not just on how amazing it is – which this A-Z covers thoroughly – but also on how far we’d need to travel to reach it; and whether it is big enough to provide a good outing. This chain of thought led, inevitably, to GiGL’s “Areas of Deficiency in access to open space/nature” maps, which are designed to enable precisely those factors to be taken into account.

For my great garden expedition, local knowledge enabled me to recognise which of the gardens mentioned in the book were big and in North-East London. I ended up visiting three: Capel Manor, Myddelton House and Forty Hall, all of which were as delightful as described. This book proved to be an excellent inspiration for identifying and finding interesting gardens to visit. Perhaps for practical purposes, a clear location overview such as “North-East”, or the borough the gardens are found in would have been a helpful addition to relevant A-Z entries (it does give post codes and addresses but they are hard to spot in the text).

As well as entries for gardens, there are entries for organisations involved in gardening, types of gardens and gardening tips. Each entry has at least one cheerful colour photo and some text. For the gardens, the focus of descriptions varies: sometimes a straightforward summary of what you will find there, sometimes an interview or some history or advice, providing a wider insight into why these gardens are special.

A colourful entry for C: “Container Gardening”

This journalistic style is great for ensuring that the entries are varied, and different aspects of London garden-ness are covered without repetition, but it does, in places, render the “A-Z” more of a work of art than a reference book. Similarly, the entries are, of course, arranged alphabetically, but with a few odd variations. For example, Kew Gardens appears four times: under “Kew Garden [sic] in Autumn”, “Summer in Kew”, “Winter at Kew”, and “Spring Fever in Kew”. This makes the book fun for dipping into and finding the unexpected, but is not very efficient for looking up any information about specific gardens or organisations you might expect to find. I did, however, happen across an interesting explanation for the odd site access points in Cannizaro Park that I had noticed in the GiGL database!

The introduction says “the book does not aim to provide an exhaustive list of every public garden in London, rather it aspires to capture a portrait of the city’s vibrant gardening scene”.  It does successfully paint a vibrant portrait, and it isn’t a complete list. A notable omission is City Farms with gardens – a particular herb growing project at Spitalfields (Coriander Club) has its own two-page entry, but the award-winning gardens at Freightliners, Mudchute and Deen City Farms are not mentioned. I admit that I am biased because I volunteer at Freightliners, but it is a shame that all the City Farms are in a plain list at the back with no indication of which of them have lovely gardens. As well as City Farms, there are some other handy reference lists in the directory section at the back of the book, including garden centres (helpfully sorted by region), events (by season), nature reserves, garden blogs and horticultural societies.

Amongst the big, famous gardens listed in the book, there are some surprising and informative smaller and less known ones, such as a busy roundabout in Hackney that a local has been cramming with interesting plant life for over a decade; roof gardens; skip gardens; pot gardens and pocket parks. My favourite thing about this book is that it highlights the variety, pervasiveness and importance of gardens in London, and enthusiastically illustrates how green space and greenery forms an integral part of our city.

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