Dear Readers, as you will know my search for somewhere green to linger at lunchtime has been fraught with problems so far. I found a tiny churchyard and a private garden that had been astroturfed. But then I remembered that my Mum used to work in a solicitor’s office just around the corner from where I am now, and that she used to sit outside on any dry day, eating her sandwich and thinking her thoughts. And so I set out to find the spot where she spent so many hours.
Mum was a legal secretary, and in the early days that meant typing a document perfectly every time – one mistake and the whole thing was ruined. If you needed multiple copies you had to insert a millefeuille of carbon paper and paper. Mum could not only type accurately, she could do it at 120 words per minute. She was a little disappointed when self-correcting golfball typewriters appeared, because she could type faster than they could and she was always waiting for them to catch up.
And word processors took all the fun out of it, of course. Any idiot could type a document and correct it themselves. That was the end of the typing pool, and of a lot of the work of the secretary, but Mum did have a brief renaissance when she was taken on at the Stock Exchange and started to create all kinds of charts and tables. She always did have a lively sense of colour, and it amuses me to think of all those pinks and lime greens and turquoises that crept into her otherwise sober documents.
And so, I came upon the Cleary Gardens, and they were more or less as I remembered them. Although the gardens are named for Fred Cleary, the original bombsite was turned into a garden by a shoemaker called Joe Brandis, who collected mud from the Thames riverbank and brought soil from his own garden, all the way east in Walthamstow.
The steeply-sloping alley by the side of the gardens is called ‘Huggins Hill’, and as the sign says, this might be from an old word for ‘hops’. There are hops and grapevines growing on the terraces in the garden, and they provided secluded places to sit, out of the general eye. One couple who were either newly married or carrying on an office romance were entwined with one another on one of the seats, and looked fairly horrified when I appeared carrying my camera. To reassure them I stopped and looked theatrically out at one of the trees, adjusting my F-stop and pointedly not looking in their direction at all. But then the tree distracted me, as they do. What a magnificent specimen! It was as furry as Chewbacca and the fluffy leaves were a splendid lime green. Furthermore, there were baubles hanging from it as if Christmas had come early. It is apparently a swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) and I was delighted to make its acquaintance. If it doesn’t turn up soon as a Wednesday Weed I shall eat an article of clothing.
When I turned around, the couple had scarpered.
The garden is on three levels, and you can’t see the entrance to this lower level until you are practically on top of it, which makes it a lot of fun. You can sit at the top and eat your yoghurt while gazing out at the buses and you might not even know that there was any more to see. Isn’t one of the secrets of a great garden meant to be that you can’t see everything at once? This garden takes this idea to an extreme.
On the top level there is a tree paeony, which was given by the town of Yatsuke in Japan, where the plant is the ‘representative flower’ of the region. It was donated in the hope that it would ‘be loved by, and bring peace of mind to, the people of London’.
The grapevines were apparently planted because in 2017 the gardens were designated a ‘Loire Legacy Garden’, and in addition to grapes there are great tussocks of rosemary and lavender. I was pleased to see some Japanese anemones for the bees too, and a batbox on one of the trees. A pair of crows made a quick appearance, and seemed to be interested in the cones on the Chewbacca tree. According to the website, robins, blue tits, blackbirds and dunnocks have all been known to nest here, so I shall be keeping my eyes open.
I was very impressed with how much was squeezed into this tiny area. I doubt that it is actually a secret garden, and I’m sure I’ll have to visit out of lunch hour in order to make the most of it. But then, I’m getting into work for 7 a.m. so I reckon I can sneak out a little bit early. I yearn for a bit of non-human contact when I’m at work, probably because the sheer press of humanity in the City can feel oppressive, and somehow makes us all a little less human. I know that Mum felt the same. She used to love to just sit and breathe and said she always felt better for being outside. It’s strange because I haven’t really felt as if she was close to me since she died, but sitting on a bench here, it was almost as if she was sitting next to me, and although I was sad, I also felt contented, just for a few minutes. So thanks Mum, and thanks Cleary Garden. I shall be back, for sure, probably on a cold, damp day when it’s just me and my memories.