This post was originally written for the Smitten by Britain website
I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Secret Garden when I was growing up – and I still haven’t lost the dream of one day having my own walled garden. (A garden ideally free from the rampages of dogs, and graced with perfect soil and weather conditions. And a never-ending supply of fizzy drinks and chocolate.) The garden in that lovely book is, however, but a respite in rural Yorkshire. Likewise, I grew up on a farm, taking open spaces and nature for granted. Gardens in the city? They are precious jewels, coveted and desired.
Urban areas place a premium on their green spaces – no city more than London, where garden squares – or more commonly, simply “squares” – are premium spots in residential areas. The concept of the square in London dates to the 17th century, made possible by the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilding allowed the incorporation of open space along with buildings, an amenity for the homeowner and resident. If you can afford it – and an emphasis placed on if, for homes with a square tend toward the astronomical in price – these small (and the term “square” does not always mean the shape of the garden is such) pockets of green serve as an oasis for weary city dwellers. The squares, flanked by historic buildings, form an aesthetically pleasing combination for lovers of architecture and gardens.
There are over 500 squares in London – and I am sure some enterprising scholar has made a detailed study of both these numbers and the origins of the square itself, but I will limit myself to just a few illustrative examples. Some squares were intended from inception for the public, such as Trafalagar Square. The planning and design of this notable London landmark involved a roster of heavy hitters– John Nash, Charles Barry and Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens.
Most historic squares, however, were reserved solely for the use of the owners of the surrounding property – and the common riff-raff were strongly encouraged to stay away. High fences surrounded some squares in the 18th century; their successors, open rail fences of metal, met their melting fate during World War II.
St. James Square
This very fashionable part of the City of Westminster was developed by Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of Saint Albans – and possibly the father of King Charles II. Bed sports of royals aside, Jermyn (sometimes called the “father of the West End”) is responsible for the design of the square, where building commenced in the 1670s.
I particularly like #20, a three-bay wide “small” townhouse designed by Robert Adam. Small is appropriate given Adam’s reputation for designing grand country houses (and sumptuous interiors). Built for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, Adam said of the house “it is not in a space of forty six feet, which is the whole extent of the elevation, that an architect can make a great display of talents. Where variety and grandeur in composition cannot be obtained, we must be satisfied with a justness of proportion and an elegance of style.” The townhouse received an addition in 1930 and another in 1990.
Grosvenor Square, located in Mayfair, is the largest square in the West End. And it’s an oval, not a square. Construction on the homes around the square began in the 1720s, but successive generations of rebuilding (lots of Georgian homes redone in the Victorian style) suffered greatly in the 20th century. Many of the houses were no longer owner-occupied, housing values fell, as did houses – to make room for flats – and then (horrors!) the Americans arrived. Of course, the Americans had been around Grosvenor Square since John Adams was making nice with the mother country, but the American embassy moved to 1 Grosvenor Square in 1938.
During World War II, General Eisenhower set up shop on the other side of the square. The square received the appellation “Little America” during this period. Bombing during the War took out around seven houses on the square. After the War, the developers moved in, and many more original houses were demolished in the second half of the 20th century.
And the square itself? Originally only intended for the use of the residents, the square is now a public park.
This late-19th square in Vauxhall (south London) has little in common with St. James and Grosvenor. Developed to house railway workers, the square faced demolition (and what we call urban renewal) in the 1970s and 80s. Despite government plans to demolish all of the houses and construct a school, squatters moved in, formed a cooperative, and saved the houses. The really cool part is the transformation of a former bombed-out house site and playground into a true community garden, maintained by residents and named the “Pleasure Garden” as a reminder of the nearby Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens of centuries past.
This Gothic confection of houses in Islington, clustered around a garden square, dates to the 1830s. The garden is for use by the residents.
Located in one of my favorite parts of London, on Baker Street in Marylebone, this square was developed by the Portman family, who still own and manage much of the real estate in the area. Dorset Square was built on the site of Thomas Lord’s first cricket ground, established in 1787. The Portman Estate originally covered around 270 acres, but has dwindled down to 100 acres now – and the area includes a number of squares in addition to Dorset Square.
Have a hankering to see some of these places plus some private squares for yourself? The Open Garden Squares weekend coming up just this weekend, June 13 and 14, offers just that opportunity. Created in 1998, the event is sponsored by the London Parks and Garden Trust, in association with the National Trust. I will be preparing my own historic home and garden for a neighborhood tour on June 14, and sadly won’t be in London to experience the fun. Over 200 gardens, spread across 27 London boroughs, will take part this year. Open Garden Squares really is a magical chance to see some traditional squares, community gardens and other private treasures usually not available to the passer-by.