Thursday, 10 April 2014

Inner Temple Gardens

To London on a grey and rainy day, to visit gardens of the Inner Temple. These are found on the north bank of the Thames, midway between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, and occupy about five acres of that strip of land between Fleet Street and the river.

The walk from Charing Cross station allowed me to revisit a favourite old haunt, the Victoria Embankment Gardens, where I’ve whiled away many a happy lunch time reading a book or just strolling beneath the canopy of the enormous London plane trees (Platanus x hispanica). Before I knew anything about gardening, I remember marvelling at their colourful, flaking bark in camouflage shades, hung in winter with brown seed balls like Christmas decorations, which disintegrate in spring to release a blizzard of parachuting seeds. I’m sure that it was also here that I encountered my first fatsia – there are some mature species of impressive size by the gates to Villiers Street – impressed not only by the handsome foliage but also by the astonishing white inflorescences, spherical umbels on similarly blanched pedicels. I remember escaping here from my office in the middle of one particularly fraught project, watching the gardeners lay out the bedding schemes with no little envy, thinking to myself; ‘gardeners must exist in an entirely stress-free world. You can’t exactly shout at a bulb to come up any faster than it wants’ I may have been on to something – while I don’t think any occupation is stress-free, or indeed should be, it’s certainly a more positive, constructive type of stress I feel now than in those suited and booted years in the air conditioned offices of an oil company.

I was glad to see the gardens here in such excellent condition, with much evidence of restorative work and even some new hard landscaping in the form a curved stone wall behind Steell’s sulpture of Robbie Burns. Why it is I gain so much pleasure from the bedding schemes here, when normally the very notion of them fills me with horror, I have yet to work out, but the sight of white tulips in a sea of pink myosotis was a cheering prospect in the afternoon drizzle, albeit one that reminded me of coconut ice. Crown imperials peaked out from more tropical plantings, and the plane trees have yet to release their seeds in earnest, though the brace of gardeners with backpack blowers keeping the paths immaculate suggested that they might be about to start.

At a leisurely pace the walk lasts about ten minutes, taking you under Waterloo Bridge, along the front of Somerset House and past Temple tube station, and the smaller sections of the embankment gardens. One of the four Inns of Court (the others being Middle Temple, Lincolns Inn and Grays Inn), the Inner Temple has existed since the fourteenth century, but evidence of a garden on this site dates back some two hundred years before then. The present gardens were laid out in the seventeenth century, with significant changes to accommodate contemporary fashion in the 1700s, but the enlargement of the site due to the construction of the embankment in the nineteenth century resulted in the amended layout which forms the basis of the gardens today. What follows here are my first thoughts and impressions of the gardens, which I look forward to researching in more detail and indeed visiting again in the near future.

Entering through the iron gates on Crown Office Row and descending semi-circular steps to the upper level of this sloping site, you are faced with three acres of lawn, bounded top and sides by the Temple buildings, and at the bottom by the embankment and river beyond. A row of benches lines the upper path, bisected by the central axis running from the gates, through the eighteenth century sundial, and down the steps which lead from the upper level to the lawn, at which point, rather oddly, the central axis disappears in a sea of green turf. Without wishing here to get into the discussion of where a park ends and a garden begins, there are definitely elements of park here, notably the expanse of lawn, the selection of mature specimen trees, and perhaps also the relative dearth of formal elements, those that exist (the paths, the steps) being pushed out to the boundaries. Given the purpose of these gardens, its park-ness is entirely appropriate, and had I been visiting on a sunny day perhaps a wander across the lawns with my lunch would have been a perfect way to spend an hour or so. On a rainy day in April, I  found myself wanting a big path down the middle, and something to continue the formality created at the entrance down through the site to the river. As it was, I stuck to the path and skirted the edges.

And as I circled the space via its peripheral edge, my gaze was held in the main by the circular fountain area. Of all the structural elements, this is the one which I found hardest to reconcile with the rest of the garden. Marooned in the lawn, it’s eccentrically off centre in a setting which calls either for formality or a purposeful rejection of the same, without quite gathering the confidence to be stridently informal. In addition, I think that it might be too small for the space – it seems a little apologetic, neither classically proportioned nor vulgar in its enormity, but too large and ill-sited to be quaint. My hope is that the planting will in time soften those aspects of the fountain that I find jarring – it doesn’t as yet, perhaps not helped by the mismatched hard landscaping materials – modern red brickwork, pale stone flags, blue-grey zinc planters with wooden benches. I think my attention was so drawn to this area I missed some of the detail in the planting by my feet, particularly on the broad walk that runs along the bottom of the site, bounded on both sides rows of huge London plane trees underplanted with, I think, liriope. I shall visit again to give this area the attention it deserves.

Reading about the complex history of the gardens*, it becomes evident why it feels as if there is no overarching plan to their layout – there hasn’t been one, at least not for several centuries and certainly not for the garden in its present form, and so perhaps a piecemeal approach to the design is understandable. The broad walk was laid out in the nineteenth century, the high border has come, gone, and come again, the steps that go nowhere were added in the sixties, and the combined efforts of fire, plague, Victorian engineering and two world wars have taken their toll.

That said, none of these comments on the layout and structural elements should in any way detract from what the head gardener and her team are managing to achieve here. Their skill and dedication is evident in so many areas, from the long herbaceous border running along the very top – packed so tightly I’d have a job insinuating a credit card between the plants, let alone my own sturdy, lumpen-footed frame – to the artfully arranged display of pots by the greenhouse, and the lush, shade tolerant plantings in the ‘woodland area’, where paeonies jostle with ferns, dicentra/lamprocapnos (I’m still getting the hang of that one!) and astilbes. There's a new planting of ferns around the base of the old black walnut tree – pleasingly a thick bark mulch path had been laid here encouraging you to step off the path and walk among the plants. I had the distinct impression that the new planting area had encroached some way into the turf – could it be that the gardeners are putting in place the initial phase of a stealthy coup to claim space from the tyranny of the lawn? I rather hope so.

The presence of the gardeners was palpable, even while they themselves appeared to have been spirited away. I passed two wheel-barrows clearly abandoned mid-task, one by an obviously well tended working seed bed, and another on the other side of the gardens, where an invisible horticulturalist had evidently been in the process of weaving intricate hazel supports for the paeonies. It was, after all, lunch time (the gardens are only open to the public from 12.30pm – 3pm), and a gardener has to eat.

Perhaps there's something particularly dynamic about a place where the gardeners are necessarily battling against less than ideal design – after all, isn't that what many of us do every day? Here, it clearly draws out a certain flair and panache that makes this space an interesting one in which to linger. Now, a few days after my first visit, the guidebook has arrived in the post, and I feel I’ve at least begun to get the lie of the land. I’m looking forward to my next trip to the Inner Temple Gardens – I have a suspicion it won’t be long before I’m back.

* In The Great Garden: a History of the Inner Temple Garden from the 12th to the 21st Century, Hilary Hale, The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple 2010.