London Haunts | The Secret Garden

Welcome to a new blog series: ‘London Haunts’, chronicling some of my favourite places in this sprawling city. I wrote the piece below during the summer for a travel journal, but thought it fitting to herald this series as it’s my favourite place in town. I’m still head-over-heels for it. If you’re a Londoner and fancy a visit, directions can be found here. Its official name is the Garden of St. John’s Lodge (but, ssh, let’s keep it just between us?)

Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden – in all the places.

– Frances Hodgson Burnett, ‘The Secret Garden’

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Did you love Frances Hodgson Burnett as a child too? I inhaled The Secret Garden, staying awake late to read beneath the covers, falling asleep to dreams of Misselthwaite: gardens of knotted ivy hidden behind lofty stone walls, where robin redbreasts trilled from treetops and a swing seat swayed lonesome in the wind. Accordingly, I grew up with the idea that gardens are magical, some way or another, and secret gardens the most magical ones of all.

Imagine my delight then, when I heard whisper of a secret garden, folded inside the heart of London, right in the centre of Regent’s Park. A friend spoke in hushed tones of this horticultural jewel, whispering all cloak-and-dagger as if its existence really were classified information, not fit for the uninitiated. I could barely fathom its existence – a secret in a park I walk through daily and profess to know like the back of my hand?

Regent’s Park, you see, is my city constant. I cut across its green in every season, swooping in each morning via the Outer Circle, rushing through the rose garden to make up for lost time. From there I cross the sun-scrubbed meadow before emerging onto the thronging streets of Camden Town.  So I resolved to find this garden, dreaming up my own Mary Lennox moment.

Weather and circumstance foiled my attempts at discovery until late in the week when days of interminable drizzle surrendered to a paper-white sky. As soon as the clock struck noon, I rushed from the office with such speed that papers fluttered. I traipsed across the muddy meadow in velvet shoes utterly unfit for the task and, easy as pie, I found it. A pair of wrought iron gates on the Inner Circle announced its entrance. How many times had I walked by, oblivious?

Beyond the gates, one slightly ajar, lies a narrow alleyway of arching arbours, each draped in curling wisteria. By late August the last purple tendrils were stooping yellow with age, but the place must be a riot of fragrance and colour in June. At the end of the alley, a bend to the left reveals the garden in all its splendour. A grand Regency villa looms over the lawn, where a nymph dances atop a fountain sprinkled with wistful pennies. And beyond, beyond, a gardener’s anthology – columbines, aster, violets, hostas and periwinkles. There are wild roses, too, and huge plantain lilies clambering towards the sky.

Private places in a city of millions are seldom, private green spaces even rarer. And all this just serves to make the garden yet more of a marvel. I must admit, sometimes London makes me disagreeable – not so different to petulant little Mary Lennox. I’m a country mouse parading as a city mouse and the dirt-streaked pavements and flocks of tourists occasionally makes me scowl. I long for peace and quiet, nature, space. And here I’ve found it. My secret garden, as I’ve taken to calling it, is a little less wild than Mary Lennox’s hidden patch of soil. But it is cloaked in mystery nonetheless: for who tends to it? Do gardeners descend each day as dusk cedes to night? I don’t know. But I’m smitten.

Miss Mary Lennox, eat your heart out.