The Secret Garden Secret No More

I don’t know – there’s just no pleasing me. When the Dwarf Orchard lay forgotten and neglected behind super-high walls I carped on about how Royal Parks were letting an opportunity slip through their hands, how they weren’t looking after something historic, yadda yadda. Now they are actually doing something about it, I’ve come over all Frances Hodgson Burnett and I want my secret garden back.

It’s a tough one. The draw of the ‘secret garden’, lost for years behind impenetrably high, ivy-carpeted walls, dances in the imagination. It’s the birthday present that’s still wrapped, the blind date  hidden behind a copy of The Times, the sealed envelope containing the Oscar winner’s name – there’s could be anything in there. The whole romance of The Secret Garden - the broken masonry, the few exotic flowers still blooming in the carpet of native undergrowth – is that moment when the individual discovers it. It is that instant of possibility, before its miraculous transformation. The second that process begins, the romance is lost – and yet it has to happen. The climax of the book may be when Mr Craven sees the children playing in the restored garden and finally sheds his grief, but the gulp-moment for the reader is the discovery of the garden in the first place. 

Trouble is, we can’t all be the individual that discovers the Dwarf Orchard, its tangled branches and ruined fountains dripping with promise. The choice is – to leave it there forever, with only sycamore trees peeping over the top to tell us it’s even there (I’m sure many people don’t even realise it is there) – or to open it up to all. And if it is to be opened up should it be left as a managed wilderness (anyone ever visited Miss Wilmott’s ‘lost’ garden at Warley Place, near Brentwood in Essex? It’s an utter joy), should it be ‘restored’ as much as possible to its former historic glory, or should it be given a modern makeover.

Over the past couple of years, Royal Parks has definitely been going for the ‘opening it up for all’ thing and volunteers cleared the undergrowth (so not the managed wilderness-option, then). Sadly they did it during weekdays so they didn’t get any Phantom help. But for the past couple of months the professionals have stepped in. I was walking by recently and the gates were open on Park Vista, so I stuck my head round the corner. The guys who were cleaning out the wall, presumably for re-pointing, invited me to have a look around. Clearly I wasn’t singled out for special treatment – these pics weren’t taken by me, but by Scared of Chives, who also got to poke around – the workers are very friendly – it seems that if you’re polite, they just let you come and take a sneaky peek.

It’s much, much bigger than I had imagined it to be, now many of those godawful sycamores have gone. The ancient mulberry tree has room to breathe, and they told me they were going to re-plant the orchard, presumably with ‘heritage’ varieties. 

The guys also told me they discovered a well. I couldn’t really whip my notebook out so I didn’t write down how deep it was, but either 30 or 50m rings a bell. Sadly for the guys at Subterranean Greenwich, the workers also told me they were blocking it up. What IS this health and safety thing? Why couldn’t they just have stuck a great big iron grille over it, rather than destroy it entirely? 

But – the Dwarf Orchard comes on apace. And I don’t know whether I’m excited we’re getting a new green space or slightly sad that we’ve lost a little bit of secret romance here. What do you think? Am I being a Soppy Old Phantom?

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3 Comments to “The Secret Garden Secret No More”

  1. Stephen says:

    “Am I being a Soppy Old Phantom?”


    I wouldn’t want a modern makeover, a managed wilderness sounds a good idea, but are there plans of how it used to be? If there are, a restoration would also be a good idea

    I agree about the well. At Eltham Palace, and many other places wells have been preserved with a grille put on top.

  2. Restoration and recreation are two separate things. Restoration involves the repair of original, existing features and design elements, as well as the management of any remaining plant material. Recreation doesnt have to follow any kind of former design and can be a complete pastiche or merely nod at an original design in passing.

    The trouble with gardens is that they cannot be preserved in amber. As soon as they are planted, they start to change. Fashions will alter, different plants will become popular and have to be accommodated or fall from favour. To slavishly recreate (or restore) the past can lead to sterility. Time capsules can be stultifying. All gardens change – that is why they continue to exist. You cannot hang onto the past for any reasonable length of time. Granted, decay is “romantic” but if decay is not managed properly, it gets beyond repair. I would rather see a historic garden area sensitively restored (or recreated) and enjoyed and appreciated by the many than left to fall into decay and oblivion, only to be enjoyed by the knowing few.

  3. Julia says:

    Just to let you know that they’re getting on well with the Orchard now – everything I can see has been cleared, except for the Mulberry tree and the paths going round the garden are 2/3 ish complete. I think there are a few little trees planted, can’t tell what they are. They have professional people working there every weekday now.
    Fingers crossed more planting to come and that the garden will be open soon. I’ll try to remember to post some more pics.