Ballast Quay – Part Two – A Garden is Born
Today, I’m going back to Hilary Peters’s fabulous memories of
Ballast Quay Union Wharf in the 1960s. Just to recap, she’s walked along the river until she found a Georgian house where she might be able to build a garden, persuaded Morden College (who own a lot of the land round there) not to pull down the gorgeous little houses there, and rented one of them for the princely sum of £7 a week. Now, she’s going to build a garden…
I now had a key to the huge wooden gates, though they were hard to open. I could go in and direct the clearing up. It was my very first taste of landscaping, an activity which makes you feel like God.
Lovells’s end crane reached over my wharf, so it was used to remove the barrels of bitumen, railway sleepers and general grot that accumulates on disused wharves. There was a huge cast-iron grab, too, which I wanted to use as a flower pot but that went. If I’d saved it, it would have gone where the plane tree now is. It must have been 6ft tall and 5ft diameter.
I was soon joined by a gang of local kids, desperate for something to do. And there was lots to do. Just picking up the broken glass took days. One of the kids knew of a young cherry tree in the garden of a house that was being pulled down in Banning St. Another had a father who had a key to the water mains. All of them could climb like monkeys. I was alternately blamed for leading them astray and praised for my social work. Together, we spread the topsoil and planted the grass. The cherry tree went in at the end by the pub, the railway sleepers made plant frames. The residual grot was mounded up and covered with soil.
I took this picture in January of the cherry tree – it’s not at it’s best – give it a few weeks and it will be back to its lovely self, but as you can see, forty-odd years have been kind to it…
Our neighbours were wonderful. They would knock on the door and give us food – sandwiches, roast meat, cakes, pancakes, smoked cod, hot cross buns, summer pudding, batter pudding, bread pudding, mince pies. Every time of year had its special food.
Then the greenhouse was built and I called myself Union Wharf Nursery Garden.
I maintained the gardens at Amen Court for St Paul’s Cathedral and the garden round Southwark Cathedral, where the Borough Market was still a real vegetable market and the garden was for drunks to have a sleep. (Plus ça change – TGP) Covent Garden was real market too, which I used, getting up at 4am and driving my mini-van straight into the Piazza.
The wharf housed a shifting collection of plants and trees, and occasionally our neighbours, who had no tradition of using a garden like a London Square. They just kept giving me food in exchange. And when I kept hens in the shed (free range on the lawn during the day) and gave them eggs, they wanted to pay me as well.
On one occasion, a hen disappeared, and then another. There was a large Dutch coaster moored against the wharf (at high tide, the captain’s cabin was a few inches from the shed.) I went on board to mourn my loss. The captain denied all knowledge of hens, wharves and even ships. Most Dutch people speak perfect English but this does not apply to sailors accused of theft. He understood nothing. Soon after, they left on the tide, and there on the sea wall, was the corpse of my second lost hen, carefully returned, though dead. I assume they ate the first one…
I started to work at St Katherine’s Dock, designing garden after garden as the development progressed, salvaging blocks of granite and York stone. They form the basis of ‘the rockery’ in the garden at Ballast Quay, now covered in ivy. All my dockland gardens had a fig tree because I liked the one at Wapping Pier Head so much. To me that huge fig tree against the Georgian houses in Wapping summed up the powerful mix of industry and beauty that my gardens struggled to recreate. Eating the figs in Ballast Quay is an unforeseen bonus.
Any plant that managed to put down roots through the paving slabs became a symbol of new life. The ferns and buddleias that grew out of the dock walls at St. Katherine’s were a language hardly anyone understood, certainly not the architects, who wanted me to make the place look like a million dollars. They actually said so.
But while the architects of St Katherine’s Dock were doing their best to appeal to the gin-palace owners they hoped would colonise that part of the Thames, Hilary already had her eye on another piece of real estate, one that would appeal to a completely different sort of customer. But I’ll leave that for next time…
The fabulous black and white shots, by the way, are by Richard Proctor whose photographs of Greenwich, taken back in the 1980s, really seem to capture something of what the wharf was like in much earlier days…
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