How to see London through the eyes of local residents and get engaged with the nationwide hobby of the English along the way


It’s 7:55 in the morning. I’m going out of the London Tube at Vauxhall Station. In five minutes, my immersion into the innermost depths of the English national character will begin. I am going to look at London through the eyes of the zealous adherents to the main British hobby – gardening.

Ben and Daz, elegant guys in their thirties, will take on the task of cultivating their “green religion” in us, a small, motley group of hesitantly smiling Europeans. While we are waiting for the rest, we find out that our guides are typical white collar workers (the IT business), who, looking for some rest from the virtual world, periodically make use of plants to ennoble any vacant piece of area they find.
“I got hooked on gardening a few years ago. It brings so much joy and inspiration!” says Daz.
“In my opinion, people get so tired of tapping computer keyboards that it is vital for them to engage in something creative that requires very finger different movements,” Ben echoes.

They are about to show us their favorite places in the city. Our first port of call is New Covent Garden, the largest flower market in the UK, that supplies three quarters of all London florist businesses.

Ben and Daz are guiding us past the floral exuberance, cracking jokes and chatting with the sellers – the guys seem to be frequent visitors here. Out of the boxes, they lift one plant, then another, telling us about the strong and weak points of each and giving tips on the best choices for gardening both inside your apartment or out in the open air. I suddenly begin feeling that it would be lovely to stay here a bit longer just to wander around freely, looking for botanical curiosities, chatting with flower-sellers and imagining myself as Eliza Doolittle. But the market will soon close, and there are so many interesting things ahead.

Sitting on the deck of a river boat on our way to Canary Wharf, I recall the information on the subject of gardening that I had managed to obtain before signing up for this excursion. I had read about the “green city revolution” that engulfed London; visited the Geffrye Museum, where you can see how London homes have been changing over centuries, and how typical urban gardens have developed from the 1630s to the present day. The latter began transforming into a joyful sight and a place for rest in the 17th century, and a hundred years later, gardening had already gained so much popularity that even ladies were allowed to sow and rake, provided, that they would do it elegantly, of course.

By following a global green trend (and determining it in certain aspects) London is acquiring more and more new green zones. Walls, roofs and various infrastructure make the basis for them. Brown Hart Gardens at the electricity substation in the Mayfair area is a pretty and classic example of such an eco-friendly solution.

But what’s there to say, if on the three windowsills of a small rented apartment that I had meticulously chosen on Airbnb, there were nine pots with plants – from crassula to a scraggy, but selflessly blooming, orchid! Outside, the entrance to the dwelling was guarded by a galvanized bucket, turned into a cozy nest for a family of succulents, a wooden box nearly cracking from the onslaught of nine colossal hyacinths, and a giant tin-can from pickled gherkins (with a net weight of 3,700 g), from which ornamental cabbage bashfully leaned its curly head. And this is despite the fact that the apartment is intended solely for lease, located in the not-so-fashionable district of the city, its landlady has not lived in London for a long time, and the property itself belongs to the social housing category.

There is a distinct smell of the sea in the air on Canary Wharf. Perhaps you get this impression because of the local business centers with their gray-greenish glass facades that resemble the water column. Financial flows have been converging at this point for quite a while. In the 19th century, ships with goods from all over the world were rushing to this island: the West Indian docks, in which tea, coffee and spices were stored, were located here.

We walk past the office towers and shopping centers towards the Crossrail Place at the very edge of the water. There will be a high-speed railway station here in 2018, but for now, only shops, cafes and a large greenhouse are open.

We go up the escalator, and now the high-tech jungle outside looks inferior to the real tropical one we see before us. Overhead, palm trees and tree ferns are rustling, and through the transparent ceiling with open sections, the wind and birds fly in. The walls are also almost transparent. You can see the surrounding landscapes through them, and even get a glimpse of Greenwich on the other bank of the Thames.

“We are standing right on the meridian line,” says Daz. “Here is the Eastern Hemisphere, and there is the Western. Here are plants from Europe, Asia and Africa, and over there – from Americas, Australia and New Zealand. By the way, do you know how they transported seedlings over long distances a couple of centuries ago? They used special glass containers that served as prototypes of modern flower terrariums.”

Around us, the magnolia are in blossom, the reeds are rustling, the bamboo stretches skyward and the polished leaves of strawberry trees are shining. Here and there among the bushes information panels are installed, from which you can find out, for example, that the oldest tea tree is more than three thousand years old or that the banana is the most popular fruit in the world.

In this morning hour, there are almost no visitors in sight. Only a couple of police officers pass by from time to time. And in the Asian part of the garden, a small boy with his nanny is chasing tiny birds that boldly jump out of the bushes right to the paths. “Is it always so empty here?” I ask the policemen. “Oh, no!” they laugh, “In the afternoon, you’d be lucky to find your way around at all. And around four o’clock, the whole place would be packed like the Tube.”

We are not going to check this statement today, as another unusual garden is waiting for us.

The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is still quite an extraordinary phenomenon, even for London. The place is located right on the spot where a railway branch used to be. Birches and raspberries, beds with greens and vegetables – this hidden oasis in the middle of a residential area resembles a summer cottage garden. The locals help take care of it, and any new members joining can get their first gardening lessons here. There’s also a cafe on-site, as well as a sandbox for children, and a greenhouse. Teachers from nearby schools bring their students here for lessons in botany and biology. Creative and culinary workshops are also organized here from time to time.

From here, it is very close to the small private Japanese-style garden that Ben and Daz look after. Not only the participants of their botanical walks and workshops can see it: the guys collaborate with the charitable organization National Garden Scheme (NGS), which unites amateur gardeners throughout the country.

We open our garden to visitors twice a year”, says Ben. “Anyone can come. We give full tours, tell you about everything, and share our experience and inspiration. The ticket costs three pounds, and the proceeds go to the NGS, which supports hospices, charities and scientific centers for fighting cancer. Last year, we had about a hundred people a day, which is a very good result, I suppose. A benefit for all”.

The figures demonstrate how popular this initiative is at the national scale: in 2015, with the help of the NGS, more than £2.5 million was collected, and in the 90 years of the organization’s existence, more than £45 million has been transferred towards charitable deeds. The main national hobby does bring not-so-bad dividends for the British society.

Inspired by what we encountered during the day, we are ready for the main part of initiation – the botanical workshop. There is an empty glass sphere before each of us – this is the shell of the world that we are about to create. A long wooden table is filled with pots with seedlings, mosses are waiting in boxes, there are containers with all sorts of stones and sand, and some transparent bags with tiny decorative figures. Daz talks about the layers of the soil, the compatibility of plants, the purpose of all kinds of spatulas and pincers, which lie before us. The theory basics should gradually lead us to the most important aspect.

“Take your time. First, imagine what plants you would like to see in your terrarium. I’m sure you have some dear memories that you might want to weave there, for example, how you went to the forest when a child. Or impressions of a trip to some country. Dreams also will do!” encourages Daz. “See, it’s not just about how to root the seedling correctly. You come up with your own story!”

For sure, stories are something the British are particularly good at. Alas, I cannot whisk mine back with me to Moscow, as the world inside the glass container is too fragile. No worries, I already know for sure what I am going to do when I return.


Теxt: Alena Tveritina

Published on: June 24, 2018