Plum’s Paradise: the joys of a shared garden

We have a book called Mr Plum’s Paradise by Elisa Trimby. It was published in 1977 and tells the story of a man who turns the yard at the back of his small, terraced house in London into a garden. Mr Plum starts off by growing a few bits of fruit and veg. It escalates, as his neighbours see what he’s achieved, and they decide to knock down all the walls dividing their yards to create a single, glorious garden square. It’s a manifesto for communal living. Our son, Wilf enjoys it because the main character is called Wilfred Plum, and because we also share our garden with a couple of hundred neighbours.

We live in an eight-storey, 1960s point block in south-east London designed by architects, Austin Vernon & Partners, with grounds set out by Derek Lovejoy & Associates. There are seven towers, divided by a road and low-rise terrace, and set well apart on the site of what were once large, detached houses. The land used to be part of the Great North Wood, which stretched from Croydon to Camberwell, and there are still some of the original oak trees, as well as willow, cherry, hazel and birch, plus flowerbeds and sculptures. For the area, it’s high-density. At the last census, nearby Dulwich Village had 52 residents per hectare. On our side of the road alone, there are more than 90 flats, so there could easily be more than 200 residents per hectare. Yet even on the sunniest days, you rarely come across more than a handful of them outside. Such was the generosity of the mid-century planner.

We like the communal aspect, although some seem to find it perverse. Friends tilt their heads when they ask how we coped during the pandemic. So much new housing in London is squeezed onto sites without room for a bench, let alone a tree. A RICS study three years ago found that of 1,085 permitted development homes in nearby Croydon (where buildings can be converted to housing without consent), just 14 percent had access to any private or communal amenity space. We’re lucky to have a garden. And with most of us at home, it came to life. Government guidance for our circumstances was vague, but we instinctively adjusted the way we shared the space, just as we kept our distance from each other in the hallway and street. With regular visits from the gardening contractors on hold, the grass grew into a meadow.

In a year at home, we became more attuned to how the garden is used. The man swinging kettlebells by the garages each morning, the couple on deckchairs after work. There are dog walkers, the occasional teenager smoking under the yew tree. Foxes, squirrels, a predatory cat. There are also a lot of children of different ages, playing out together; making dens, running, gardening in the raised beds or making dams in drains. The spaces they enjoy aren’t always the safe grassy areas we’d hope. You might find a group of them sitting in the dirt under one of the concrete walkways, or inside a hedge. It’s not too neat and it’s big enough to have areas that are scruffy and ignored.

It’s true that in a tower block, you can’t just open the door and let young children or dogs out to play; you could feel trapped – this has been a problem recently when the lift stopped working. But once we are in the garden, it has its advantages. We meet our neighbours. We take it in turns to keep an eye on each other’s children, they make friends and explore. As they get older, it feels like a safe way to give them some of the independence I had growing up in a village in the eighties. According to a 2013 study, such freedom is rare – only a quarter of primary school children in England are allowed to travel home from school alone, for example, compared with 86 per cent in 1971. For the adults, there are few places more conducive to a chat, but only if you want one. Plenty of space to hide if you don’t. It offers the casual interactions that architects try to orchestrate to promote ‘community’.

Having worked in architecture practices involved in large-scale planning, I’ve been surprised by the certainty of designers, the way they talk about ‘place-making’ in absolute terms: “we build it, a community will flourish.” But places and gardens don’t always take root as expected. On lockdown walks around some of the new developments in our area, we came across beautiful strips of semi-wild planting, but the useable spaces felt physically and emotionally flat: a glorified patio with a box hedge, or an extended walkway with planters, never any people. Even though we were all at home at that point.

Birthday party bunting, 2019

It’s not necessarily the fault of the architect. These empty spaces are just a manifestation of the value engineering of site area and upkeep, which can add up. Aside from our guerrilla additions to the garden, like herb beds and a swing, we pay for a gardening contractor from our service charge. It’s not cheap and it’s galling that the freeholder profits from a management fee, despite their priorities so often being contrary to residents’. There are new developments in London with expansive gardens, expensive ones. Holland Park Villas in Kensington has moats, Chelsea Barracks has five acres of green squares. Then there’s Battersea Roof Gardens, a 12,000-foot-long garden on top of a building where a studio flat starts at £610,000. Access to London’s exclusive garden squares can add 25 per cent to a property’s value. Because they aspire to a more communal lifestyle? Kensington & Chelsea council have occasionally consulted residents on the idea of letting the public access their gardens more regularly. “No.”

There’s some policy recognition for communal gardens, with developers urged to invest in the long-term value of decent shared spaces. The Living with Beauty report, published by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission called for, “joined-up terraces, proper squares and green spaces”. They cite the Peabody estates, Victorian initiatives “which saw beauty and affordability as inseparably connected.” But it’s all about streets and houses, the rhetoric seems archaic. One of my favourite London gardens is the Barbican. High-rise and high-density, but with all kinds of green: wildflower verges, lakes, terraces, a conservatory and three communal gardens, including a wildlife garden and children’s play area. There’s even enforced horticulture – I was told that under the terms of their lease, residents have to cultivate their window boxes.

The most creative, considered landscapes seem to be found in social housing; projects like muf’s King’s Crescent Estate in Hackney, which prioritises space for chaotic, imaginative play. Perhaps because these projects are more likely to be developed with greater community involvement, asking people how they live and what they need. Close to us is Central Hill (below), a 1967 housing estate designed by Rosemary Stjernstedt, Roger Westman and Lambeth Council’s in-house team. Like our blocks, it’s planned around mature trees and generous gardens: slides down slopes, staggered flats looking out onto lawns, a community growing space, a playground. But the estate has been neglected by the same council that built it, run down to be demolished, with gardens reduced to potential infill sites.

When our blocks were built in the sixties, the willingness of Mr Plum’s neighbours to knock down their garden walls wasn’t such a fairytale. Shared gardens were desirable — the flats cost more than the surrounding houses. Today, value is measured first for the individual. I don’t want to paint too rose-tinted a picture, our garden isn’t perfect. We have a fly-tipping problem by the garages. There are 34 households in our building and everyone has a different perspective. Some never use the garden, there are elderly residents that only enjoy it as a view. Before the pandemic, tenants seemed less likely to use it than leaseholders. But during the pandemic, this divide broke down and everyone seemed to use it equally. Happily, this has continued. Now it’s impossible to imagine a sunny day here without the garden being full of life.

If there is a modern-day Plum’s Paradise, it’s the tropical, bohemian enclave of Bonnington Square in Vauxhall. The terraced houses were semi-derelict and faced demolition, until squatters in the 1980s formed a housing cooperative and rescued them. Plants were rooted everywhere they would grow, from the rooftops and basements to cracks in the pavements. A community garden was created on the site of a Georgian terrace on Harleyford Road. Garden designer, Dan Pearson lived on the street and was part of its design. Writing in the Guardian in 2008, he called it “an object lesson in what can be achieved when people join forces to stop so-called ‘wasteland’ being lost to yet more bricks and mortar.” Forty years later, the street would have likely been razed in the name of the Vauxhall Nine Elms and Battersea opportunity area. It remains an oasis of the charm, wilderness and natural community that its new riverfront neighbours have yet to grow.

Postscript: In 1981, Elisa Trimby published a sequel to Mr Plum’s Paradise called Mr Plum’s Oasis. In it, Wilfred Plum is approached by a wealthy sheikh who commissions him to create the most magnificent garden in the desert for his daughter. Plum buys provisions in Harrods and flies by Concorde. To irrigate the land, he arranges for an iceberg to be towed from the Antarctic by hundreds of boats.

Article first printed in Communal, August 2021 (Buy here)

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