Quiddity – the ineffable quality of “whatness”.
What you may ask is whatness? It’s everything that makes a place unique and while the word may be new to me the concept is not. The quiddity of a place has intrigued travelers for millennium and was the focus of an article “London’s Odd and Empty Corners” by Guy Trebay in the travel section of the Sunday New York Times several weeks ago.
Trebay, on a frenzied visit to London, a city he finds endlessly fascinating, explores those peculiar and quirky places that can be found in no other location, the “little spaces, odd corners and crooked byways” that are “woven into the city’s texture, in its arcades, its shoulder-wide alleys, odd terraces, house museums and specialty shops; secreted between and beside and atop and sometimes even within the big marquee attractions, hidden right there in plain sight.” London, he observes, is a capital city whose agrarian soul coexists with its urbanity and he delights in sharing the lesser known spaces where history and modernity intertwine to reveal the “quiddity” of the city.
While the article focuses mainly on the indoors (having been written in March) when I was in London last spring I discovered one of those places that Trebay extols, a secret garden hidden in a marquee attraction – Regent’s Park. Like most secrets I learned about the garden by coincidence when I struck up a conversation with a Londoner while observing herons nesting on an island in the adult boating lake of the park (yes, there is also a children’s boating lake). In full rapture of the intimacy in which the natural world permeates central London, I was directed to a garden that was designed to be meditative, providing an elegant counterbalance to the busy pathways of the larger park.
Located off the inner circle in Regent’s Park, Saint John’s Lodge is one of two remaining garden villas included in John Nash’s residential plan of 1811. Built in 1819, Saint John’s Lodge was a private residence until 1916, when it was converted to a hospital and later used by London University. Today the villa is privately owned once again (by the Sultan of Brunei) and the garden available to the public since 1928, is managed and maintained by the Royal Parks Agency.
According to a brief history the garden had an informal layout (seen above in a map dated 1833) until 1892 when the 3rd Marquess of Bute commissioned an Arts-and-Crafts architect, Robert Weir Schulz (1860 – 1951), to develop a garden that was, among other attributes, “fit for meditation.”
The garden was reconfigured to include a series of “rooms” on axis with the villa that included sunken lawns, a circular garden and a pool where a statue of Saint John the Baptist (replaced by Hylas and the Nymph) was featured as well as an enclosed wilderness garden, particularly suited to contemplation.
In 1994 the garden was renovated by Colvin & Moggeridge to recapture elements of the 1890’s plan and pay homage to the 3rd Marquess of Bute.
According to London Gardens Online (http://www.londongardensonline.org.uk) the renovation included a new walkway east of the gatehouse and the addition of a metal arbour (seen below) reflecting the original stone portico.
Site amenities included new high-backed benches as well as several statues and urns including the “Shepherdess” and the “Awakening”. The siting of new commemorative pieces within public gardens and parks is always a challenge and it is fortunate that the plan sensitively incorporated these elements into the existing design.
These changes are reflected in the diagram below located at the entrance to the garden. The entrance, seen on the left, leads into the circular garden and fountain with an oval-shaped lawn area to the right and smaller enclosed circular garden rooms beyond. Formal lawns with perennial borders are located off of the central axis.
The garden’s entrance (which is easily missed) is off the Inner Circle of Regent’s Park not far from the information center. An arched pergola covered with clematis and roses and bordered with perennials and seasonal plantings defines the passage into the garden, an outdoor corridor enclosed by landscaped walls and an allee of trees.
One of the wonderful aspects of entering the garden through a pergola, a space that combines architectural form with landscape elements, is that it is rather like the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland, a narrow passage that transforms you to a completely different world. You will notice from the image below that you can’t see what lies ahead.
At the terminus of the pergola is an urn on a plinth dedicated “In affectionate memory to Anne Sharpley (1928-1989), a journalist who loved this garden.”
Curious to learn more about Sharpley and gain insight into the prominent location of the memorial at the garden’s entrance, I embarked on a quick search for information about Anne. While I have barely scratched the surface of her life I discovered that Sharpley, an investigative reporter for the Evening Standard in the 1960’s, began her career as an art student and became a reporter after winning a Vogue sponsored competition in the 1940’s. She appears to have been an indefatigable character with a life full of adventure.
According to William Stevenson, in Past to Present: A Reporter’s Story of War, Spies, People and Politics (2012) Anne was dubbed “Shapley Sharpley” by Randolph Churchill and among other attributes “love(d) dangerous faraway places” while being a “romantic soul who show(ed) him (London’s) historic hideaways, dens of vice dating back to Henry the Eighth, goldsmiths in the maze of alleyways around the Rothschild banking complex and places still hoarding the secret slips identifying the Scarlet Pimpernel who saved French prisoners from the guillotine at the time of the revolution.”
Her advice, “the further back you look, the further forward you can see” seems an apt description of this secret oasis in the city that she loved and while I look forward to learning more about Anne’s exploits, of which there appear to be many, I admire the simple elegance of the memorial in her honor and the fact that this garden, so of the place (how very quiddity) meant so much to her.
The entry path leads into the garden which contains other clues to its history including stone piers topped by cherubs bearing shields with the insignia of the Bute family – who redesigned the garden in the 1890’s.
The garden is intimate and just over an acre in size. Circular/oval spaces are offset by a rectangular lawn and each is defined by hedges, trees and changes in elevation providing enclosure for the outdoor rooms while allowing for visual connections and variations in light and shade. The combination of formal and informal elements adds to the garden’s appeal.
At the end of the oval garden, there’s a covered seat where a nymphaeum once stood, forming the focal point to the axis of the villa. Another smaller circular garden is framed by lime trees encircling a stone urn. The intimacy of the garden and the manner in which views are framed by trees, architectural elements and sculpture can be seen in the two views below.
It was in this area of the garden that I found another memorial, The Awakening by Wuts Safardiar dedicated, “In fond memory of Anne Lydia Evans (1929 – 1999) who shared the secret of this garden.” Anne was a general practitioner in Marleybone, the neighborhood adjacent to the entrance of the park, and is described as compassionate and fair, with a deep social conscience who worked on the “Medical Campaign for the Care of Victims of Torture.”
I like to imagine the two Annes, who loved this secret garden so much that they chose to become part of its history, here at the same time in their own special niche, blissfully unaware of each other.
There is a long history of secret gardens (giardini segreti) intentionally designed within larger schemes as discrete outdoor rooms for contemplation. It is unusual for these gardens to be part of the public realm while retaining the characteristics that make them unique.
The garden at Saint John’s Lodge is one of those wonderful places that could not exist elsewhere. It’s a hidden gem within a larger park, a secret garden within the heart of the city.
The garden is open daily during the same hours as Regent’s Park.
It is located off the inner circle close to Chester Road and the park office. For additional information visit:
Copyright © 2013 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved