Book Review: Great Gardens of London

Summerley-LondonVictoria Summerley and I first came across each other, in the electronic sense, thanks to a lawnmower. We exchanged a load of Bosch, mutually appreciating the wonders of battery powered lawn mowers in the summer of 2012. Fast forward to 2015 and Victoria’s moved from London to the Cotswolds and someone said “You’ve really got to read Victoria’s latest book!” It might have been Victoria who, in drawing attention to the book, also indicated that she’d written more than one.

But more about that later.

I strolled into my study and adjusted my peripherals into the necessary positions before visiting Amazon to procure my copy of Great Gardens of London.

When you mix a journalist, who knows how to write, with someone who knows her gardens you usually end up with something that’s informative in a very entertaining way and this book certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score as Victoria escorts us on a private viewing of 30 London Gardens, not all of which us common people would be allowed to enter. Of those into which we are allowed, some have taken a leaf out of Charles Jencks’ book and open on only one day a year.

Many of the gardens are not great in size but all are, for one reason or another, entitled to describe themselves as “great” and if we cannot get inside ourselves, a guided tour in the pages of this book is a pretty decent alternative. Other gardens which are accessible aren’t necessarily “high-profile” – I’d never heard of several. This, to me, means that the inclusion of Hampton Court is a bit incongruous, given that it is both well-known and well-covered by other volumes (notably Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s book). 10 Downing Street is included but Buckingham Palace is not, which is a pity as it is only accessible if you are invited to a garden party or are Alan Titchmarsh; perhaps Victoria tried but them-in-charge wouldn’t let her in. But that’s a comparatively minor gripe, if indeed it’s one of those.

Among the gems covered, and into which you will not get, are Clarence House, Coutts Skyline Garden and the Cadogan Estate in Knightsbridge. You’ll also learn about Chelsea Physic Garden, Strawberry Hill and some gardens floating on moored barges in Bermondsey. There’s a useful map with details of opening days/times and web site links not only for the gardens covered in the book but another 46 places on top.

The photographs that partner the text are all carefully chosen, never seeming either too big or too small and their captions are concise and informative.

Though as I was reading the book something was bugging me; an odd feeling that something was missing. “What was it?” I kept wondering. And then I had one of those inspirational moments and realised that the missing something was people! The introduction to the book says it “will give you … a chance to meet the people who maintain, restore and design these extraordinary spaces.” I’m not sure that you actually “meet” them; rather you get a chance to read some quotes. Including a mugshot or two or a photograph of the gardener at work would have added something where the total absence of humans lends a feeling of sterility.

But I mentioned that this was Victoria’s latest book. I enjoyed reading this one so much that I immediately ordered a copy of her earlier one. And lo and behold, it had people photos.  My review of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds will appear soon!

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Great Gardens of London

  1. Thanks Victoria. I really did like the book. Cotswolds coming next Friday (I’m trying to maintain a momentum with the blog. Maybe this time I’ll succeed!). I can also feel smug because I made it inside Buck House and spent a while wandering round the garden. But I wasn’t allowed to take photographs.

  2. Thanks for a very thoughtful review, John. You’re absolutely right – we DID want to do Buckingham Palace, but they turned us down (they said they were doing their own book, or something like that). As with any sort of journalism, what one would like to do isn’t necessarily what one is allowed to do. The reason we included Hampton Court was because of the new kitchen garden, which hadn’t yet appeared in a book.
    I love telling stories and you can’t tell stories about gardens without mentioning people, so I’m delighted that you feel that too. However, the London book had lots of gardens where the gardeners/owners wanted to retain their privacy, and there were other gardens that were run by committees or businesses or charities, which made it difficult to put a face to the garden, as it were. So we decided not to do the portraits for this book.

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