It was the proposed Garden Bridge spanning the River Thames in London that started it all; well, to be more accurate, Twitter is to blame because I happened to come across a tweet from, amongst others a Folly for London that reported on this outrageous project that was going to cost well over £70million and as far as I could tell, it was the realisation of a romantic dream and idea that the adorable Joanna Lumley had had to remember Princess Dianna, but it looked like it was going to end up as somewhere the toffs could hold a private garden party.
And when I saw one of the designers, Dan Pearson, was going to be at the London School of Economics (LSE) Literary Festival, I thought here was my chance to put my money where my mouth is and ask him what this daft project was all about.
Thus I found myself sitting in the front row of the LSE Sheikh Zayed Theatre.
The Chairman, Richard Bronk gave a very warm welcome to the proceedings and alluded to the fact that he thought we were ‘a nation of gardeners and our landscape was central to co-creation and imaginative exercise where we could be spiritually restored’.
I was beginning to doubt this was the right platform for my intended rant.
Richard introduced Anna Pavord, Dan Pearson and Margaret Willes with each of their respective literary gems but more relevant (to me at least) was Dan’s link to the Garden Bridge project; and when it was mentioned there was an audible moan and sigh from the audience.
Perhaps all was not lost, I thought.
We were then delighted by Anna’s Utopian angle to landscapes and gardens with reference to her book Landskipping. But it was the story she told about Thomas Johnes (1748-1816) that was fascinating; a man who in just five years enclosed 8 acres of land within a wall, calling on the local miners to help blow up the huge boulders, the resulting smaller rocks being used to build the wall.
He then planted 2million 65 thousand trees including 10 thousand oaks. He built druid temples, grottos and used natural caves to further enchant this unusual landscape.
Johnes wanted his project to be a profitable enterprise and whilst visitors and especially writers were charmed, it did not make any money and by September 1832 he was forced to sell and the house he had built was blown up in 1936.
A very sad tale of a man who must have had great vision and imagination to create a beautiful landscape; a man before his time.
An interesting presentation & a clue as to the way this event was heading.
Then it was Dan Pearson’s turn, so I sat up straight and took note.
Dan’s approach to the Utopian theme was An Oasis in the Heart, which linked nicely to the Garden Bridge project, but maybe that’s just me.
After describing his background and how he came to be in his own little oasis of gardening love, he referenced Alhambra in Spain with its water features, then in contrast the Guerilla Gardening in New York where derelict patches have been transformed into floral sanctuaries.
There was plenty of reference to the various places he had lived and delighted in transforming dull flat rooves into roof gardens, or derelict patches of land into a community green haven,
“It taught me about the power of gardens… a real sense of place where you can recalibrate yourself”
Dan used that word a lot, recalibrate; a trip to Hokkaido, Japan where he drank beer with garden designer Fumiako Takano in a warm spring where the outside temperature was -25° and his hair froze. And where, after three days he was convinced to revert five hectares of flat farmland into its original state of green undulating hills and mounds,
“Gardens are a place that allow you to revisit your thoughts, feel more sensual and more connected with the world.”
Everyone was drifting along with him over his green hills and utopian Japanese gardens when the Chairman Richard Bronk reminded him his time was up so we were all snapped back into the real world.
Which is when the penny dropped; given an open cheque book from a wealthy philanthropist, a piece of barren scrubland or derelict acre of brownfield, a community who have been starved of the arts, culture, beauty, greenery, and visual splendour; Dan Pearson is your man. He can restore what has been excavated; bring to life that which is inert and enliven any spirit that is flagging.
But in one of the richest cities in the world where tourists flock, where there is an abundance of galleries and gardens available to all, where entertainment and visual gratification is accessible every day of the year; a luxury, indulgent, extravagant project that is The Garden Bridge is not only unnecessary it is profligate, reckless and egocentric.
Sadly for Dan I think his love of the utopia and his dream of regenerating gardens has been commandeered by the elitist elements of London’s hierarchy who have forgotten about the rest of the population.
I can but hope this project is put on indefinite hold until a suitable derelict bedraggled patch of worthless land is found where Dan can work some real magic that will make a positive difference to the area.
The presentation was finished with Margaret Willes presentation of 19th century gardening.
Questions were invited from the audience, however anything relating to The Garden Bridge were strictly out of bounds, although A Folly for London did ask about the land lost to the project and how else they might spend £10m, interestingly Anna said she’d spend it on Kew Gardens that is in need of extra funding.
Afterwards I did try to wheedle out some comment from Dan but he refused to be drawn on the subject or enter into the politics of the project.
I can’t help but wonder if he is beginning to wonder about the wisdom of entering the project at all but perhaps he is already mentally immersed in his Thames Utopia with his blinkers on to avoid seeing the bigger picture.