Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

You don't have to leave town to enjoy nature


Despite being an ardent Green, I'm no great fan of the countryside. A brief incarnation as a Stepford wife in rural Sussex turned me into a town mouse to whom life outside London is just a huge, grey blur. The one exception is Guildford, where I grew up and my family still live. Guildford is surely the finest town in England, with its cobbles, history and stunning green-belt countryside. But despite that, I haven't visited for years. I'm like a misty-eyed memsahib dreaming of Tunbridge Wells with no intention of actually returning.

However, last week I made a rare visit and was horrified to discover this greenest of towns is turning into a concrete jungle due to the nefarious practice of infilling. Greedy householders are securing planning permission to stick masses of tiny boxes in their large gardens, selling up and retiring with the loot. These are not affordable houses for key workers, but expensive jerry-built monstrosities. Whereas in Europe, new houses incorporate money-saving environmental improvements such as solar panels, here there are no such forward-thinking building strategies.

At least my mother's garden is still a refuge, where I hoped to enjoy the rural silence of my childhood, when the only noise was the occasional splash as Pimm's-sodden guests crashed into the swimming pool. Occasionally, one might hear birdsong, or Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me" wafting on a loop from my father's study. Once we'd deloused the dogs, fed the cats, chickens, birds, picked the beans and completed all the other exhausting tasks that townies fantasise about, we collapsed with drinks so that my mother could regale me with details of a recent murder on the Downs opposite. Unfortunately, details were drowned out by next door's Porsche lawnmower, a chainsaw, planes and the distant roar of the A3. Not forgetting a continual volley of gunfire that the police told us was Surrey Council culling pigeons.

It was a relief to return to London, where the only racket comes from county ladies squabbling in the Peter Jones haberdashery department opposite my bedroom window. Chelsea is the most heavily populated borough, yet compared with our crowded countryside, it is a peaceful haven awash with green places. One such is the Chelsea Physic Garden.

Hidden behind high brick walls between the river and the King's Road, the garden was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for the nominal rent of £5, which still stands today. In those days, it was a centre for cutting-edge medical research and contributed to the establishment of many modern medicines.

Part of its charm is its wildness. Unlike parks, pruned and weeded to death, here, herbs, vegetables and flowers flourish untamed. Visitors can explore the fragrant Aromatherapy Garden as well as the Garden of World Medicine, which contains healing plants used by ancient cultures from around the world.

My mother and I enjoyed a delicious lunch there - the pièce de résistance was the summer pudding made with honey from the gardens' bees and mulberries from the tree above us. Despite my mother's entreaties, I couldn't resist scrumping a few. If you want the taste sensation of the year, go while stocks last. But don't blame me if all you see are bare branches. I might just have eaten you to it.


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