The secret gardens

Click to follow
I WAS AT Kempshott Junior School on the edge of Basingstoke one fine June morning recently. It was not at all like any primary school I ever saw a quarter of a century ago. In the playgrounds of the past, children ran around aimlessly, occasionally colliding with one another and making an awful noise. You could hear the shouts from several blocks away. In the big town primaries the most exciting thing to happen in break was a fight. When the cry of "Bun-dle cha cha cha' went up, it was a signal for everyone to gather round, so that the teacher could not see to spoil the fun. For sensitive children the trial by asphalt was appalling. At Kempshott things are quite different: there are flowers everywhere, and places for children to sit quietly. There are hedgerows and a pond and a daisy-covered playing field. While I was there, the decibel count was low and nobody was crying. Classroom doors were open and on the grass outside, a group of girls arranged a sequence of pictures of the Thames in the shelter of some flowering shrubs. It seemed an idyllic setting and it was not surprising to find that indoors the paintings and projects were often based on the garden around the school.

Kempshott is special, so special that it is the first school to have been invited to open to the public under the auspices of the National Gardens Scheme. There are many good gardeners who long for that accolade. As a rough rule, the organisers suggest that forty minutes of interest is the minimum requirement for being open. In practice, standards are high and visitors hard to please. As one of the hardest to please of garden visitors, I can vouch for a better than average visit at Kempshott Junior School. It is an extraordinary achievement. Anyone with children at primary school stage, or who is interested in education, would be captivated by what goes on there. Landscape architects, ought to be sent to look at it as part of their training, and gardeners who think growing things is difficult, will be encouraged by the exuberance of the place. This afternoon, when the school is open, there will be a display in the hall, of books containing before and after photographs. Do not miss these because it is important to realise that the gardens have been entirely designed, created and maintained by the children, backed up by teachers and parents.

The instigator of all this is a modest woman approaching retirement. Wendy Memmott, the Headteacher, was elegantly dressed in navy shirtwaister with gold slashed sleeves when I met her. She led me around the garden passing a table with a pair of fisherman's waders slung across it. At 7.30 before school she had been in the pond in huge rubber boots and shorts. She seems to be a woman who gets things done. In 1984 when she became head of the school there was a temporary classroom to remove. She told the council she wanted the space for a wild garden and she set about breaking up the huge areas of turf and low maintenance shrubberies that surrounded the site. The children chose an area to do a pilot study to discover how it could be improved. For this, they devised a 'feelings grid' to record what they did and did not like about the place. On the basis of their findings they put together a brief for their design. Everyone in the class made a plan and then they voted for the best chequerboard lay-out. This arrangement of patches of flowers and paving stones gives each member of the class of 10-11 year olds the chance to tend a plot for a year. Every child that passes through the school has a turn of growing flowers.

As part of another project, families were encouraged to bring and plant trees around the perimeter. In the books, there are photographs of cold parents in January with spades, offspring and saplings to prove it. Another year, the school made a pond with their own labour, helped by a friend with a digger. The County gave them half the cost of doing it and the rest of the money they raised themselves. Now there are newts and irises and you would think the pond had been there forever.

When the children thought the entrance to the school looked bleak, they wrote letters to likely sources for funds and were rewarded with a gift of enormous concrete drainage pipes from ARC who delivered them free. These made planters which now support plants and vines and clematis that wander along wires in the space above the buildings. The pots that used to be there, were often overturned by vandals, but these huge cylinders have so far proved too heavy to wreck. All the years that the garden was growing the children were encouraged to look at ways of improving the place just as they did at the start with the chequerboard garden. They planted a native hedgerow against the perimeter wall and in the densest shrubberies they took out areas and paved them to make a secret garden. "Now it looks more tidy and it looks brilliant and we did it ourselves" wrote one child.

All the work is done by a changing rota of the children who have put their names down for the gardening club. This meets in the lunch hour and after school. They really do, do it all themselves with the help of Vicky Patterson and a odd parent, Margaret Downing. It seems effortless - something about which for once it would be true to say it looks as 'easy as child's play'. Lupins, delphiniums, poppies, aquilegias, wallflowers and daisies jostle for elbow room. If something gets too big, or fails to thrive, the decision is taken to move it, but the gardening children know how to take cuttings and sow seeds. There seems to be an endless supply of gifts of plants from parents and friends. In their first autumn term as infants, every child plants a bulb. The repetition of plants - orange perennial wallflowers, Love in a Mist and Pyrathrum appear often - gives the place a cohesion that many gardens with more variety lack.

One of the most interesting lessons to be learned at Kempshott is the contrast between the open areas and the small-scale gardens that the children have designed. On the playing field there is space for every child to run about and feel free. At the edges, native plants are too close for adults to walk between, but there are child tracks under the bushes everywhere. The little gardens are enclosed and small enough in scale for children not to feel threatened, but I did not find them toy. The design of the chequerboard garden is sophisticated and something that might be adapted for any garden. The children like it because it is practical and they can work without bumping into one another, but grown-ups might enjoy the sensation of stepping stones through pools of flowers.

All the flowery patches - what is known as Mrs Holmes'garden, the herb bed, the chequerboard plots and the herbaceous borders at the entrance to the infant school are near enough to be seen from the classroom windows. They give the school a friendly domestic feeling. "It just seemed such a huge patch of manicured turf and overgrown shrubberies before," Wendy Memmott says. Now the place looks cared for, not at all like an institution.

Apart from learning to garden, the children's outdoor classroom provides them with a source for drawing, painting and measuring, as well as observing wildlife at closer quarters than most grown-ups. More importantly, it seems to make them happy and responsible and it obviously gives them a sense of achievement. For those who are interested in such things, Wendy Memmott told me that Kempshott's Ofsted report (which measures standards in education) was very good. I hope the Department of Education has drawn some conclusions from the garden experiment here and in other schools which are beginning to see landscape as a valuable teaching resource. If every child could be at school in such calm and happy surroundings as Kempshott how lovely it would be.

Kempshott Junior Infant School, SW of Basingstoke, is open from 2pm-6pm Sunday June 30th. NEEDS A BIT MORE DETAIL??

IF YOU have a free hour around lunchtime today and you are in the London area, grab what may be your final chance to see one of the capital's most surprising and delightful gardens. It is the last of four open days at the small landscaped plot in the middle of the Savoy Hotel group's laundry in Clapham, south London - a garden previously known only to the hundred or so staff who minister to the fine silks, cottons and linens of rich and discriminating guests. This year, for the first time in its history, the garden is fleetingly open to the public to mark the laundry's 75th anniversary.

Laid out in 1920, a year before the laundry opened, it is an unlikely gem of landscaping, redolent of the Art Deco period. Although there have been some encroachments over the years as the laundry buildings have been extended, and wartime bombing took its toll, the garden still occupies a third of an acre and retains all the essential elements of the original design, including some of the old trees and shrubs.

When the laundry and garden were built, the Savoy was still in the hands of the d'Ooyly Carte family that established it in 1889. Steeped in the Victorian philanthropic tradition, they decided that the least they could do for the workers who manhandled large mounds of bed linen and sweated it out over hot irons was to give them a pleasant place to relax during their breaks.

Dame Bridget d'Ooyly Carte, who was 14 when the garden opened, took a great interest in it throughout her life, even after the hotel passed out of her family's hands. So did Sir Hugh Wontner, a later chairman and Lord Mayor of London: he would occasionally slip down for a bucolic respite from his executive duties.

Ron Davidson, general manager of the laundry, has worked there for 25 years. He researched the garden's history through studying old photographs and by interviewing a female worker who joined the laundry at the age of 14, when it opened, and was still working there when he arrived in 1971. It is believed that the designer was Percy Cane, born in 1881, whose distinguished career lasted from the First World War almost until his death in 1976. Among the many gardens he worked on were those at Dartington Hall in Devon, Hoare's Bank in the City of London, the Imperial Palace at Addis Ababa and the British Pavilion at the New York World's Fair of 1939.

Mr Davidson has found no documents that prove conclusively Cane's role at Clapham, but the garden contains several features that characterise his work: flights of shallow steps; water flowing almost the whole length of the garden, down to a small formal lily pool; a variety of subtle geometric shapes; a rock garden and some imaginative planting.

The run of water begins with a fountain in a round pond at the south- west corner of the rather narrow site. It flows north-east between paving for a few yards, then veers due east before it reaches the rectangular lily pool and the round, lower pond at the garden's east end. ("Axial lines are not necessarily straight lines," Cane wrote in 1926.)

The water lilies should be in full flower today and will provide one of the highlights for visitors. They will help to conceal the 200-plus goldfish that inhabit the ponds, protected by a complex array of wires from hungry herons who make lightning raids from nearby Battersea Park.

"We've got a photo of a heron sitting on the edge of the pond," Mr Davidson assured me, detecting my reluctance to believe that such a rural creature should find its way into this urban oasis. "Last year they took every fish from the top pond. We've also had swans and ducks visiting."

Mr Davidson is keen to preserve the garden much as it was in 1920 and the beds contain flowers that the photographs show to have been there originally, along with others popular in that period. The aim is supported by the gardener, June Thomson, who spends one or two days a week keeping the beds up to scratch. Her predecessor, Tina McCormack, drew up an outline planting scheme and Ms. Thomson is keeping to it.

"We see this is a historic garden," Mr. Davidson says, "although we've made it a bit more easy-care because we can't afford a full-time gardener. For instance, we put chipped bark on the beds to keep the weeds down."

Ms. Thomson adds: "I was absolutely gobsmacked when I first saw it. You wouldn't think it was here, stuck in the middle of a laundry. We're trying to bring it back to its former glory based on the old photographs. We don't want to change it - it's lovely as it is."

A Napoleon cherry tree, near the staff canteen on the north side of the garden, has been there since the beginning. So has the fig tree that spreads its broad leaves over the north-west corner of the garden, helped through the winter by a steam pipe running behind it froin the dry-cleaning department. The birds get most of the cherries but the staff help themselves to the figs: in a good year the tree will produce 40 pounds of them.

The wisteria is also an original feature, climbing over a pergola supported by concrete posts. The glorious highlight of the mid-May opening, it has now finished flowering for the year. The hydrangea and the peonies, split many times, may also date from the garden's creation.

Two sprawling pink rambling roses, probably Albertines, cover trellises on the east and south edges. They contrast beautifully with a prolific white shrub rose which could be Mme Alfred Carriere. All three are thought to have been planted when the garden was restored after the damage wrought in the Second World War.

Roses were another of Percy Cane's trademarks. They proliferate in this garden and they should be at their peak today. A bed near the fig tree is planted entirely with Savoy Hotel roses, introduced in 1989 to mark the hotel's centenary. Bred by Harkness, this is a lightly scented and free-flowering hybrid tea, whose pale pink colouring matches the linen used at Savoy banquets.

Near the lily pond is a bed of mixed older roses. on its south side two climbers - the pink Handel and the yellow Dreaming Spires - have recently been planted and are twining themselves round pillars, replicating a feature in the original garden. Another rose clings to a ventilation shaft that would otherwise be an eyesore.

Plants in the beds include a lovely blue geranium perhaps Johnson's Blue - carnations, osteospermum, euphorbia and irises. There is a clump of bergenia: their dark oval leaves were popular with Gertrude Jekyll, whose ideas on planting and design were paramount in the 1920s. The green-painted wooden seats, made in the Savoy's own workshops expressly for the garden when it opened, are also very much of the period.

A recurring feature in the beds is the poached egg plant (limnanthes), an old favourite whose yellow and white flowers not only add colour but also attract hover flies, who in turn devour aphids and other pests. "We try to keep the garden organic, for the wild life," says Ms. Thomson.

She much enjoys her weekly visits to Clapham. "It's an absolute pleasure," she enthuses. "What makes it specially worthwhile is that the staff love it. A lot of them live in flats, so they don't have gardens of their own and they really appreciate it. Those that do have gardens come up and ask me what I'm doing and ask for advice on how to prune their roses. In the hot weather the lady in the canteen helps out by watering the hanging baskets."

Modernisation, which has seen the staff reduced from 300 in the 1920s to just over 100 today, has taken some of the drudgery out of laundry work but it is still a hot and stuffy chore, especially in summer. Looking from the garden through the open doors of the pressing room, to see the women bent urgently over their ironing boards beneath ceiling fans rotating lazily overhead, you could almost imagine yourself in an Indian dhobi house at the turn of the century.

"I counted 56 people in the garden one very hot lunchtime," says Mr Davidson. "Some of the staff get here a bit early and sit out before they're due to start work. One student who works part-time on the evening shift often comes here and studies for an hour so before she starts."

The Savoy is no longer in the hands of a philanthropic Victorian family but is part of the giant Granada conglomerate, notorious for keeping a sharp eye on costs. However, the future of this unique and rightly prized garden is probably safe unless the owners decide to extend the laundry buildings or to close them altogether. Because quality hotels need a laundry facility within striking distance of central London, the latter option at least seems unlikely.

Whether the garden will be open to the public again next year has not yet been decided. on the first two open days in March bad weather kept attendance down, but in just three hours on a cold Sunday in May 350 people paid their pound entrance fee, which goes to charities nominated by the National Gardens Scheme. If as many - or more - turn up today, the experiment may be repeated next year: but if you don't want to take the chance, hop on the Clapham omnibus this morning and have a look.

Savoy Hotel Group Laundry, 17-19 Union Road, London SW4. Open today llam - 2pm. Admission pounds 1. Nearest tube: Clapham North. Buses: 88, 345 and 355.