Urban gardener, Cleve West: Core values

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Today's nationwide Apple Day celebrations will be tempered with sadness for those who knew Roger Deakin, co-founder of Common Ground (the charity that champions local distinctiveness), who died in August. I never had the pleasure of meeting him but his book, Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey through Britain, will be accompanying me on an imminent stay at a loch-side cottage in Scotland, so I'm hoping to discover more of what it was about him that touched so many people; and, despite being a wimp when it comes to icy water, I've been advised to take my swimming trunks.

I first heard the phrase 'local distinctiveness' almost 20 years ago from Sue Clifford and Angela King (Roger's co-founders), not long after Common Ground was born. Although it was perhaps the most inspiring lecture I had ever attended, I remember at the time being temporarily knocked off my rails, as it coincided with my own desire to create gardens that were challenging preconceptions of the way we dealt with outdoor space. I wanted to shock and innovate, not please and integrate, yet Common Ground's mission to celebrate the richness of local culture in all its forms made complete sense. Change was not a bad thing, in their book, but not at the expense of our customs, myths and legends, and all the things that have shaped our environment. Soon I was able to feel inspired by this approach, not constricted.

Since then, the charity has continued to record, document and promote festivals, events and customs peculiar to specific regions in order to preserve the fabric of life that has evolved through generations.

The culmination of their efforts has resulted in a book, England in Particular, an almost biblical record of everything from accents and anty-tumps (anthills) to zigzags (a way to negotiate hills) and zawns (narrow recesses in cliffs). In short, all the things that have some sort of meaning to us and supports the idea that 'Everywhere is somewhere'.

For gardeners, this understanding can unlock a great pool of information to inspire creativity; it can also help re-invent ideas while perpetuating a strong sense of identity within a community. The best inspiration for new gardens generally comes from its location. Materials, plants and architecture are the tangible, visible influences while customs, symbols, myths and legends can inform on an ephemeral level.

Materials and building techniques vary from town to town, region to region. In the past, geological and travel constraints meant that houses would be built from materials sourced in the immediate vicinity and in a style peculiar to generations of local craftsmen. Today, materials and labour can be obtained from anywhere in the world, so there's an increasing danger of homogenising both house and garden - it's easier and cheaper (despite the increase in air and road miles and the knock-on effects this may have for future generations).

Of course, urban gardens offer a particular challenge with spaces that are often seen in complete isolation and modern architecture may, initially, seem to jar with its surroundings. Common Ground is not always about preserving the status quo. The wealth of historical interest in this country - and a concentrated variety of geology - has given us a solid foundation to build on, so it's no wonder that there is uproar when preparations for the London Olympics in 2012 will obliterate 100 years of allotment history (www.lifeisland.org) at a stroke. There are, however, optimistic signs that large companies are taking a more sensitive interest in the environment. Wayne Hemingway's call for an end to the Wimpeyfication of Britain resulted, not in a court battle, but in George Wimpey inviting the designer to collaborate on some of their housing schemes; creating thoughtful and interesting designs for ordinary families where gardens and play areas aren't just tacked on as an afterthought.

Celebrating the importance of local distinctiveness is one of the most important movements in horticulture - and is a topic that will keep cropping up from time to time in these pages. It may not be seen to influence our gardens in a direct way, but through a broader set of guiding principles that set out to value what has been, what still exists and what will come, it is surely a fitting way to honour the legacy of Roger Deakin.

See www.commonground.org.uk for details about Apple Day. 'England in Particular' by Sue Clifford and Angela King is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £30.