Garden party

London's hidden garden squares have an illustrious history that dates back to the 17th century. Nick Lloyd Jones has found a selection of properties for sale with access to their own private wilderness
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The Independent Online

London has two-thirds of its area taken up by water or green spaces. Its suburbs are surrounded by vast tracts of greenery, such as Wimbledon Common, Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park, while a welcome flow of more formal but equally generously proportioned parks and public gardens meanders gracefully through its centre.

London has two-thirds of its area taken up by water or green spaces. Its suburbs are surrounded by vast tracts of greenery, such as Wimbledon Common, Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park, while a welcome flow of more formal but equally generously proportioned parks and public gardens meanders gracefully through its centre.

The charms of Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Regent's Park and St James's Park provide stressed-out office workers with an unrivalled selection of leafy retreats where they can escape at lunchtime to kick off their shoes and seek sanctuary, during the hot and dusty summer months.

However, central London is also home to a number of relatively hidden horticultural gems and oases, such as the Chelsea Physic Garden just off the Kings Road, and the magnificently manicured gardens of the Inns of Court that are tucked away behind bustling Holborn and the Embankment.

Yet while London may be blessed with more green spaces open to the public than most other cities around the world, demand for properties with private gardens still outstrips supply. It's not so bad in the suburbs, where most family houses come with their own strip of land but it's in the high density centre of town that the problem is at its most pronounced.

Most urbanites may not be able to find or afford somewhere to live that comes with a garden, but there is an alternative. For, apart from its many public parks and open spaces, central London is also well endowed with elegant garden squares that typically provide residents with access to communal green spaces. There are 600 garden squares spread around the capital, with particularly high concentrations of them found in Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Notting Hill.

London's garden squares have an illustrious history dating back to the 17th century. The first was the Covent Garden Piazza - Italian inspired, and designed by Inigo Jones in 1631. The idea of incorporating communal space within town-planning caught on and, following on the success of Covent Garden, came the classic designs of Bloomsbury Square and neighbouring Bedford Square. Similar developments began to spring up around these ones and residential squares with access to green spaces became a trademark of stylish London living.

There then followed a gap in the development of the garden square until three centuries later, when Victorian planners, struggling to cope with the chronic urban overcrowding sparked by the Industrial Revolution, again returned to the theme.

It was at this point that the Grosvenor Estate commissioned Thomas Cubitt to build Belgrave and Eaton squares. These inspired similar projects.

The grid of garden squares around Notting Hill Gate, meanwhile, date from the same period as the Belgravia ones, but came about rather more haphazardly. They were commissioned by the Ladbroke Estate and built on land that had formerly been used as a racecourse. The jewel in the crown of this development was, and remains, Ladbroke Garden Square, whose sprawling seven acres of tennis courts, lawns, woodland and shrubberies can be accessed directly from the houses backing on to it, and which was famously featured as a backdrop to the romantic antics of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in the film Notting Hill.

Dorset Square in nearby Marylebone is another example of a classic Victorian garden square built on a patch of land that had previously been intended for another purpose; it was the site of the original 18th-century Lord's cricket ground.

London's garden squares come in all shapes and sizes. Many of them have evolved independently of one another and, as a result, are not regulated by any central governing body. This means that some of them are controlled by local authorities and open to the public and others are run by private committees, with maintenance charges paid by resident key-holders.

All of these factors will, of course, have a bearing on property prices. The bigger, the more attractive and the more exclusive the garden, the more prospective buyers will be prepared to pay for properties adjoining it. Likewise, they will be prepared to pay more for use of a garden that they can directly access than for one that is little more than a glorified traffic roundabout in the middle of a square.

If you have ever considered buying a property in a London garden square, you might do well to attend this year's eighth annual Open Garden Squares Weekend, on the weekend of 11-12 June. So far a total of 117 gardens have signed up for the event, more than 70 of them private ones that are closed to the public for the rest of the year. A £5 ticket will provide you with a unique opportunity to explore the capital's green spaces and to see for yourself what is on offer.

Open Garden Squares Weekend, 11-12 June (020-8347 3230)

Leafy retreats: a lavish six bed house in Ovington Square, SW3, £4.4m (through Foxtons, 020 7591 9000)

One-bed flat in Regent Square, WC1, with views across gardens, £245,000 (Winkworth 020 7240 3322)

Four bed flat: Pembridge Square, W2, £1.45m (Marsh & Parsons, 020 7313 2890)

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