Natural desires: Bring back the pleasure gardens

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What's happened to pleasure gardens? Londoners have always loved their gardens, or even window-boxes. Riding the railway on those grand elevated viaducts that were the triumph of the Victorian engineers, endless rows of back-gardens greet the passenger, still mostly spick and span with their Lilliputian lawns and embroidered borders. Victorian builders certainly knew how to pander to a distinctively English taste: take the train into any great French or Italian city, and you pass not through garden plots but flats and courtyards. The garden bug is something special to these islands.

In London it all started as an aristocratic affectation. The English ruling-class was rooted in the soil. The landed gentry loved their country houses ringed by thousands of acres, ideal for huntin', shootin' and fishin'. But by the eighteenth century they had to have their town houses too, in the fashionable West End - for the Town was setting the ton. To make the adjustment, they aimed to preserve the illusion of still being snug in the shires. So, following the motto rus in urbe, they brought the countryside to the town in the form of the great leafy squares that blossomed in Bloomsbury, Mayfair and Marylebone.

And with them, to complete the effect, came not just grass and shrubs but flocks of sheep as well. Critics chortled or carped. The author of Critical Observations on the Buildings and Improvements of London (1771) reckoned that having all those lambs grazing in Cavendish Square was plain silly. 'To see the poor things starting at every coach . . . required a warm imagination indeed, to convert the scene into that of flocks ranging fields, with all the concomitant ideas of innocence and a pastoral life.' It would not do] 'The rus in urbe is a preposterous idea at best.'

Yet it satisfied an English craving, as did the ultra sylvan Regent's Park, flanked by its own Nash hamlets, Park East and West. And equally agreeable was the other new engine of enjoyment, the pleasure garden. Springing up around 1750, Ranelagh (next to Chelsea Hospital) and Vauxhall became the talk of the town, with their lamp-lit avenues, masquerades, conceits, and secret trysts. One could ride in Hyde Park in the morning, and then repair to Ranelagh: here was rurality not only brought to town but refined to boot.

And imitated too. For Vauxhalls sprang up in all the suburban villages, little pleasure gardens with their fishponds, fireworks and musicians. Perfect for Sunday jaunts were Sadler's Wells in Islington, Kilburn Wells, Bermondsey Spa (now marked by Spa Road), and Hockley-in-the-Hole, Clerkenwell, with its skittle alleys, purgative waters and bear-baiting. Jenny's Whim in Pimlico was celebrated for its mechanical mermaids and flying-fish. All good for a Sunday afternoon frolic.

The Victorian era brought the beginning of the end. Killjoys got to work, closing amusement resorts down, along with Bartholomew Fair, Southwark Fair and most of the other metropolitan fairs, claiming they were sinks of vice. London's fields got built over, and in the process something happened to the pleasure garden: it got privatised. The old public resorts disappeared, but they were (so to speak) parcelled up into everyone's back yard - thus giving free rein to the green-fingered horticultural craze of suburbanites. The form of the pleasure changed, but gardens were still there to divert and delight in Penge, Pinner or deepest Metroland. This century, city gardens gave way to garden cities.

And that takes us to the root of today's problem. Back-gardens were great when everyone had a house. But as flat-dwelling grew more common in the inner city, no compensatory expansion took place in public pleasure spaces. After the great gains of the Victorian age (securing the capital's commons and heaths, carving out Victoria Park, and so forth) the present century has created relatively few new public parks. We're told there's not the ground - but don't believe it: London abounds in derelict acres.

Meanwhile few new commercial developments have made really imaginative use of outdoor urban space - though that's what we've long been promised if the shelved King's Cross redevelopment ever gets off the drawing-board. Docklands, so far, has been a mixed success.

The architects of the 1960s fringed their tower blocks with windy precincts, symbols more of urban pain than pleasure; while the planners preferred clean concrete spaces to the variegated muddle of Nature. Stroll the South Bank from east of the National Theatre, upstream past Westminster Bridge to Lambeth, and how many spaces does one find truly fit for sitting, walking and recreation? Yet the South Bank - Bankside - is the very area that ever since Shakespeare's day had teemed with gardens and taverns, to say nothing of cockpits, theatres and brothels.

Contrary to gloomy prognostications, Covent Garden has been a great success: something for everyone, commercial enough to thrive, informal enough to allow for impromptu events. London remains desperately short of environments good for street life: it could do with many more variations on that city garden.

(Photograph omitted)