This summer, if you find yourself in the starkly depressing corner of south-east London between Elephant and Castle and Peckham, take heart. Next to some of the highest density council estates in Europe - a tough, bleak environment - there is a vast expanse of open ground. This is Burgess Park, the largest area of metropolitan open land created in London since the war. The grass has turned brown in the summer dryness. But in this wide, flat urban desert there is a little oasis: Chumleigh Gardens.
It is a small garden set around charming Victorian almshouses that once housed "The Friendly Female Asylum for aged persons who have seen better days". Neo-Gothic windows look out upon the essential English lawn set with weeping cherry trees, surrounded by herbaceous borders and studded with formal pots and wooden benches. Take a pew and possibly a novel by Mrs Gaskell. Or explore.
Through an iron gateway in the corner is the Oriental garden complete with Japanese rock pool and a palpable sense of eastern calm. Further on, there's an African and Caribbean garden with tree ferns, arum lilies, red hot pokers. A few feet on, comes the Islamic garden with azure-blue geometric tiling surrounding an ornamental pond in whose centre grows a jelly palm. Finally, there's a Mediterranean garden basking in the sporadic British sun with a young olive (a clone from the tree in the Chelsea Physic Garden), herbs, grapes (the first crop was picked last year) and a pinenut tree.
That's it. These multi-cultural gardens are laid out in a space not much larger than a few tennis courts. See the world in 80 paces.
The almshouses are now the headquarters for Southwark's Parks Ranger Service. You could call this a phoenix from the fire of radical revision. Five years ago there were 400 parks staff in Southwark borough, tending 120 parks and public spaces. Government cuts and compulsory competitive tendering (all grounds maintenance is now with private contractors) brought about an interim Parks Warden Service, decreased in number and demoralised. Chumleigh Gardens was born around this time, the seeds being sown by two European Community Heritage Campuses held at Burgess Park in 1992 and 1993.
Students attending the sessions here carried out extensive surveys with the local residents and came up with the idea for a multi-cultural walled garden. They drew up a report plus designs, and the following year came back to plant the English garden. Extensive funding had gone into this floral flagship both from Southwark Council and from Brussels but initially it floundered.
Then, in 1994, the Parks Ranger Service emerged, re-energising the role of a trimmed-down parks workforce (now 50 for the whole of Southwark) and with a dynamic Principal Parks Officer in Stephen Harrison. Chumleigh Gardens became a new little Kew. It now also has a visitors' centre, a community-run cafe, community room and conference facilities. Education has a high profile, with more than 2,000 schoolchildren having already paid visits.
Though officially opened only a year ago, Chumleigh Gardens is already internationally recognised. Stephen Harrison, as well as Christine Wildhaber - a New Zealand horticulturalist running the education programme - will be guest speakers this autumn in New York at the Third International Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens. By that time, progress should be well on the way for a nursery and garden centre, an indoor greenhouse area (to include a major collection of carnivorous plants), an Asian garden, multi-cultural allotments, artists workshops and a demonstration garden (plants against politics?). Here's a little garden with big ambitions.
Multi-cultural Gardens, Chumleigh St, Burgess Park, London SE5 (0171- 277 4068). Open to the public 2-4pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Admission free
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