London’s squares are part of what makes our capital special, bringing a little bit of the country into the town. They are a uniquely English construction but have made a major contribution to European town planning, and yet, says Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, a garden designer and historian, most people know nothing about them. His new book, The London Square, the first major analysis of squares in more than a century, aims to put that right.
“I want to show people how to look at squares, to imagine how they have been used historically and how they have always related to and reflect their communities. They are loved by Londoners and tourists and are a jolly nice place to live, though regretfully I don’t live in one,” he says. But today’s developers struggle to match the green spaces of the past. “Squares are complex. You have to go back to early principles to see how to make them work.”
There are about 300 traditional squares and 600 square-type spaces across the capital, but 60 per cent of them — and 82 per cent of the total area of them — can be found in just seven boroughs, mostly in the north and west of the city.
“Hardly surprising, as squares have always been the prerogative of the affluent,” says Longstaffe-Gowan. “They are synonymous with privilege, elegance, and prosperous metropolitan living.”
Raised in South America and the West Indies, he feels he can be objective. “The appeal of squares is based on snobbism. I love it; it’s what’s kept them going. There’s a sense of solidarity among the wealthy neighbours but not necessarily a neighbourliness. That’s how squares evolved and most are still private open spaces surrounded on all sides by houses, set back from the square by roads. This exclusivity has historically been a source of friction, but, is also the secret of their continued appeal.”
The first square built in the 1630s, was Covent Garden; its architectural uniformity and social segregation became the model for the majority of squares built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many were built by aristocratic landlords who wanted their own rather special homes. Country dwellers coming to London for the first time wanted to be surrounded by like-minded souls, but also to have a feel of the country in town. The landowners effectively made a land grab of open or common land, constructing elegant classical buildings and closing off the centre to non-residents.
The Restoration in 1660 fuelled the development of the square and in 1667 Soho Square residents became the first to pay a rate for the square’s maintenance and to erect a fence to keep out the “hoi polloi”. In 1726 residents of St James’s Square got a private Act of Parliament passed, which allowed its enclosure, the levying of rates and regulations governing behaviour in the square to be published and enforced by their own watchmen. Other squares soon followed suit.
Longstaffe-Gowan dislikes the tall London plane trees of today’s squares and says he is on a mission to persuade councils to clear squares of their clutter and open up the view they originally offered.
As early as the Twenties squares began to deteriorate. In 1931 an Act of Parliament was passed that protected them — hence the “horrid underground car park at Cavendish Square”. In the Second World War some squares were used as allotments, and as railings were melted down for the war effort, more became open to the public. In the past 15 years squares have undergone a resurgence in popularity.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is president of the London Parks and Gardens Trust which has organised this weekend’s Open Garden Squares scheme (see panel; opensquares.org).
Book offer: The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town
Published by Yale University Press and priced at £30. Homes & Property readers can buy it for £25, including p&p, by calling 020 7079 4900 and quoting this offer.
Todd’s Favourite London squares
* Edwardes Square, Kensington, for its low-rise houses with an early 19th-century, cottagey feel. Just like being in the countryside.
* Stanley Crescent Gardens, W11, a hidden-away floriferous garden with scented plants and surrounded by different-coloured houses.
* Notting Hill Communal Gardens for their quite unique feel.
* Park Crescent, Regent’s Park for its nursemaid’s tunnel under Marylebone Road.
OPEN GARDEN SQUARES WEEKEND: June 9-10
Twenty-four new gardens mean a total of 208, spread across 27 London boroughs, will be open to the public this weekend. One ticket gives access to all the gardens. Tickets are £9 in advance and £12 if bought during the event. Under-12s go free. National Trust members get discounted tickets if they book online in advance.
LONDON GARDENS ONLINE is a new website with information based on the Inventory of London’s Green Spaces of Historical Interest. Visit londongardensonline.org.uk.
The unlikely stars among London’s celebrity squares
By David Spittles
Not all Georgian and Victorian squares come with hefty price tags. Cheaper, good value homes are tucked away in unlikely pockets of the inner city, especially in east and south-east London, including:
* Trinity Church Square, Borough: a little gem of 300 homes set around two historic garden squares and a listed church, now a rehearsal space for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a tranquil, traffic-free enclave within a 15-minute walk of the South Bank. Popular with in-the-know locals such as Guy’s Hospital surgeons, barristers and City bankers.
A terrace of new houses and apartments has been built on a long strip of land between the two squares where a Victorian pickling factory once stood. Flats from £525,000, houses from £1 million. Call Hamptons on 020 7758 8488.
* Walcot Square, Kennington: in the parliamentary “division bell” area, and hence popular with MPs. Competition for the smallish Georgian townhouses is fierce, says James Hyman of estate agent Cluttons. “Recently we sold a three-bedroom house after it went to sealed bids following 100 viewings from buyers in just two weeks.” Offers in excess of £500,000 were invited.
* Fassett Square, Hackney: the inspiration for the fictional location of Albert Square in the BBC soap, EastEnders. A small and charming residential square dating back to the 1860s. Prices from £720,000.
* Tredegar Square, Mile End: a well-preserved Georgian square that survived the Blitz. A six-bedroom house there is priced at £1.4 million. Call WJ Meade on 020 8981 3331.
* Queen Square, Bloomsbury: dating from 1716. A refurbishment of publisher Faber & Faber’s former HQ has created stylish new apartments. Call LDG on 020 7580 1010.