Think of a garden square in London and you’ll probably imagine terraces of lofty townhouses overlooking diligently tended landscaped gardens surrounded by decorative railings with firmly locked gates — entry barred to all except keyholders from the surrounding homes.
But for this week’s Open Garden Squares Weekend, gates to more than 230 of these private worlds across 27 boroughs will be thrown open to allow visitors and organised groups to wander through, discovering the part these gardens have played in London’s social history. These popular annual events also give house hunters the chance to explore new neighbourhoods.
The houseboat gardens
Garden Barge Square is the series of floating gardens connected by walkways and bridges at Downings Road, Tower Bridge Moorings. About 70 households live on the collection of houseboats near Tower Bridge, from artists to doctors, to entrepreneurs to architects, and with two gardeners they tend the organic plots developed over the last decade by residents and planted with fruit, flowers and vegetables. See towerbridgemoorings.org to enquire about vacancies at Tower Bridge Moorings.
Arlington Square community project
Back on dry land, Arlington Square, N1, shows community gardening at its best. The residents, rallied by the Arlington Association, work together to keep their gardens shipshape.
Over the last six years this volunteer army has dug in more than 50 tons of compost and manure, planted more than 45,000 bulbs, plants and shrubs, and 150 rosebushes. A neglected corner of the square is now a community garden with raised fruit and flowerbeds.
A mile up the road, Barnsbury Square residents also work together on their communal gardens. Both squares have elegant, part-stucco townhouses. A three-bedroom house in Arlington Square would cost about £1.6 million to £1.7 million, with a two-bedroom flat from £800,000 to £850,000. Prices for flats are similar in Barnsbury Square, but its houses are larger, and a five-bedroom townhouse would cost in excess of £2 million.
Because of their squares, these prices are higher than average for the area. Alex Hornby, branch manager of Fyfe Mcdade estate agents, says a similar home in a nearby street would be about 10 per cent cheaper. The “community vibe” attracts buyers he adds. “People know their neighbours and look after each other. It is what makes an area.”
Bonnington Square in Vauxhall is lined with pretty Victorian workers’ cottages. They were earmarked for demolition in the Eighties, then squatters moved in. “Over time they won the right to stay,” says Graham Walker, manager of Dexters estate agents.
By the early Nineties the square had gone respectable, and residents began to eye a patch of derelict land where six houses had stood before the war. In 1992 they won a campaign to lease the land, and got funding to build a garden square on it. They designed a modern space with sculptures, an arbour and architectural salvage, and planted it out for community use. These days they also use it for parties, a summer festival and even wedding receptions. James Booth, who moved into the square in 1992, says: “Bonnington Square has a terrific spirit. People stay here a long time and really do know each other.”
Dexters’ Graham Walker points out: “People will wait a long time for a home to come up here. It is not surprising because it is charming and quirky, and feels off the beaten track. You would never think you were five minutes from Vauxhall Tube.” Today those former squats sell for about £550,000 for a one-bedroom flat, or £900,000 for a three-bedroom house.
Breaking the mould in West London
West London is famous for its historic garden squares — but Wesley Square, in North Kensington, is not one of them. This is a “co-ownership community” of 50 homes around a garden, designed in the late Seventies by architect Terry Farrell — now Sir Terry.
Co-ownership was an idealistic but short-lived model of housing where residents were able to elect a committee to run the square on their behalf. The panel makes the decisions about how the gardens are maintained, and chose an expansive lawn, shaded by trees and flanked by abundant borders. Wesley Square might just be a place to look for a garden square property on a budget. Most squares command huge premiums but Wesley Square’s design — which is not the most beautiful — deters some buyers. “They think they are council, even though the square itself is stunning,” says one agent. “The maisonettes have kitchens overlooking the gardens, and it is very, very, safe.”
A roomy 1,000sq ft two-bedroom flat in Wesley Square could cost £800,000 to £900,000, while a two-bedroom flat in a converted period house nearby would cost about £1.4 million.
East Enders love their TV star Square
Fassett Square in Hackney is best known as the model for the BBC soap EastEnders’ Albert Square, which it resembles. And in a show of good old East End community spirit the residents restored the garden themselves, staying true to its original design of winding paths, lawns and flowerbeds.
Residents get to know each other at barbecues, birthday parties and even weddings held in the square. Prices, though, are very un-EastEnderish. Rightmove says a four-bedroom house could cost £1.5 million, and a two-bedroom flat from £575,000 to £600,000.
Gloucester Square in Haggerston is another east London gem, a romantic open space in one of the most urban parts of London. The area was originally lined with cottages for families of nearby factory and gasworks employees, but after heavy Second World War bombing they were pulled down, replaced in the Eighties with boxy affordable housing.
Two property booms later, these homes are all privately owned and a two-bedroom place will cost £450,000 to £500,000. The gardens had deteriorated into a semi-jungle but in 2009 residents revamped the site, splitting the large space into different zones including a woodland area, a cottage garden and a play area. To save money they have become urban gardeners, growing most of the flowers themselves from seeds or cuttings.
These squares all feature in this year’s Open Garden Squares Weekend, this Saturday and Sunday. For more information visit opensquares.org.