On our last day in London, we headed off to see the urban renewal project in Kings Cross. Our second daughter had lived in the area for some of her four year London sojourn so I had visited her there, in an ex-council flat. Inner city, gritty urban is how I would have described it a decade ago and I am sure large tracts of it still are. But the greening of Kings Cross has transformed the area to give it a people-friendly heart.
We have no expertise at all in urban landscape architecture and precious little in public horticulture so I make no pretence at doing anything other than trying to convey impressions of the humanising of a former industrial area.
Upon entering a small precinct named Handyside Gardens, what did we see? A sandpit! A sandpit designed to be used by children. I asked the dad’s permission before photographing him with his little boy in the sand. Sure it is surrounded by tall buildings so shade must be an issue, but that is the nature of inner city living. This was an area that had been designed to give a series of intimate spaces with lots of different seating areas. Leading out from the sandpit was a rill or small canal of flowing water which looked clean and inviting for children to play in. Indeed some of the sand had made its way into the rill. “Wait til you see the fountain,” said the father in the sandpit.
We wandered our way along, noting all the different seating areas and planting that was not out of the usual School Of Bedding Plants and Floral Clocks. These plantings are the work of Dan Pearson whom I have mentioned before although his involvement in the entire project goes well beyond just the planting plans. It is therefore no surprise that there was a mix of material which shows that pretty seasonal plantings are possible even when the brief includes functionalism and practicality. There were plenty of scented plants though a high mortality rate on recently planted trachelospermum jasminoides suggested that somebody may have planted out a whole lot of nursery stock that had been grown under cover and not hardened off.
As we walked along, we saw a few sodden children in their togs (bathing suits) and towels walking towards us. We rounded the corner and there, truly, was an amazing sight. The fountain in Granary Square. It was large and safe for playing. The seating around was occupied by parents watching their children as the water danced in sequences, sometimes stopping altogether for a brief moment, sometimes shooting high and then in waves across the area. It was magnificent. And safe fun. An urban beach, of sorts. Our kids would have stripped off and been in that water like a shot when they were young. It wasn’t exactly tropical on the day we were there but clearly kids still love water play. At night it lights up – 1000 different points of water and light.
Further on we found the skip garden, a movable community garden supported by students at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Unfortunately the skip garden café was closed on the day so we couldn’t try the locally produced fare.
From there we wended our way round to the Gasholder Park, a major redevelopment utilising the old gas tanks for upmarket canal-side apartments and green space and gardens open to all. There is serious money going into this redevelopment around Kings Cross and plenty more information on line if you wish to look it up. The somewhat remarkable impression is that it is not just serious money to cater to the wealthy; it is serious planning to provide an enhanced living environment for all which seems unexpectedly inclusive in this day and age.
London has a major network of canals and Mark was shocked every time at the water quality and the rubbish. According to our London friends, ‘wild swimming’ is the rage. That is swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers and canals. We have plenty of issues with water quality in New Zealand, but all I can say is you would be a brave or drunk fool to want to swim in London canals. And you would not be wanting to enter those cesspools with any open wounds or even scratches. Maybe there will come a day when the city canals get cleaned up and no longer used as a receptacle for rubbish. Then the birds may not line their nests with plastic waste.
There was lots more to see around the Kings Cross area but it was time for the flights home. For those who have never done it, this involves around 25 hours flying to New Zealand. It is usually done as two long haul legs of a bit over 12 hours each via Asia (or the USA if you are unlucky) or 7 hours and 18 hours via Dubai or one of the other Arabic emirates. It is not fun.
There is an album of additional photos posed on our garden Facebook page for those who may wish to see more.