C for CITY GARDENS, for the CALM we breathe in: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

Julia contemplates city gardens, the quiet green places that are so calming and a haven for those of us who live with limited outside space.  From the ideas of an early eighteenth century visionary to an escape from the stress of the modern day, Julia shows how gardens can enhance well-being.

C is for CITY GARDENS, for the CALM we breathe in when walking around a quiet green place.

Across the UK we have 27,000 public parks which receive 2.6 billion visits annually. During the Covid 19 emergency how aware we’ve become of the crucial importance of these open spaces to people living where there’s no outside space (12% of the population according to UK’s Office of National Statistics.)

‘Whoever understands and loves a garden may have content if he will,’ wrote Thomas Fairchild, ‘because he has opportunity every day of contemplating the works of Creation.’

The City Gardener

Fairchild, a successful nursery gardener in Hoxton, just north of the City of London, was a visionary. Way ahead of his time, in 1722 he authored The City Gardener, a small manual for designing an urban recreation space adorned with trees and flowering shrubs, with lawns bisected by formal paths.

Portrait of Thomas Fairchild (1667—1729)
Thomas Fairchild (1667—1729) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A seasoned plantsman, Fairchild recommended over 50 different plants including lilac, laburnum and Virginia acacia, that could survive the city’s terrible pollution, thriving ‘even in the worst air’ as he called it, caused by the filthy black smoke and acid rain resulting from burning sea coal.

Fairchild wanted the human population to thrive too, aware of the risk for people working in densely-crowded, insanitary cities of ‘a mind distracted or confined.’ He was prescient in proposing that the stress relief his fellow citizens would sense as a result of access to a garden would enhance their ‘Quiet of Mind.’

Frontispiece of The City Gardener by Thomas Fairchild (1667—1729)
Frontispiece of The City Gardener by Thomas Fairchild (1667—1729) Image: British Library (Public Domain)

If not a garden, then a courtyard, where Fairchild’s suggestion was to grow a fig or mulberry tree. A vine will flourish and even bear fruit where there is very little sun, he noted. For a balcony or ornamental window box his advice was to plant out ivy, honeysuckle and a bay tree. As a last resort, ‘We [should] content ourselves with a nosegay,’ he wrote, ‘rather than fail.’

Gardens enhance well-being

Today Fairchild’s instinctive understanding that being in contact with nature reduces mental fatigue is enshrined in the teaching known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART). ART’s proposition is that spending time in a green environment enables our brains to replenish their capacity to concentrate.

Gardening, of course, benefits the gardener’s physical as well as mental health (reducing risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity, for example.)

We also now understand better how a long-time engagement with gardening, while increasing physical fitness, can also be a source of self-esteem, along with enhanced creativity and self-expression. Current Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) research is studying how passive benefits of city gardens can be experienced too: suggesting, for example, that a planted front garden can potentially heighten the well-being of a passer-by observing it.

A visit to the RHS website’s Thomas Fairchild on-line exhibition will provide more information, city garden plans and fine botanical illustrations.

Medical remedies from plants

Inspired by Fairchild, Sir Hans Sloane, owner of the land where the Society of Apothecaries had their herb garden, a 3 acres site in CHELSEA, gifted the garden’s freehold to the Society in 1722.

Thus it was that the Chelsea Physic Garden was established.

The oldest public park in London, it remains open to visitors today.

Front cover of The Apothecaries' Garden by Sue Minter, published by The History Press Ltd
The Apothecaries’ Garden by Sue Minter, published by The History Press Ltd

True to the early C18th understanding that it was from plants that medical remedies for almost all ailments would be derived, today’s Physic Garden collection of over 5000 plants specialises in those that are medicinal, herbal, edible and useful.

Sue Minter’s The Apothecaries’ Garden: A History of the Chelsea Physic Garden is available from local book shops through www.uk.bookshop.org

Thomas Fairchild’s name lives on in Hoxton where there’s a Garden, a public park, dedicated to his memory. You’ll find it nearby the famed COLUMBIA Road Flower Market, a weekly Sunday morning must-visit for London’s flower lovers.

Morrab Library’s specialised collection

C is also for COLLECTION, a bow here to the Morrab Library, nestling in its venerable building at the heart of Morrab Gardens. The collection’s CATALOGUE comprises over 70,000 books, fiction and non-fiction, a rich photographic collection and extensive archives including a specialisation in Cornish subject matter.

A reading room in The Morrab Library, with a view out of the window across the Morrab Gardens to Mount's Bay
The Morrab Library’s Collections are housed in this beautiful building within Morrab Gardens. Image: The Morrab Library


‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need

Statesman, law-giver, thinker and superlative orator, in 70 BC Cicero wrote, ‘I follow nature as my surest guide,’ associating it with everything rational, noble and good in his world. The enthralling ‘Imperium’ Trilogy (Arrow 2018) by Robert Harris explores this splendid Roman’s life and fated relationship with Julius Caesar.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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