Thank goodness for gardens

Throughout history communal spaces have provided refuge and reconnection. We need them more than ever.

The castle of Heidelberg
The castle of Heidelberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, ca 1616-1619, painted by Jacques Fouquier (1580 ca-1659), oil on canvas, 178.5 x 263 cm. (Photo by Albert Ceolan / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

After the absence of any of the big summer ‘garden events’ (Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon, Glyndebourne – everyone knows it’s more about the outdoor picnic than the opera), gardens are having an autumnal high-point. As lockdown restrictions are reimposed, the luxury of outdoor space becomes ever more prized.

In Oxford, where I live, the city’s parks are normally comparatively sober, active, and industrious places in the winter months compared to scenes of sprawled, intoxicated youths throughout the warmer term. There are dog-walkers in the morning, eccentric academics pacing while reading Wordsworth aloud, and endless sports matches and training. This winter, the scene has changed – dogs are being walked and walked to the point of visible exhaustion, and the Malory Towers-esque lacrosse sticks have been banished.

Over the summer, parks and gardens featured heavily in the political lockdown debate – many green spaces were shut. And as certain areas of twitter-sphere grew angrier and angrier with those who sunbathed, played socially distanced sport, or simply enjoyed the outdoors – so did the backlash. It’s easy to criticise someone sitting in a park from the comfort of your own patio furniture. This winter, amongst my friends who rely on public outdoor space for their chance of getting any sunlight at all, ‘how’s your garden?’ has become as much a playful retort against the ever-crazier lockdown rules as ‘OK, boomer’.

With gardens having their wintry resurgence, it is apt that the origins of our perception of them as places of tranquil retreat lie in the Renaissance. Francis Bacon, writing in 1625, argues that gardening is

the greatest of human pleasures; without which buildings and palaces are but gross handy-works: and man shall ever see, that, when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately, sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection.

To plant a garden is not simply to provide a place of respite from the rest of life; it is an indication of moral superiority and elegant tastes.

Throughout the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, most writers of garden literature could only imagine a country-house garden – the suburban lawn with a trampoline at the end was yet to enter the cultural consciousness. In 1697, John Dryden translated Virgil’s Georgics which proclaim ‘Happy the Man’ who

Without Concern he hears, but hears from far

Of Tumults and Descents, and distant War:

He lives in a ripe, fertile garden where ‘Fruits … of their own accord / The willing Ground and laden Trees afford’. This veneration of a simple, rural life – which is defined by the absence of the city – reverberates in innumerable texts. Abraham Cowley translated Horace’s famous ‘Beatus ille’, and wrote his own poem on the theme entitled ‘The Garden’. Cowley laments the ‘empty shows and senseless noise’ of town and remarks ‘God the first garden made, and the first city, Cain’. For the seventeenth century gardener, Four Seasons Total Landscaping was an escape from political drama, not its latest, most bizarre manifestation.

Many women poets expanded and altered this image of quiet retreat. Mary Lee, Lady Chudleigh echoes Cowley’s emphasis on solitude when she remarks ‘Happy are they who when alone / Can with themselves converse’ in the quiet seclusion away from the ‘busie Crouds’. The garden is a space of silent contemplation fit for the calm, moral woman. Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchelsea, chooses to mock the vagaries of the gentleman gardener altering his estate in her poem ‘Upon my Lord Winchelsea’s Converting the Mount in his Garden to a Terrace’. She describes how, in the fashion for early eighteenth century ‘landskips’, her husband removes a mountain:

a fault

which had long stood (though threatened oft in vain),

Concealing all the beauties of the plain.

For a modern-day rendering of Finch’s playful commentary on the subject, read Tom Stoppard’s satire of Capability Brown et al in his play Arcadia (1993) and weep with laughter: ‘pray, what is this rustic hovel that presumes to superpose itself on my gazebo?’.

Many may well be using gardens as a place of sanctuary and solitude at the moment, but an equal number are using them as the sole forum for their social life – the equivalent of the New Exchange in seventeenth century London, or Pall Mall in the eighteenth. The humble park has become a coffee-shop, restaurant, bar, and date venue.

The precedent for thislies not in grand country-house poems, or even literature which idolises nature and the mental respite it provides. Rather, we must turn to the more dramatic history of the ‘pleasure garden’. Opened in 1732 on the site of the New Spring Gardens, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was a veritable cornucopia of exotic, other-worldly delights: late-night dancing, drinking, and eating – all in the setting of the perfect arcadia. There were similar gardens throughout London, but only Marylebone and Ranelagh rivalled Vauxhall for scale and sophistication. The delights of the countryside had become urban; and anyone who could pay the entrance fee could gain access.

Rather than a place of calm retreat, the pleasure garden was the height of sociability: it was where new fashions were seen, lovers could meet, and gossip could spread. One only has to look as far as Fanny Burney’s Evalina (1778) to see the excitement the pleasure garden could provide: our rather censorious narrator is shocked by the crowds, alcohol, and her cousins’ decision to run into the ‘dark walks’. Admittedly they do get into a bit of a scrape, and (un)fortunately bump into the handsome rake Sir Clement Willoughby. Evalina is remarkably displeased by the whole affair, but I can’t help but think that her garden-walks are infinitely more exhilarating than my own lockdown-ambles.

While we may not be able to reconstruct the full suite of delights of an urban pleasure garden, it is some comfort to know that there is precedent for sustaining a social life outside. In the disappointing absence of any Sir Willoughby or Lord Orville to provide my outdoor entertainment, I’m in an eBay bidding war for a pair of neon eighties roller-skates. Havoc is coming to Oxford’s manicured parks.


Francesca Peacock