Lost Gardens

Argus article : We need these havens in our stressed-out modern lives

I’d been in the country for only 3 years when I first came to Brighton in 1975. After a few lonely months living in the back streets of Hove, I moved to a house near the London Road – and there I settled.

The neighbourhood was friendly, shops were close by and I could get to the university easily from the London Road station. I knew very few people, so from time to time still felt lonely.

On these occasions I’d visit local parks, reading, drinking tea and people-watching. I loved the Level, which at that time had no skateboard park and therefore was much more peaceful than it is today. Certainly, more children and elderly people used the playground and gardens.

My favourite walk was to the Rose Garden in Preston Park. Though the roses there are still lovely, in the mid 1970s they were truly spectacular, the beds a riot of colour, neatly edged by clipped lavender bushes. The pond in front of the Rotunda Café was covered with mature water lilies and stocked with fish which occasionally peeped out from behind the lily pads.

Further into the park, the walkway through the tennis courts was bordered by dahlias and chrysanthemums so huge that they smothered the wire netting and at times hid the players from view. Somehow they survived – probably because in those days all parks had proper park attendants.

I loved these gardens, and could never quite believe that I was free to walk and sit in them. I miss them, because though they still exist they are a shadow of what they once were. The fish and the water lilies have gone as have the rich climbers on the pergolas. Thick green hedges have been cut back, apparently to discourage anti-social behaviour. There are no lavender bushes and even the roses seem thin.

Oddly enough, the garden I miss most and loved best at that time, was one I could never visit. I could see it, but never walk through it, touch its plants or smell their fragrance. It was the garden at London Road railway station. It grew next to the track in the shadow of the footbridge behind the Springfield Pub (now the Open House).

Every day I would catch the train from the old station and marvel at the garden. I’d walk out onto the platform and catch my breath at its beauty.

If the train wasn’t coming I’d stand and watch for as long as I could. I’d stand there bathed in peace for a little while, noticing the birdsong and changes that came with the passing of the seasons. On a summer’s morning the garden would be veiled in mist, its colours muted. Later in the day, there’d be a haze of shimmering heat over the flowers and vegetables. If you were lucky, you could see clouds of butterflies. One night I saw bats flying there, but I suspect they have gone now.

Even from the opposite platform one could see that the earth was soft and friable and had been regularly dug by a gardener who loved the land.

It was a perfectly tended cottage garden, part vegetable patch and part flower garden and I suppose had once have belonged to the stationmaster or his wife. At the lower end there were neat rows of beans and peas, carrots and cabbages and further up, next to the footbridge, the most spectacular dahlias and chrysanthemums, in every shade of yellow, red and orange.

I never saw the man who gardened there, but always wondered what he was like. I imagined him to be a bit like my grandfather, who also kept a neat old-fashioned garden, with flowers and a vegetable patch. Years later, I heard the gardener was a retired railway employee called “Old Reg”.

As time went by, I suppose Old Reg grew older. The garden began to deteriorate. The flowers ran to seed and the vegetable patch became overrun. Gradually birds and small animals made the land their own. Local people speculated why the allotment wasn’t let to someone else. It was rumoured that the gardener was ill and nobody wanted to hurt his feelings by letting his beloved allotment, but I’m not sure if that was true.

After the railways were privatised, nobody in charge seemed to care what happened to the station, let alone the allotment that lay by it – apart, that is, from local people. At first, local residents were saddened and angered by the neglect of what had been a fine garden. However, over time people began to appreciate that the tranquil, neglected garden had become a haven for wildlife – and had developed an untamed beauty of its own.

Nobody knows exactly what living creatures have found sanctuary there, though it is known that it is home to a colony of slow worms. However, from a distance, neighbours have seen foxes, squirrels, owls, ring-necked parakeets, magpies, crows, robins, song thrushes, jays and wrens. One local resident claimed to have seen a badger one night, but that has not been verified.

In 2006, I heard, to my amazement, that developers, Kingsbury Estate Limited, had applied for planning permission to build a 2-storey apartment building on the site, containing 4 one bedroom and 4 two bedroom flats. The site was entirely unsuitable, not just because it would have involved the loss of a former allotment and sanctuary for wildlife, but also because the block would have been positioned right next to an open railway track, through which trains thunder at least 8 times every hour. I was not surprised that, on 7th December 2006, the Planning Committee refused the application.

Recently, however, I have learned with horror that the developers have lodged an appeal against the Council’s decision, which is to be heard on 14th February. In their submission Kingsbury Estate Limited describe this piece of land as “relatively featureless” claiming it was formerly used for railway sidings. They add “The City Council has produced no evidence that the site has been used or managed as a wildlife area.”

The company also claims there is no evidence that this is “ ‘urban open space’ of the type covered by local Plan Policy QD20”. This policy bars planning consents involving “loss of areas of public or private open space that are important to people because of their recreational, community, historical, conservation, economic, wildlife, social or amenity value.”. The company denies there is “any evidence that the appeal site was formerly used by railworkers as allotments”, but then adds rather confusingly “even if the appeal site was once used as allotments, this would have been while it still formed part of the ‘operational’ railway land.”

Now, I have known this area for over 30 years and in that time and on that piece of land have seen no trace of railway sidings. I have witnessed a beautifully kept allotment which over time has developed into a wildlife haven. I know that this open space is “important” to people in the way that local Plan Policy QD20 describes.

One of these is local resident Sally Griffin. She says of this space: “It may be “derelict” in the developers’ eyes, but to me, as to many people, these small wildernesses are precious. As yet, daylight and fresh air have not been privatised. Though I have a garden now, having lived in bedsits for most of my working life, I appreciate the value of these little pockets of greenery. For people who don’t have gardens, shared spaces—even spaces you can only see and hear but not walk on, like the railway banks—are important. The developers’ mindset discounts anything that is not someone’s exclusive property. Brighton is getting more and more built up, and these green places matter to us as humans, not to mention the plants and the other species of animals, birds and insects for whom the railway banks are a safe place.”

The beauty of the natural world and the preservation of our wild life is important to us all. We stressed human beings need to hear the birds sing and the foxes cry – and be able to peer over bridges in the hope that we may just catch sight of a badger.

The Appeal should be denied.

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