Searching for the gardens of Southwood Hall
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Ruth Pavey goes in serach of the lost gardens of Southwood Hall, with a little help from some Highgate residents
“In Highgate, we see capacious mansions of a former age standing in their walled enclosures, consisting of gardens and shrubberies and full-grown trees... These are fast being broken into by the builder, their walls prostrated, their quince and mulberry trees and broad-spreading cedars felled, and a whole town raised on the site of each of them.”
It was in 1869 that William Howitt, author of The Northern Heights of London, published that (much-abbreviated) lament. The two “towns” in which I have been ferretting for any vestiges, notably trees, of these lost Highgate gardens are the estates of Holly Lodge (Ham&High, 19/1/17) and Southwood Hall. Lacking a celebrity former owner, Southwood Hall has emerged as the shyer subject. Its walls were not prostrated, so it was only by being intrigued about the topiary visible from Muswell Hill Road that I became aware of the well-kept gardens of its mansion flats.
The building of the flats, several blocks of them, started in 1931. The main one stands on the site of the earlier Southwood Hall, a castellated Victorian mansion. This block also has a degree of castellation, in memory of what it replaced. Southwood Hall, built about 1845, itself replaced two older houses, but further back in time things blur into a tale of unenclosed commons, lanes leading pilgrims through woods to religious houses, etc. Anyway, trees are not likely to have lived that long.
In fact, there are few trees left that look old enough to have been in the garden of the castellated Southwood Hall. One, a sweet chestnut with thick twisting trunk, is right by the entrance, which means anyone can see it without trespassing. Another is a huge ash on the main lawn. This lawn and its surrounding beds are not open to the public, but three kind residents showed me round on two different occasions.
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Linda Leroy is the member of the board of residents with responsibility for the gardens. She has a background in horticulture, and said what a pleasure it is to think about and make gardening decisions, knowing that James Christen, of Quercus Gardens, Hampstead, will carry them out. Some of the recent projects have been the clearance of big bushes of laurel and snowberry in the border along Wood Lane, the growing of a willow “cabin”, and fresh planting to replace outgrown shrub roses.
When I visited Barbara Firestone and Peter Gibb to hear some of the more recent history of the garden, they said that there used to be a huge copper beech until a few years ago. By the time of this second visit the season had moved on, bringing into flower the camellias, flowering currants, tulips, etc., but one of the more intriguing sights was a business-like yard, with walls on three sides. Here, years ago, Peter Gibb established his pot garden. Coming from a family of gardeners, he took advantage of the relaxed arrangements (any resident can cultivate a bit of the garden) to roll in huge pots, set up water pipes and establish a potted shrubbery.
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Barbara pointed out a run of charcoal coloured edging tiles, saying that they were probably part of the Victorian garden. Since that visit, I have seen just such edging tiles in an early twentieth century photograph*. From 1905 – 1930, Miss Rowe ran a school for “the daughters of gentlemen” in Southwood Hall. The photograph shows three girls wearing black tunics, black stockings and white smock overalls, working in what looks like a kitchen garden with paths and fruit trees. A vegetable bed is edged with those same charcoal, scrolled tiles.
There are two other relics of the grander garden still in place, a statue of Apollo and a summerhouse. But I find the trees, and the tiles, the most touching survivors from the past.
THINGS TO DO
It’s a good time to sow sweet peas outdoors, but you can still just about do them indoors (avoiding slug damage while they’re tiny).
Tulips are flowering early. If you have some coming on in pots and want to delay them, keep the pots in a cold, north-facing place.
Cut back flowering shrubs, eg. winter jasmine, forsythia, etc. Leaving it till later means you will be cutting off this year’s growth and next year’s flowers.
On Saturday, 6th May the Plant Heritage Grand Plant Sale is on at the Specialist Nurseries at St Michael’s School and is always good. North Hill, Highgate, N6 4BG 10 am – 3.30pm.
Get a copy of the National Gardens Scheme booklet, new cover but still yellow. Lots of lovely local gardens to visit, mainly starting in May but 5, St. Regis Close, N10 2DE is open Sun 30th April, 2.00 – 6.30pm
Want a new lawn? A friend reports excellent service and results from thelawnturflaying.co.uk 20 per cent discount offer during April.