Words Yvonne Craig
Illustrations Alexandria Coe
It has been said that one of the most beautiful private gardens in Bloomsbury is that enjoyed by the residents of Ridgmount Gardens. From the windows of their Bedford Estates’ mansion flats they watch the seasons changing the magnificent trees from spring gold to autumn bronze. When one of these was destroyed in a storm some time ago, its mighty branches crushing a resident’s car, his first words were: “Poor tree!” This love of our garden is shared by passers-by, who also delight in the summer fragrance of the cascading mimosa and stop to photograph it – just as the pilgrims do for the Bob Marley blue plaque outside my flat.
The garden has a fascinating history. The Bedford Estates have kindly provided archival information about its construction, after an earlier one, of unknown date, was demolished. The 1890 Surveyor’s Specification, “for His Grace the Duke of Bedford”, showed that he, like subsequent members of his family, was concerned to meet the highest standards, which should conform to those of the Royal Institute of British Architects and Master Builders’ Association. One example was the Duke’s insistence that “trees were not to be disturbed unless permitted by his Forester”, and that roots were to be carefully “bridged”. It seems that the garden’s construction relied on the Surveyor, it being too early for a landscape designer. The current Head Gardener, Thomas Abbott, devoted to arboreal care, now has fewer employees, although he has been able to plant new trees, including the Persian Ironwood and Chinese Sacred Bamboo. The North American Smokebrush has an alliterative Latin name: Cotinus coggygna! We always delight in the autumnal multi-coloured Maple, and are intrigued by the recent wood sculptures fashioned from trimmed upturned roots. Plants like the appropriate London Pride or Heuchera, the spring bulbs, and the glorious gardenias graciously add seasonal colour to the garden.
The garden’s wild life is as competitive as that of humanity, and swooping seagulls demonstrate this. The squirrels swing on our nut feeders and fight off the tits, which fly to the nearby fatballs. The ubiquitous pigeons are called avian rodents because they spread disease, so we discourage them by withholding our breadcrumbs, although we welcome the thrushes, blackbirds, starlings and occasional wagtails. These and smaller birds like the London sparrows, finches, wrens and our beloved robins, especially delight us, although they are scarcer now, as leaf-blowing sweeps away the tiny insects on which they feed. It is rumoured that many years ago nightingales could be heard, and we have occasional visits from exotic birds-on-the wing, while the colourful jays and jackdaws may hunt for eggs, and crows herald the dusk. The nocturnal foxes, with their vixens and cubs, chase up and down the garden and also the street, where they tear open the black refuse bags left overnight and devour the food scraps inside. Although our excellent porters place large-print hall notices warning residents not to “feed the foxes”, they always outfox us. Dog owners are compliant, however, as the Bedford Estates forbid the entry of our furry friends into the garden to avoid soiling of the grass and paths where residents and their children sit, walk and play.
Residents of all ages love and enjoy our garden. Babies roll about on rugs on the grass. Toddlers tumble, jump and run around, while older children play hide-and-seek among the shrubbery. They all delight in dancing under the hosepipe or splashing in their plastic pools. Parents relax, rejoicing that their children can play safely away from the traffic. Elderly people enjoy watching it all, and also the passers-by dressed in the colourful clothes of international and still Bohemian Bloomsbury with its surging numbers of students. Some of these reside in Ridgmount Gardens while studying at UCL, SOAS and RADA, and they grace the grass with their beautiful young bodies as they lie there with their textbooks before the summer seasonal exams. Residents also include permanent professors at Bloomsbury colleges as well as temporary visiting ones from overseas. These tend to sit in the shade with their laptops, perhaps composing their magnum opus.
Such diversity leads to a great variety of garden activities. There are all kinds of parties. Children’s birthdays are made magical by balloons and streamers festooning the trees, while the grown-ups have cocktail parties, and couples cuddle together with champagne when it grows dark. The Residents’ Ridgmount Garden Association (RGA) Committee regularly hosts soirees when we bring drinks and bites to share, while flags are hung on the railings for special occasions. One was the Queen’s birthday, when we all sang the national anthem. A long time ago, when I had tenure of the RGA committee chair for eight years, I bought a potted Christmas tree for the garden, decorated with apples for the birds, and we all sang carols around it. These events, and our private garden in general, always attract the interest and envy of passers-by, although residents are free to bring in their guests. Now, at the age of 91, my greatest joy is to rest in bed, watching the sun’s rising and setting illuminating the garden, its life, and ours.