Latest from Peter Berthoud

Garden of Remembrance Desecrated in Piccadilly

15-February-2012 0:00
in Art & Architecture
by Peter Berthoud

Yesterday I was really saddened to see that Southwood Garden in Central London, has just been brutally redeveloped.

The tiny Second World War Memorial Garden lies to the West of St James's Church, sandwiched between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly.

Last year it was a lush, green, charming space, a little overgrown but all the more magical because of that. Excuse the clichés but for once they are merited; this was once a genuine "hidden gem" and a real "oasis of peace".

This is a view from last year:

Southwood Garden by St James's Church Piccadilly

Today it looks like this:

Southwood Garden redeveloped

Once Alfred Hardiman's statue of Peace was surrounded by mature shrubs, in a "chapel" of leaves:

Alfred Hardiman statue of Peace Southwood Garden

Today, stripped of her surrounding foliage, she has lost her aura of tranquillity and her ability to inspire contemplation. She stands before us now as a mere garden ornament.

Alfred Hardiman statue of Peace

Shrubs and bushes have been pruned down to the earth, or removed entirely, and the blandest of  planting schemes has replaced them.

The magic of the space has been utterly destroyed.

There also used to be lots of unique, hand-painted, little marker signs, scattered throughout the garden, here was the grave marker of "Mackerel" the Rectory Cat  for example:

Mackerel the Rectory Cat

Other signs marked the remains of a (long abandoned) project to grow within the garden every plant mentioned in the Bible:

Every plant in the bible sign

There was also a sign encouraging people to add a stone to a small prayer Cairn:

Prayer Cairn Southwood Garden

Many of these signs were nestled together in one section of the garden.

Signs Southwood Garden

All of these have been swept away and replaced with hideous picnic benches contained within vile surrounding walls:

Hideous picnic benches Southwood Garden

Now I'll happily admit that I am a pretty unsentimental, cynical, atheistic type, but even I am angry and can see that what has been done is just plain wrong and constitutes an act of horticultural, aesthetic and moral vandalism. The destruction seems even more inexplicably insensitive when one considers the purpose of the garden.

The Southwood Garden is a memorial garden, dedicated to "The bravery of ordinary Londoners shown during the Second World War". It was created as such by Viscount Southwood (whose own ashes lie within the garden) and was opened by Queen Mary in 1946.

Was it really necessary to slash and burn such a special place? If replanting was needed, couldn't this have been done more gradually? If hard-landscaping work was genuinely required, couldn't the little markers have been given some consideration, some respect?

Does this look like a distinctive memorial garden to you; or more like a bland, boring lawn, stuck behind some Piccadilly office blocks?

Bland boring lawn Southwood Garden

I would be really interested to know why the normally altruistic, effective and truly decent St James's Church authorities have done this but I could find nobody to ask at the church yesterday.

They do run a market; do they want to rent out more stalls? They do have a High Street coffee concession; do they want/"need" more outside seating for "Flat Latte" drinkers?  Hauser & Wirth, the gallery, have a deal with the church to display art works in the garden; do they "need" more exhibition space? Is it all about cash, or is there another even more bizarre reason?

No doubt we will all learn "Why?" eventually.

But the damage has been done now and cannot be undone for a long time. For the next twenty years or so we will just need to wait patiently whilst the garden regenerates and matures. If I am fortunate enough to survive into my late 60's, then I hope that I can go back to the Southwood Garden (circa 2032) and enjoy it once again.

There are a few more sad, "before" and "after", photos of the garden on my Flickr Photostream.


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