Picture credit: Laurie Noble/Getty
Artillery Row

London shines in spring

Despite everything, it is a beautiful place

It’s easy to feel that London is not quite at its best. The galleries are often closed, the trains are either suffering strikes or signal failures, and  ONS data shows that whatever wage premium you get from working here you spend on inflated housing costs. Crime is worrying, protestors are irritating. The roads are congested. The nightlife is tame. Anyone who has used the airports recently knows that we give off rather a poor impression to new arrivals — and then the trains to the city aren’t running. In so many ways, Londoners are priced out, beleaguered and bothered to exasperation.

True, true, all true, but April and June are special months in Britain, and spring, spring, the year’s pleasant king is when the capital comes into its very best. Kew Gardens has been aglow with bluebells; rambling roses have over-spilled their frames, clinging onto pear trees outside; and the parks we enjoy are full of birdsong; kingfishers darts the Ravensbourne and other tributaries of the Thames, and house martins hunt the docks and beaches of Rotherhithe where they nest under balconies.

We have seen streets of cherry blossom, like in Mary Poppins, magnolias have filled out around our churches, the plane leaves are threshing around the Tower of London. And it is open garden season, which means that for a small contribution to charity we are all free to roam around many of the nicer plots of London and see into each other’s gardens. I have been visiting gardens all around London to see the spring in every street.

The architecture in Telegraph Hill is the sort-of over-crenellated, late-Victorian terraces that look like grotesque wedding cakes seen in a carnival mirror. Telegraph Hill has its distinctive slope as a result of quarrying; its name as a result of a technological installation. From here the news of Waterloo was signalled to London. It is a land of graft and toil, of innovation and perspiration. The gardens here burgeon into blossom. The ponds have attracted newts and frogs of their own volition. There are makeshift barbecues smoking in the corner. 

The soft-spoken boomers of Haggerston, an in-between place where Hackney meets Islington, have homemade monet bridges over ponds, metal fountains, and masses of those goldfish you only see at the better sort of garden centres; roses come towering and piling over the entrances; they dress in hippie-formal, with brightly-coloured, fruit-and-flower patterned clothes (sartorially, Lewisham is shambolic-casual: brown corduroy sags onto trainers); their hairstyles are Bowie-esque; signs in the kitchen, and cushions on the sofa, invite you to drink champagne and dance on the table. 

All the while, over the road from these charmed terraces, the great looming tower-blocks stand, flowerless, a reminder of the way our planning system allows prime land in zone one to be given over to the cultivation of irises, with space for swing seats, while our neighbours are crammed in fifteen uncultivated stories high. 

The preserved architecture here is eccentric gothic — there are battlements above porticos, gables that are at once stepped and pointed, or unfold into elaborate ogee curves above small latticed windows. Everywhere you look the majesty and the terror of the gothic is turned into charming, domestic diminutions like a tamed mastiff asleep by the inglenook. The church is one of those nasty Victorian exaggerations. Travelling there through the city we passed through the long stretch of land that was obliterated in the Blitz, full now of anonymous glass. 

There is a garden at St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate — where I managed to sneak into the bell tower recently — and the ornamental mitre that once stood on the city gate is mounted on the wall of the next door building. All over the city, the courts and alleyways and gardens and churchyards are full of people a-sunning. Every byway and sidestreet is full of the spirit of spring, from the builders smoking outside St. Helens to the cycling church warden cooling off behind St. Peter’s Cornhill.

St. Peters was open when we passed back through — a rare treat. This is among the most well preserved of Wren’s churches, which I couldn’t get into when I followed in Betjeman’s footsteps last year. This church is only open when in use, and we intruded on a small rehearsal. St. Peter’s was once a great power, with rich fishmonger benefactors, a significant mediaeval library, a grammar school, and delusions about its ancient past — it believed itself to once have been the home of the Archbishops.

In 1593 it was believed the plague would get worse because a heron sat on the tower. We saw no heron. Inside the gold of the barrel-arch roof was catching the last of the spring-evening light. You visit St Peter’s for the woodwork and the rood screen looked stern and magnificent, despite the clutter of chairs and sofas that have replaced the pews. Wren was against screens, but the rector insisted, and so one was designed, by Wren’s daughter. It is one of London’s hidden treasures.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover