On my way to my London office, which I frequent a couple of times a week, I get off the train and walk through Elephant and Castle. It’s a distinctive and slightly odd part of the city, dominated by a down-at-heel shopping centre and an enormous roundabout.
I actually quite like the shopping centre, which is big and blue and was sold for £80 million a couple of years ago. It has the same smell and vibe as the Sarit Center in Nairobi in the late 90s. That is wonderful to me but, perhaps understandably, not to the local authorities. Its multicultural food and homewares stores are to be swept away and replaced with luxury flats and a Sainsbury’s.
Outside the mall is the roundabout. It has three lanes of traffic all around it and large billboards. There are tiled underpasses for pedestrians, and I got lost in them several times when we first moved the office here. In the middle of the roundabout is a large steel box, the Faraday Monument, built in the 1960s as a memorial to the electricity pioneer. It’s got to be one of London’s least noticed monuments, because it looks – and indeed is – an electrical substation. This makes more sense when you learn that the architect wanted it built in glass, so that we could all see the workings. That would be a much better tribute to Faraday.
The glory of Elephant and Castle, and the streets around it, is its plantings. There are beds of shrubs and flowers on the roundabout, bulbs and herbs around the base of trees, and explosions of sunflowers and lavender in the summer. Heathers and rosemary tumble down around the spiky cordylines on the traffic islands, and the corner by the office even has raspberries.
This is not the work of the council, generally speaking. It’s all planted and tended by volunteers and local residents, coordinated through the GuerrillaGardening.org website. Next to the roundabout is Perronet House, home to Richard Reynolds, who runs the site and has become the go-to spokesman for guerrilla gardening around the country. (I reviewed his book here.)
The volunteers are not just concerned with guerrilla garderning either. They take care of the parks and run ‘mobile’ gardens and wildflower meadows on un-used land – all planted on crates and in tubs so they can be relocated. They clean the tiles and repaint the underpass, and campaign to improve the area, encourage biodiversity and build community. This campaigning has been particularly necessary recently, as major works are planned in Elephant and Castle, including road widening that will take over many of the community plantings. Some are gone already. As the area is redeveloped, the local community has fought to protect mature trees and green spaces, and ensure that pedestrians and cyclists are given due consideration.
I mention all of this because this week I walked past the beds around Perronet House, next to the bus stop, and saw this little sign. I thought I’d write about it, as an opportunity to say congratulations on ten years of good work, and thank you for the difference you make to the area. The Elephant and Castle gardeners are a beautiful example of what happens when public spaces are valued and local people are prepared to invest some time in what’s theirs. Everybody benefits, even those just passing through on the way to the office.
- You can keep up with developments on Facebook, and to hear Richard Reynolds talk about the area in his own words, here’s a TEDx talk about it: