The Southwood Garden

This morning, as the sun was out again after days of rain, rather than changing for the Victoria line to Green Park I got off the tube at Oxford Circus for a slightly longer walk to work. Regent Street shone ahead of me, Indiana Jones’s Canyon of the Crescent Moon remoulded in Upper Jurassic Portland, ionic and glistening. I nipped through a high arch on the right and down Swallow Street, which hits Piccadilly directly in front of the tower of St. James’s Church. It was quiet on Piccadilly. The church was set against a bright blue sky, its brown brick and white dressings looking richly organic amongst the green of the tall plane trees. It is set back off the road behind its churchyard, where they were setting up the craft market that’s there most of the week. And its big clear glass windows, lightly bubbled like an East End boozer’s, allow you to see right into the church and through to the trees on the other side. It’s not only that they allow light into the church, it’s that they seem to permit even more light into Piccadilly: a cataract that makes the street – a deep channel of largely opaque stone buildings – feel less enclosed, less enclosing. That welcoming enlightenment, that openness, is an apt metaphor for the work of the parish itself, led by the Reverend Lucy Winkett, whose Thought for the Day I sometimes catch on Radio 4 (cue my husband: “Who does the Reverend Lucy wink at?”). Displays inside the vestibule show the work they do with the homeless and refugees, and their LGBT celebrations during Pride Week.  

If you pass through the churchyard market square and up the steps to your right you find the Southwood Garden, where I’ve come back to eat my lunch. About the size and shape of a standard swimming pool, the garden is cushioned on four sides by the church and office buildings, with shops on Jermyn Street through the railings to the south. It’s jubilantly green: large terracotta urns overflow with white and pink flowers beneath a thicket of creepers and bushes; benches sit in little alcoves of box hedge; on the western side, which I think of as the bottom of the garden, is a mini pond, three barrels with a large white lily in the centre; serving-spoon sized labels are plugged into the soil, names handwritten in white on black: Astrantia ‘Roma’, Carex Morrowil ‘Ice Dance’, Anemone X Hybrida, Narcissus ‘Falconet’ ; above the Caffe Nero which occupies part of the church building (the church knows how to diversify its income) is a spindly-trunked mulberry;  and the huge plane trees rise above it all, shorter only than the spire of St. James’s itself. The spire is topped with a weather-vane, with a metal flag like bloomers on a windswept day or a Lego flag from the Knights range. The clock-bell rings for 1pm – six small chimes, one bong.

It’s hot now, and I sit with the sun on my neck, on one of four grassy plateaus of raised brick-edged lawn, the paved paths between them forming a cross, meeting in a middle circle. A phalanx of pigeons strut across the grass, eyes on my sandwich. A robin bounces at my feet then up to the armrest of a bench. Three homeless men lie on benches in the alcoves, in layers of coats, heads facing towards the hedge.

It’s getting busier as people arrive in groups or couples or alone: men in the ubiquitous semi-formal shirt and black trousers (my uniform too), women in knee-length skirts, quarter-length trousers, blouses and short-sleeved shirts. They have spilled from the offices that take up the higher floors of most of the buildings along the street, the myriad law firms and consultancies where they’re buzzed in through nondescript doors beside Cotswolds and MG and Pret a Manger. A group of six have brought a picnic from Sainsbury’s: wraps and plastic tubs of salad, pots of hummus, chunky bread. According to a recent survey, the lunch hour is fast disappearing, with 61% of Londoners not getting or taking the full hour and 46% eating at their desks. The results for the rest of the country were even worse. So it’s good to see so many people out enjoying the sunshine and trying not to talk shop with their colleagues.  For many years I mostly stayed inside at lunch, eating and reading in an unofficial staff room, but this last year it has felt particularly important to get out, to get my head shired, as my mum would say, in this one spare moment of the day.

For over two hundred years this site was a burial ground for the parish. After the second world war – when the church was heavily damaged by German bombing – Viscount Southwood paid for it to become a garden of remembrance, “to commemorate the courage and fortitude of the people of London”. Southwood was born Julias Salter Elias in Birmingham in 1873, moving to London when his father, a Whitby jet salesman, decided to set up a newspaper business. Young Julias had a paper round in Hammersmith, and at the age of thirteen became a junior clerk at Odhams Brothers, a small printing press, eventually working his way up to become managing director and eventually chairman of the firm. He was given a peerage in 1937, becoming Baron Southwood, and from 1944-45 he was Chief Whip of the Labour Party. In 1946 he became Viscount, sadly dying of a heart attack that April, the same year the garden was opened by Queen Mary. There is a pleasing pattern to the fact that this garden of remembrance was made possible by the son of a jet salesman. Whitby jet got a boost in popularity following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when Queen Victoria took to wearing jet jewellery in his memory and Victorians embraced a national fervour for mourning. Viscount and Lady Southwood’s ashes are contained in a stone fountain at the entrance, decorated with bronze dolphins being ridden by naked children, and framed by two short flights of steps. The memorial was designed by Alfred F Hardiman, who has another sculpture, Peace, which stands just off the main rectangle, in the shade of trees: a woman with a hipster fringe in a simple flowing dress holding a small olive branch.

There is new sculpture too: the church regularly plays host to works curated by galleries such as Hawzer & Wirth, Bowman Sculpture and Christies. Most recently the British sculptor Emily Young exhibited her iconic pieces, which fitted well, I thought, in this garden of remembrance and reflection: faces growing, or bursting – tormented, sad, defiant – out of massive blocks of onyx, marble, Purbeck limestone; and Solar Disc III, a giant sphere of ochred onyx, like a planet – ours? – with a black wound crumbling through it.

Wind Head (2013) by Emily Young. Image: Bowman Sculpture

A quirkier addition arrived around Christmas last year, when a life-size white stag (the ‘Hart of London’) stood gracefully on the lawn. Made from recycled plastic bottles gathered by local businesses, the hart would light up each time a contactless donation point was tapped, the money going to the church’s charity for the homeless and asylum seekers, and its free counselling services. Over the winter months they run a night shelter in the church, and counselling is offered daily at the Caravan-Drop In, a green shepherd’s hut that sits just above the Southwood memorial. I head past it now, tucking my balled-up sandwich foil into the bin, down the steps to the market.

Spread across the uneven stone slabs of the churchyard – flat laid tombstones with foot-worn names ripe for a brass rubbing – Piccadilly Market has about twenty stalls, with red and white striped tarpaulin roofs and blue wires slung between them for electricity. It’s well maintained, and you can tell the stall-holders have pride in their stock, and there’s a good camaraderie between them. There’s jewellery and vintage crockery, handmade candles, wooden stamps, leather belts punched to order. Old phones and telescopes, clocks made out of vinyl records. The fossil shop is no trinket table, the like of which you often see in seaside towns, selling polished stones and shells on nests of straw. Rather, foot-wide ammonites and fossilised tree trunks balance against a Prehistoric European bison horn, agate bookends, a Romanian Cave Bear paw that’s 50,000 years old, behind which you can barely see the trader, staring through the eras like a stone-struck Neanderthal in a museum diorama, albeit where they’ve gone for everything-in rather than stratigraphic accuracy. We sell fossils and gemstones in our shop at the Geological Society Library, but when there’s a tourist looking to make a bigger statement I’ll always point them towards the market, as long as they’ve a few pounds to spare in their luggage, and a few kilos in their wallet.

Naturally there’s standard stuff for tourists (Big Ben t-shirts, Oxford University hoodies) and signs with cheery messages like Today Is A Good Day and Cherish Your Friends. But that’s just to say there’s something for everyone. The sign stall seems to do good business with its replica London street names: Portobello Road, Camden Town, Brick Lane, Piccadilly Circus.

A recent addition is the Golden Grass Company, selling handbags, earrings, and bracelets like Egyptian amulets, all hand-woven from plants and all glittering like gold. I watch a group of women trying on various bracelets while the vendor explains that the plant comes from the Brazilian cerrado, where the items on the stall are still made today.  As I jot down a note of this, eyes on the page, I don’t notice that a man is suddenly standing in front of me. “Hello sir, Hello, and how are you?” He is short with a friendly smile, and shakes my hand, before pointing at the St James’s Church symbol at the breast of his green fleece. “I am with St. James’s” (did he say security?) “and I see you are taking notes. This is private property so you should ask permission to take notes. What are you doing?” I almost laugh, but explain that I am writing an article about the market. “For who?” Oh, it’s just for a blog, I say, just my own blog.  I’m mildly shaken now, and just want to get away, and am relieved that he starts to step back too. “That’s all right, carry on!” he says, but not without repeating his first claim “Remember you are on private property, so should ask permission first.”

I quickly pace to the long stone bench on the Piccadilly side and sit down, completely thrown, and feeling that my affection for this market has just taken a blow.  But I suppose I did look a bit suspicious, wandering around with a note-pad, probably not very subtle in my eavesdropping, and we’re constantly reminded to be wary of anything that doesn’t look right. See it, say it, sorted.

I realise I’ve sat down in front of my favourite stall in the market, which sells ceramic plates and all sizes of serving dishes from Jerusalem, beautifully hand painted with flowers and fish and mosaic patterns and that deep dark Mediterranean blue that brightens any day. A few weeks ago, after years of admiring them, I bought one as a birthday present for my sister, a small circular dish with a little handle, decorated with blue and yellow flowers. No matter what the day, what the weather, what the mood, walking past this stall gives me a little lift, a radical welcome of colour.

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