Behind high walls and encircled by great trees, Culpeper Community Garden keeps its secrets until the last moment when you enter through a narrow iron gate in Cloudesley Road. From the top of the steps, the first impression is of lush green – a lawn, a great weeping willow, a pond, rushes. A beautiful Dry Garden lies to your right.
If you venture further through a wisteria and rose-covered-arch, you come to the second surprise. It is that, although Culpeper is a park open to the public every day of the year, it bears little resemblance to a public park. This is because, apart from the communal areas, there are fifty-six small plots, gardened by local people without gardens, which are singularly individual. The wide ethnic mix of garden members stamping their own particular style and culture on the garden, prevents it from looking the slightest bit municipal.
The first impression of the planting is of a cottage garden with its joyous abandon of all the old favourites - the roses, foxgloves, snowdrops, blue forget-me-knots of the English Country Garden, spilling over the winding paths. These take you past a patchwork of small plots. Some are raised beds for disabled or for particular groups, some are filled with exotic vegetables, some with the rare and unusual. There is plenty of interest for the plant connoisseur.
Community areas include the central lawn and pond, the Dry Garden, the Rockery, the shady Wildlife Garden, the Culpeper Herb Plot with its lollipop bay tree in the centre, the long Rose Walk (a summer highlight) and a work area with the compost bins, wheel barrows and a small greenhouse.
Steps lead up to a vine-covered shed. This is the Tea Hut, the very hub of the garden where members take tea, chat and enjoy the sun on the terrace outside. A discreet low building, clothed in climbers, is the Resource Centre, in constant use for workshops and events of various sorts.
The garden is known for its friendliness. There are handy benches amongst the flowers where people come to relax. Depending on the time of year, the lawn might be strewn with office workers catching the sunshine in their lunch break, the pond might be surrounded by children absorbed by vibrant frog life. There might be groups barbequing on the terrace by the Tea Hut, garden workers – the life and soul of the place - and volunteers tackling the many tasks that are needed to keep the garden up to scratch or an event taking place in the Resource Centre. The garden works hard to live up to its claim of being a ‘A garden for the people by the people’ by reaching out to and drawing in the community at large.
The idea of making Culpeper Community Garden came to school teacher, Anthea Douglas, one day when she was cycling to work. It was chance that curiosity got the better of her that day. On impulse, she stopped and took a peak through a hole in high wall. What met her eyes was a bombsite.
‘It was derelict’, she says, ‘but I saw immediately the garden it could become for the school children and the local community. It was only later that we realized that it was on Culpeper Street (now long gone), named after Nicholas Culpeper, the great 17th century English herbalist whose printing press was in nearby Clerkenwell. It just seemed meant to be.’
At the time Anthea was working at the White Lion Free School, near the Angel, an area notorious as a built-up, traffic-ridden place with little green space. Her idea of making a garden for her school children and the local community soon caught the imagination of her colleagues. Nearby Penton Primary School joined the scheme and the two schools puylled together to raise some money from a local improvement scheme. With that in hand, they persuaded the Council to rent the site to them - but this was only on a temporary basis as it had been ear-marked for a car park or police station.
The principles of Culpeper were to follow the ethos of the White Lion School. This was ‘freeschooling’ which Anthea explains essentially means no hierarchy, that everyone’s skills are valid and incorporated, that all members are involved in decision making and that the environment is not threatening. While Culpeper has changed and grown over the years this early ethos (along with strict adherence to organic principles) is still practiced. Friendliness, tolerance and the relaxed atmosphere are one of the garden’s greatest strengths.
One of the founders, architect Pete Sutton drew up a plan free-of-charge in conjunction with, landscape architect, Katy Melville. Anthea recalls that ‘ with the site agreed, some cash and a professional plan the Council finally realized we were serious. They then came up with a grant for the capital works’. They also paid a salary for fellow teacher, Ros Dunwell, who left the school and became the first garden worker.’
She was to be the mover and shaker who got the garden built and established. She had contacts with the building trade and managed to get a supply of free bricks and the use of earth-moving equipment. A partnership was established with Community Service Volunteers (CSV) who, as it happened, were running ‘Operation Cleanup’ in Islington at the time. Unemployed CSV trainees, under their supervisor - who heroically operated from his ‘office’ of an upturned water tank - substantially completed such structural works as building walls, levelling the land, putting up fences and laying pipes, within eight months.
Then it was time for the school children - for whom the garden had been largely designed - to make their mark. Some one hundred young ‘tree sisters’ and ‘tree brothers’ poured in to help plant the now mature trees which are so much a feature of the garden today. The communal areas were marked out and plots and were allocated to local people without gardens who lived within the square mile.
From the start, the garden has been run on democratic principles by an annually elected management committee of up to eleven, the majority of whom must be active plot holders, under an elected Chair. A vital key to the successful running of the garden is the employment of paid Garden Workers. This is a job that demands a raft of different talents – particularly skills with people, with management, with gardening, not to mention talents with organizing, computer work and fund raising.
Over the years, the garden has been fortunate in being able to employ some remarkably gifted and dedicated men and women to take on this crucial role. Much valuable work also comes from the members, friends and volunteers from local businesses and outside.
In 1996, the Council withdrew their small but crucial grant. An immediate outcry followed from garden members and public alike. One councillor was heard to mutter that he had never received so many letters on a single issue before. A protest march to the Town Hall was followed by an impassioned speech by the then Chairman, Ken Standing. At the last minute - when it seemed that all was lost – as in the best stories - the reprieve came. The grant halved rather than axed.
Though the Council has helped Culpeper in many ways, rebuilding the wall and supplying fencing, their grant dwindled each year finally ending in 2002. As a result, Culpeper has often struggled to make ends meet. Every year there are two plant sales to raise money for the garden and these, along with subscriptions (which are deliberately kept low) only pay for a share of the overheads. The balance comes in through fund raising. Culpeper has benefitted from many generous funders and has particularly strong links with the Tudor Trust, the Cripplegate Foundation and the City Bridge Trust.
As a registered charity, Culpeper works hard to bring in the outside community. Events vary from the annual Pensioners’ Strawberry Tea (accompanied by live Music Hall favourites with the Pearly Queen in attendance) - to Halloween when young local children tear around the garden as ghouls and witches. Other regulars are the Summer and Winter Solstice Parties, Summer Arts week, practical workshops, Play and Stay for young children, Easter Fun Day, Open Day to coincide with the Open Garden Squares Weekend, trips to famous gardens, story telling, ‘make and take’ craft workshops, musical occasions and projects around environmental education.
Important community partners for the garden are Room2Heal, the Expert Patient Plan, the Elfrida Society, the Stuart Low Trust and Southwood Smith Centre. Groups from these organisations come in on regular basis to grow food, to cook and to unwind in the peace of the garden. Culpeper also has links with the Claremont Centre, the London Wildlife Trust, Chance UK, local schools and other community gardens.
In 2,000, it was decided that the small shed that served as an office-cum toolshed, should be replaced by a building - a Resource Centre that could better cater for themany demands laid upon the garden. Before attempting to raise the funds for the building, a longer lease from the Council became essential. A backdated 50 year lease was finally granted in 2006 for what was described as ‘a peppercorn rent, if demanded’. With this lease, it was all hands on deck to raise the money. Much thanks is owed to Kate Bowen, the garden worker at the time, for winning the lion’s share.
The new Resource Centre, which opened up many opportunities for the garden, was finished two years’ later, complete with a green roof, an office, a lock-up tool shed and a community space. Since then, Culpeper has continued to develop various parts of the garden. The beautiful Dry Garden has been created in response to the water shortage. The Wildlife Area has been developed in partnership with the London Wildlife Trust and with the help of members from the ‘Earn Your Travel Back Scheme’ along with various schools.
In 2009 Culpeper was one of the first voluntary organizations to gain the PQASSO (Practical quality Assurance System for Small Organizations) mark, awarded for good practice in management and business.
In 2012, now a venerable 30 years old and one of the oldest community gardens in London, Culpeper became a ‘Heritage site’. Visitors continue to come from far and wide to visit this pioneering, prize-winning garden and to learn how it works. Culpeper has been honoured with awards over the years – Islington in Bloom Golds and Silvers, as well as Green Pennant awards which are only given to green spaces run by voluntary and community groups. The RHS has recognized Culpeper as ‘outstanding’ in the ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ scheme.
Looking back, reflects Anthea Douglas - the teacher who set this tale in motion - it has all turned out extremely well. ‘In the end,’ she says, ‘the Council didn’t build a car park or police station on the site but they built flats on one side and a playground on the other, putting the garden at the very heart of the plan.’ This year Culpeper won a great accolade and became a ‘Queen Elizabeth II Field’. This is an official award, part of the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations, aimed to protect precious green spaces for local communities forever after or - as it is expressed - ‘in perpetuity’.