After a none too subtle hint (i.e. an email with a url) one of my Christmas presents was a book called ‘Green Escapes: The Guide to Secret Urban Gardens’ by Dr Toby Musgrave. It was published earlier this year and I’d clocked it in a gardening magazine and filed it away as a potential giftette for when the question came. It seemed like suitable gift material – something you want but somehow cannot justify buying for yourself. Now I have my sticky little paws on it I thought I’d share a few initial thoughts on whether it meets expectations.
Like many people keen on gardening I love visiting public gardens to see something different, get ideas and just for the sheer enjoyment of being in a new horticultural setting. It has to be said though that frequently the gardens I visit are large scale rural estates such as National Trust properties like Dunham Massey – places which are a million miles away from the small city garden I have at home. In recent years I have become particularly interested in the integration of green space into towns and cities since this is where most of us live. So while visiting lavish country gardens is of course a joy, I’m also keen to ferret out the pockets of calm green space hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. Places like the Barbican Beech Gardens in London which arguably provide a more vital green lung for humans and wildlife alike, situated as they are in densely populated locations. ‘Green Escapes: The Guide to Secret Urban Gardens’ is a guidebook focussed on helping city dwellers and visitors to find just such these green oases that can provide a much needed time out. This, I thought, was definitely the book for me!
At the risk of judging a book by its cover initial impressions are definitely favourable. Unlike many garden books which can be large ‘coffee table’ style affairs, ‘Green Escapes’ is more akin to a pocket travel guide – which I guess is what it is. Just the size to throw in your suitcase or have nestled in rucksack as you go off on an adventure. The hardback cover has a matt grey background and a really funky abstract design which is replicated throughout in representations of the geographical regions into which the book is organised. It feels like a cool little design book which I like the style of very much. Inside are short profiles of more than 280 gardens in over 160 cities world wide. The gardens are arranged first by continent and then by country with a picture or two for each and a summary paragraph describing its location, history and key features. It’s quite a body of work to bring together such a collection.
In the absence of any imminent travel plans my first port of call was to look at which gardens are featured for the UK. I was surprised and quite delighted to find that number 4 on the list is in fact Chester Cathedral Cloisters here in my home city! Although I quite often sit in the gardens which surround the Cathedral during the summer, I have to admit I rarely venture into the tranquil enclosed garden at its centre. It is such hidden gems that this book is all about highlighting, and if I do nothing else I hope I will enjoy the one right in my midst a little more in future.
Although I have been to 13 of the 16 cities included for the UK and Ireland at one time or another, I don’t think I have been to any of the featured gardens apart from that in Chester and the Barbican Beech Gardens. Looking more globally I’d estimate that I have visited around a quarter of the cities featured in the book but again there are few gardens that I recall attending. I did manage to fit in a very pleasant wander around the Yu Yuan garden in Shanghai whilst fending off jet-lag on a work trip. I have also been to the Bahia Palace whilst on a long yearned for trip to Marrakech but judging by my photos I was a little more fixated on the Islamic design of the buildings than I was on the plants! Unexpectedly, Alcatraz Island is also featured but whilst I have had the pleasure it was on a night visit for maximum eeriness and so the gardens somewhat passed me by.
Beyond these isolated examples though an initial browse through Green Escapes suggests that it includes many gardens which have thus far been off my radar. In focussing on smaller more discreet destinations, rather than the grander gardens that are perhaps more regularly featured in travel guides, it certainly seems to meet its brief of highlighting ‘secret urban gardens’. Since the arrival of our son in Autumn 2017, our opportunities for travel are currently a little more limited than was once the case. So I guess there is a risk that this book may find itself gathering dust amongst the Lonely Planets but I hope it will be one I will refer to whenever we do get the chance to visit or revisit a featured city. More than anything I am glad that the role of gardens in providing pockets of peaceful green space within urban areas has been highlighted so well by this wide-ranging guide.