The Octavia Hill Centenary Hill is not so much a garden, but a walk involving three hills – Toys Hill, Ide Hill and the woman who connects the two – Octavia Hill.
She was a social reformer and nature lover who left her house to the organization she founded – The National Trust, who still continue to look after much of the land these walks covers in the heart of Kent. They are well laid out with signs and even leaflets, but still offer surprises.
At Toys Hill, you can sit on this bench here, next to the well, and change the world over a cup of coffee.
There’s a real feeling of community here – we found an oak planted by both the oldest and youngest member of the village in 1990.
And then when we walked over to Ide Hill, this simple memorial to those who died in WW1 made me want to cry.
The pub wasn’t as bad as advertised either.
But most of all the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail centres around views. Every time you come out of a thicket of wood you are left breathless, not just with the climb, but with just how far you can see into the distance – “Pure earth, clean air and blue sky”. This is what Octavia Hill thought was the right of every man and woman, and is certainly in abundance here.
And no wonder the farmer this bench remembers loves the view.
Just look at it!
Perhaps it was views like this that gave her the farsightedness to work tirelessly to bring about reform in London’s social housing. Because she believed so strongly that fresh air was important to quality of life, she created an inner city garden, now known as The Red Cross Garden. Linked to a social housing estate, it is still a place for people to sit in to counter some of the problems caused by the smog and industrial fumes of the time. At the same time, she built the small row of cottages and a ‘village hall’ for activities such as dancing, crafts and skills. It still exists and is a thriving community centre. In fact, it is hard to imagine when you sit there that this is in the middle of London. Only the street names around, Little Dorrit Street, help more to picture what it must have been like in Hill (and Charles Dickens’s) time.
So it is important to come here and see where it all began. As Octavia Hill must have felt, fresh air is definitely worth fighting for. And as I’ve just read today in Psychologies Magazine that we are spending on average 77 hours a week in front of a screen and only six hours outside walking, if you are anywhere near Kent this weekend, I suggest a walk here not least to see the last of the autumn colours.
This is the poem I wrote in the Red Cross Garden. I’m posting it again because I took with me to the top of Ide Hill to read where Octavia Hill must have walked.
The Outside Sitting Room
After a winter we thought would never end
and a spring that had barely begun,
we come shyly – one by one -
into the park. A father lies down immediately,
his daughter giggling as she tiptoes away,
the homesick student listens to music
from her childhood, eyes shut,
head raised to catch these slivers
of sun she’s learning to call summer,
a jogger comes and goes, and a family
takes over the far corner, prams, and aunts,
and picnics, and complicated games
only one boy will ever understand
while I sit, and by the act of recording them all
shut the door on myself.
Put down the pen,
shut the journal,
walk with bare feet on warm grass.
Find out more about the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail here.