Dane John Gardens, Canterbury

I haven’t just looked at garden-gardens on this tour and one of my intentions has always been to explore how public gardens can become private parts of the people who visit them. An extra space, if you like, so the parks in Canterbury were always going to be high on my list, particularly one with such a long history as Dane John Gardens in Canterbury.

I knew that the park had been used as a public space since at least the twelth century, although at that time it perhaps wasn’t as pleasant a space as now – plague victims were left out in tents to die and so they didn’t infect the rest of the town. Probably right where people lie out on the grass now!

My first thought as a creative project for Dane John was to listen in on other people’s conversations, so I climbed the mound…

… and sat tucked away on one of the little seats there…

Sure enough, people soon forgot about me there, and I jotted down random snippets of conversation:

Overheard in John Dane Gardens

Don’t go too near,
missy. I remember.
I’m not saying it was
a bargain. That fountain
splashes. I never would.
After 30 years, you’d think.
You’re fitter than me.
Although the buildings
are in disrepair. It’s my
fault. Can you hear me?
I haven’t had time to stop.
And do we have time?
Time for tea, I think.

But to be honest, this didn’t satisfy my need to give an idea of the history of the park. So I trawled through newspaper archives to find out what happened in the park over history. Amazing!

The visit by 500 French Professors of Gymnastics:

(I couldn’t find photographs but I did find this amazing Pathe News video to give some idea)

And then there was the daring escapade by a balloonist, who cut off his basket and hung instead to the balloon as he floated over the park!

Or perhaps I should pick one of the promenades that took place most nights by fashionable society to listen to the music at the bandstand:

Ah, but what about the air raid shelters, used for storage and then for people as Canterbury was badly bombarded during the Baedecker raids, and after the worst night of which, the Archbishop of Canterbury was found wandering the streets in his pyjamas as he rushed out of bed to survey the damage:

However, perhaps it was the plant perfect appearance of the park and the reminder every where of how much hard work goes in to maintain a garden like this:

that made me pick this poignant story. A thirteen year old boy caught for picking two roses every Sunday, and most probably sentenced – because he might not have had the money to pay the fine – to seven days hard labour.

Here is my version of the story…

This is Henry Court and I’m one of the gardeners at Dane John Gardens. The date is July 13th 1861:

I turned a blind eye the first time I caught him stealing the roses. Thought it was probably a gift for some poor mother, and was even pleased he was a good boy.

But then I saw him the second Sunday, that hat of his tipped to one side, his thumbs tucked into his waistcoat pockets, swaggering as if he hadn’t a care in the world. I’ve tended those roses like they were princesses, you see. Maybe better, and there he was, laughing at me.

I shouted, ran after him, but he was too quick. He even waved as he headed off down Castle Row. I was ready for him the third Sunday, but then Mr Taylor, the park supervisor, promenaded by with his wife and I couldn’t be seen running.

Two roses every Sunday. It wasn’t until the fifth Sunday I finally caught up with him. He was with a friend, one as cheeky as him. They even greeted me, a rose each in their hands. ‘That’s private property,’ I told him. ‘You’ll be done for that.’ He stopped laughing then, made some comment about how we were plant lovers, the three of us.

Luckily there was a policeman walking by, and I called out to him before I could be won over by that smile. He liked the smell, he told me as we waited for him to be taken away. Just sniffing them wasn’t enough, he had to dive his whole face in if he was to keep it with him all week. He showed me his hands, he was a twine spinner, he said. That accounted for the skin shredding on his palms. He’d wrapped one rose petal round his little finger. I guess the softness was a comfort.

I waited for him after the trial. You can come back to the gardens, I told him, but he shook his head as they took him away. Of course he wasn’t going to have the money for the fine, but seven days hard labour. I didn’t expect that. He’ll lose his job too. And all because he liked the smell of a rose. Call me tender-hearted but I took him one to the prison after the second day. I guess I knew they wouldn’t give it to Henry so I wasn’t surprised when the guard crushed it in his hand as I watched, like he was squashing the life out of a bird. And enjoying it. I tell myself a job is a job, and any thieving is bad so I shouldn’t blame myself, but I can’t look at the roses in the same way now. I hate their smell.

And here’s Victoria Field reading one of her own poems in the Dane John Gardens:

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