Searching for silence in The Phoenix Garden

I’ve found a new favourite spot to read and think.

Beautiful, eh? A haven of peace, probably miles away from anywhere noisy or busy? Well, no. The Phoenix Garden is a minute off London’s Charing Cross Road and just two minutes away from Tottenham Court Road. Best of all, it’s right opposite Foyle’s Bookshop, so a perfect place to take a newly discovered book too, and just read. Even the benches feel like poetry.

If you look closely, you can see the buildings surrounding it on all sides. But they feel more like walls than intrusions.

 

But despite the numbers of other people here, it still felt as if I got a corner all to myself. Perhaps that’s because of the number of people reading, writing and even meditating – a full crossed legged closed eyes pose that I didn’t want to spoil by taking a picture of. Shh… you can picture it though, can’t you?

And like so often happens, I found myself reading the perfect paragraph. I’d shut my book – Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal – to see if I could really hear birds this close to central London. Yes, I could. When I went back to my book, I found this description – how grown men remembered their childhoods when they heard the birds sing. I loved how I got the shadow of the trees over the page too.

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If you’re in London this weekend, you can even go to their 8th Agricultural Show, with a WI cake stand, London Pride Morris dancers, beekeepers and a brass band. Maybe it won’t be quite so peaceful. IMG_6855

The Phoenix Garden is Covent Garden’s last remaining community garden. It was created and is still maintained by volunteers. It’s an extraordinary project. f you want to donate to help keep it up, you can find out more or become a friend for only £12 a year here.

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Fancy a London garden mooch?

There are some beautiful, interesting, inspiring, almost secret gardens in London. I did a virtual tour of them a couple of years ago for the Chelsea Fringe, and although some may be out of date now,  you can find the full list here

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Five I would particularly recommend, and which are a little bit different, though are:

Hidden in central London, a garden for peace and reconciliation

Although I was looking out for the St Ethelburga’s Garden for Peace and Reconcialition, even so, walking down busy Bishopsgate, I missed this tiny passageway to the garden first time round… Doesn’t look very promising, does it?!

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But luckily I retraced my steps, and entered into a beautiful little corner that let me time travel

… or mind travel, anyway!

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It was so quiet that I could even hear the birds singing, so I kept having to look up to see where I was. These noisy neighbours quickly reminded me!

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The garden belongs to one of the oldest medieval churches in London. St Ethelburga’s Church managed to survive both the Great Fire of London AND the Blitz. However, it was destroyed almost completely by an IRA bomb in Bishopsgate in 1993. For some time it was thought to be beyond repair, but then a charitable trust was formed, and it was decided to rebuild the church as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Amongst its roles, is research into how faith communities can work in the resolution of conflict. That it looks outwards to all parts of the world is reflected in the peace garden.

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IMG_9472IMG_9464The garden was first designed by Sylvia Crawford, and recently redesigned by Jeremy Rye. Amongst its gems is the St Ethelburga’s Rose, specially created by Peter Beales Roses. In the centre is a large Bedouin tent (made from woven goats hair, several herds-worth I imagine) in which meetings and seminars on conflict, peace and reconciliation are held. And also visitors are invited to come in and enjoy the peace. And if it feels particularly peaceful, that’s because it has been carefully designed to be so. As the booklet says:

The Tent was designed by Professor Keith Critchlow, an expert in “sacred geometry”, who was charged to create a safe and dignified space without using the symbols of any specific religion.  He has used the universal languages of geometry, algebra, astronomy and harmony to create a perfectly proportioned space in a tranquil peace garden with a Lebanese fountain and an olive tree.  The windows carry the word peace in 7 languages.

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But it was too tempting to sit outside, admire the points of interest and just wish I could be there at night when the lanterns were lit. Sir Thomas Wyatt seems to have been following me around recently (although luckily only in print) and may even have visited the church at any point – it had been standing for perhaps a hundred years by the time he was born –  so it seems appropriate to put up one of his poems as a celebration for this lovely garden. Maybe the poem is more about the difficulties of peace, but conflict and the need for reconciliation is actually at the heart of this garden. It feels like an oasis, but one that understands completely why it is needed rather than forgetting the outside world.

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I Find no Peace

I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not—yet can I scape no wise—
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
And hard really to leave. Particularly to hit the rush of the crowds outside rushing backwards and forwards – and not expecting to be joined by a peaceful writer coming in to them at such a different angle. I was pleased that some of them looked up to where I was coming from, as if I had appeared from Narnia’s wardrobe. Which in some ways I had!
More information about the garden can be found here, and there’s a particularly beautiful poem about poetry and peace by Denise Levertov here.

 

 

 

If you have a garden and a library,

… you have everything you need. So said Cicero, and so, it seems, the Carnegie Library in London…

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I visited this library on Wednesday to sit on a session of the adult literacy group, the Ruskin Readers. But first, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at the ‘Reading Garden’. Admittedly it wasn’t the perfect day to take a book out to read, but I could just imagine doing so in the sunshine. Perfect! Lots of different places dotted round to sit and dream over the words.

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For all these reasons and more, the Carnegie Library is the perfect place for the Ruskin Readers to meet. This is a wonderful group where volunteers work on a one-to-one basis to help adults with reading and writing difficulties learn to read. It’s something I’m passionate about – particularly after hearing so many stories of the shame adults can feel when they can’t read or write, sometimes through no fault of their own. Caroline, who runs Ruskin Readers, said that their ‘readers’ may be dyslexic, left school to be carers or wage-earners, just not had the particular support they needed, or moved to this country and didn’t have the opportunity to learn until now. One reader I spoke to had come from Iran after many years in the merchant navy and he wasn’t the only person I spoke to who said the sessions with Ruskin Readers had changed his life.

And it wasn’t surprising. Just imagine how much we take for granted. All these wonderful opportunities as you enter the library, for instance.

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Not to mention the many possible worlds you can step into once you go inside…

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Five Woodland Walks

1.

Every Sunday afternoon the family goes to the woods. ‘But doesn’t Mum want to come?’ It seems not. Besides she’d spoil the fun by getting nervous as you balance like an underage drunk, a tightrope walker tottering along fallen tree trunks to collect that coin Dad puts out to tempt you on to the end. The higher the drop the tree rests over, the bigger, the better, the coin. Often you fall, but more usually you fear the falling and jump first. Decades later, you wonder if this is the lesson your father wanted you to learn. That all you have to do to win is to keep your nerves steady. Because even if you nearly reach the end, even if you fall and hurt yourself, even if you’re pushed off by your brother, he won’t relent. He just smiles as he puts the treasure back in his pocket. And you walk on to the next tree. Because there always was another fallen tree. Just as there always was another Sunday.

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2.

Seventeen, and the boy you’re not yet allowed to call your boyfriend takes you to the woods as it gets dark. You pretend to be spooked by the birds so you can take the hand he gives up to you when no one else can see. He even smiles as you trace the spider’s web with your finger on his palm, and then up his arm. His beautiful arm you have a sudden frightening desire to bite until he starts to tell you a story about a couple whose car broke down in the woods. The boy went to find help and the girl dozed until she heard a banging on the roof and then when she opened her eyes, she found herself looking at the upside down eyes of her boyfriend on the other side of the car window. But it was hard to see because the window was smeared with what. Blood. And then she saw another head looking in at her. But this was attached to a body. And that body was trying to get in the car now. And no one knew she was there. No one was going to come to help. You’ve heard this story before. Who hasn’t. But never in the woods. Never at night told by a boy who won’t call himself your boyfriend yet. And who knows you are there? No one. You open your mouth to scream but then he kisses you. Takes your fingertips that have only seconds ago been etching out an imaginary trail of blood on the window and he sucks them gently. And suddenly you’d open any door then and there just so long as he keeps holding out his hand to you. This boy, who you’ll call husband before too long.

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3.

You’re in Africa, on an island that was once the holiday paradise of Zanzibar spice dealers. A paradise where they kept their slaves. And once you know this, it’s hard to stop noticing the particular facial charactistics of everyone you meet. That narrowness of forehead. That hook of a nose. And then once you hear a certain story, it’s hard to stop looking up at the tall trees that fringe the beach. It seems the young wife of a slave owner wanted to know if a monkey would fall from a tree in the same way as a coconut does. And because she asked and asked, the husband sent a slave up to the top of the tallest tree and then shot him dead, just so the wife would stop asking. But history doesn’t record whether the man – I presume the slave was a man – curled up like a ball or fell arms and legs outstretched taking up more space than he had ever been allowed alive. History doesn’t record whether anyone cared. Whether the wife was ashamed. Whether she stopped asking questions. Or whether she was even watching. Because it’s such a paradise, this island with all the tall trees that fringe the beach.

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4.

A perfect Christmas, and now you’re watching your son and daughter run through the woods in front of you, their new woolen hats like bobbing festive baubles amongst the trees. You breathe in and smell the tang of pine, the crack of a twig under your boots, the frosting of cold air on your cheeks, and your fingers brushing over the chocolate coins you’ve kept hidden in your pocket for a surprise later. And all is good until you see the children stop dead. Your heart flutters – a dead body, an accident – until you see it. One small tree deep in the wood, festooned with coloured ribbons and handwritten wishes. And suddenly it’s enough. Your children might not believe in Father Christmas any more, you’ll soon have to bribe them to play cards with Granny, diets will kick in and moods explode, but you – and they – will always have this. Their faces turning to you, that look of wonder, a gift given with no expectation, a light in the woods.

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5.

It’s a dream you often have. Of walking through a wood and picking sleep straight from a tree. Sleep is green, slightly underripe, and its skin has a bloom that clears like mist from a window as your thumb rubs backwards and forwards over the surface. When you cup it in one hand it gives slightly under the squeeze of your fingers. Sometimes you have to pull a branch down to reach the sweetest deepest longest fruit. Sometimes it will be protected by thorns but always, when you put it close up to your face, you’ll smell your grandmother’s room – the musty softness of crocheted cushions, endless cups of tea, pie crust and that special potion she’d make herself to keep her brass ornaments shining. And just as you never questioned her how she kept going, so you never question how sleep keeps making itself itself so freely, so abundantly, available. You just keep picking it. As if it will always be there for you.

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Crossbones Garden of Remembrance, London

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I was taking a short cut to Borough Market when I came across these gates above in Redcross Way. I’d thought they might be an art installation at first, but then read some of the inscriptions, and knew I wanted to research further.

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The Crossbones Cemetery was originally an unconsecrated burial site for prostitutes (aka ‘single women’) and then later paupers from late medieval times until its closure in the nineteenth century.

In his 1598 Survey of London, the historian John Stow writes: “I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single WOman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”

It could have stayed forgotten – just as many of the women buried there – had, but evacuations by the Museum of London prior to work on the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s uncovered 148 skeletons, an estimate of less than 1% of the bodies buried there. Then, under the guidance of the poet, author and urban shaman, John Constable, a group was formed to protect the Graveyard from development and also to establish a memorial garden for who the gates declare as: ‘RIP THE OUTCAST DEAD’.

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It’s a very moving place, not least because the spot still feels derelict apart from the visible touches of care.

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As another sign says, it is ‘a place of healing where the wild feminine is honoured and celebrated for all that she is – whore and virgin, mother and lover, maiden and crone, creator and destroyer.’

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And this, I think, it’s the secret of power for me. It’s not a place where you can visit and feel ‘poor women’, although that’s obviously a part of it. It’s also, perhaps strangely given the circumstances, a place of hope – that things might be different, that everybody – whatever their gender or profession – is worth something, and also that every man or woman has the right to be treated the same.

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I really hope that the Friends of Crossbones Graveyard manage to create their garden of remembrance and that this hidden London spot is protected and given the respect it deserves, but in the meantime, here’s a poem I wrote inspired by the ‘Geese’ of Southwark (the women were apparently called ‘geese’ because of the white aprons they wore, or their white breasts bared to river visitors). There are also two videos I’ve found – one of a piece by John Constable (or Crow) and the other from a TV documentary which reconstructed one of a ‘young woman’s syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions’ found at the graveyard.

GOOSE

Catherine, Lisa, Louise, Angela,
Gabriella, Susan, Constance, Faith

It starts with the tapping of a toe,
a rush of blood, hips that swing

Anne, Jane, Mariella, Clare,
Lucy, Lucinda, Karen, May

one sassy look too far,
a dish upturned, locked door,

Sarah, Annabel, Estelle, Kay,
Alison, Christine, Jeanetta, June,

who always preferred the open road,
didn’t she? Liberty, morality,

Caroline, Sandra, Sally, Sue,
Maria, Moira, Elizabeth, Lou,

equality, justice. Two sets of law
making the same set of bones,

Geraldine, Jess, Samantha, Rose,
light, generosity, kindness, hope.

**

Here’s a clip from the BBC documentary, Cold Case, about one of the girls:

And here’s John Constable (aka Crow) performing at Halloween, 2008: