In any normal spring I’d now be planning some visits to new gardens. But as the Covid-19 crisis tethers us to a short radius of our homes, I’ve been re-examining outdoor spaces closer by.
Actually, this is no hardship, as in April Haggerston Park’s veteran wisterias provide a show of scented purple flowers as spectacular as any to be seen in much grander gardens. Judging by the size of their trunks, it’s likely these climbers were planted in 1956, when the park was developed by the London County Council – which means they are now in their mid-sixties.
The University of Oxford records that the first wisteria plants were introduced to the UK in 1816 from China. While early cuttings changed hands for six guineas, by the mid 1830s wisteria plants could be purchased for less than two shillings, an indication of their immediate popularity with gardeners.
On the north side of the park, bounded by Whiston Road, there’s a long pergola walk and three of the wisterias are located here – their immense stems curling up slim brick columns. As the winding growth of these plants joins together and spreads out above these columns, at this time of year the flowers cascade down along the entire length of the structure.
On the west side of the pergola is a spiral staircase – a wonderful architectural detail echoing the shapes of the wisteria trunks – leading upwards to a viewing platform. It’s here that visitors can study the flowers close up and appreciate their intense perfume – somewhere between lilac and hyacinth – or even sweet pea, as the wisteria is in fact a member of the legume family.
Haggerston Park is situated on land previously occupied by a gas works, and according to Hackney Council’s history of the park, the gas produced there for street and indoor lighting was ‘of offensive smell, unnatural brilliance and unfailing propensity to cause headaches.’ The gas works suffered bomb damage in World War Two and when the decision was made to develop the site into a park in the 1950s, some of its impressively high 19th century brick walls were retained as part of the design.
One of these immense walls bisects the park, dividing the grassed areas to the north from the football pitch, wildlife areas and Hackney City Farm, all developed in the 1980s. It is here that a fourth veteran wisteria is found. Left untrained, it now spills over the top of the wall and covers the substantial roofs of the adjacent toilet blocks.
The source of the plant is not immediately apparent, but can be found at the base of the wall in a shady corner – another enormous trunk shooting upwards towards the light supporting a massive tangle of stems branching upwards and outwards in all directions. An arched opening in the wall – possibly once a tall window in the gas works – is still just visible through the vegetation.
These park walls are large enough to accommodate such a specimen, but show just how vigorous wisteria plants are and how large they can get without regular pruning – if this was a residential street, a row of terraced houses would now be submerged in such a profusion of growth.
In the hopeful spirit of the 1950s Haggerston Park was conceived to improve the quality of life for Londoners – which it has done admirably since – and now makes an incalculable difference for local people who might otherwise have no outside space in which to take their daily exercise. Let’s hope that Hackney’s green spaces can continue to remain open to visitors throughout the Covid-19 crisis.