A place with meaning: Love and leafmould in London
“Some planting days are memorably bright, crisp and sunny, and others are damp and drizzly. But there is no retreating back to your flat when you see that 50 people have put their own plans aside and are waiting to start work!”
Meath Gardens is a jewel of a secret park set back from the Roman Road. It started as the Victoria Park Cemetery but after becoming a park in 1895, the space became so neglected that by the middle of the 20th century it even had a chemical plant built on it.
From 2005, though, new development started to ring the park, along the canal and the railway line. Joanna Milewska, a landscape architect with LDA Design (pictured second left), was attracted to live there because of the generous size of the park, and its beautiful mature trees. But she quickly decided that the space could work a whole lot harder, both for the community and for wildlife.
In 2015, Joanna rallied with a group of of residents to form the Friends of Meath Gardens. She helped them to draw up an ambitious landscape strategy to share with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Since then, local volunteers have been responsible for planting and maintaining hundreds of native hedging shrubs, native bulbs and native trees.
“It feels as though the Park’s time has finally come, but in ways we could never have imagined. Who would have thought that it would help to inspire an urban greening movement across east London? I can’t tell you how fantastic it feels to be part of that.”
One mammoth planting party led to over 70 trees being planted in a day, with Council officers lending a hand as well as Joanna’s friends from LDA. A chain of volunteers reaches out to the Regent’s Canal to water in young plants and then keep them alive during heatwaves.
The Gardens are being made colourful with thousands of spring bulbs and a wildflower meadow, and a fruit orchard is being created close to allotments. Volunteers have erected bird boxes and new signage, fashioned woodpiles for invertebrates and small mammals, and unearthed coins from WWII.
Their final task this winter was to spread 50 cubic meters of leafmould. “Some planting days are memorably bright, crisp and sunny, and others are damp and drizzly,” says Joanna, “But there is no retreating back to your flat when you see that 50 people have put their own plans for Saturday aside and are waiting to start work!”
Meath Gardens has become popular with families, primary schools and young groups. It is a place not just where nature comes alive for people, but a place of chance encounters and new friendships. Romance, even, between a couple of planting volunteers who met while taking a tea break on a log.
The Gardens have been recognised with a Green Flag Award, a Community Tree Planting Award and an award for community engagement. Now the Friends are being invited to help with initiatives including a new green corridor from Shoreditch which could spill out into local estates and heavily concreted areas such as local street markets.
Even Joanna is surprised just how quickly the park has visibly become a far richer haven for wildlife. The ambition now is to make the place a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation.
“It feels as though the park’s time has finally come, but in ways we could never have imagined. Who would have thought that it would help to inspire an urban greening movement across east London? I can’t tell you how fantastic it feels to be part of that.”
Joanna Milewska is a senior consultant at LDA Design.