Walworth is fast. Bisected by the Walworth Road, it is a major thoroughfare punctuated at each end by looming towers. To the north in Elephant and Castle, the grey and white clad Strata tower overlooks the causeway pocked with cars and the cranes swinging ceaselessly over the foundations of new buildings where the Heygate Estate once stood. It’s a monolith to the area’s ‘regeneration’. To the south in Camberwell the William Booth Memorial College bears an illuminated purple cross and rises from Denmark Hill, reaching like an index finger into the air, a landmark on the way down to Kent.
The area itself is known for John Smith House, the Labour Party HQ until 1997; Sir John Soane’s church, St. Peter’s, with its sickly sweet Princess-torte nave ceiling; and East Street Market, which is said to have once lined the entirety of the Walworth Road. For much of the late 18th century, the market comprised part of the ‘Larder of London’. Stretching east from Hay’s Wharf at London Bridge to Bermondsey and south to Walworth, the larder supplied 80% of the city’s dry goods. Contained now within East Street, it’s known by locals simply as ‘the Lane’. By day it is busy. Costermongers still sell vegetables, but stalls also hawk bedding, pyjamas, plastic toys, and cleaning products. From the fishmongers, the tang of the sea rises. At night the detritus of the day peppers the street. It becomes a different world — plastic bags wrap around your feet like the limp bodies of jellyfish — and cars sound like waves in a storm. Set amid the market and the din of traffic, this is an unlikely place for a garden farm.
Pewter scaffolding props up the derelict building adjacent to the garden, its windows boarded up with plywood painted the colour of sea-thrift. Along the garden’s back edge there is an army reserve unit where there are parades during the week. Amongst all this, you would be forgiven for not noticing the rising fence shrouded in its thick green cloak of unfurled banana leaves and tree ferns. Behind it all is the Walworth Garden Farm.
I first came here in April of last year. I was trying to find something to do that might counteract the confusing, disembodying experience of losing a close family member. Even amongst those undergoing that selfsame loss, grief — that most universal of things — at least on a personal level, feels deeply private and individualising, like you are a boat unmoored or a helium balloon floating above a hospital. At the recommendation of a local beekeeper and friend, I took a weekend class at the gardens under the instruction of Tracy and I haven’t really left. In gardening, I saw a way back to terra firma, back to my own body, and back to others around me.
There is nothing new about tending to prolificacy in the face of hardship or death. The garden at Prospect Cottage designed and looked after by filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman was begun in the face of an AIDS diagnosis. In Charlie Hart’s Skymeadow, designing the garden he dug into the East Anglian hillside on which he lives gave him space to grieve the loss of his mother. And if you type ‘Grief Gardening’ — the phrase I have affixed to my new vocation — into google, there are pages of people who’ve found solace in the same way.
I found the frustrations of being a relative novice a good temper to the frustrations of grief. Patience is not a virtue I entertain and I am stubborn to a fault but working in step with the seasons attunes you to a different kind of time. Like working in a James Benning film, time at the gardens crawls, but fascinatingly. Some plants don’t fruit or flower for seven years, others for thirty. The Queen of the Andes, a strange, towering elongated pine-cone of a thing, flowers once every 80 years. That this olive tree I’ve bought will outgrow and outlive me is a total disgrace and a reminder. You adjust, too, to loss in the garden. For every successful dahlia there’s a tentacle of bindweed inching its way through the lavender bush.
So far I have learnt which seeds to sow at which time of year and how to care for them. I have learnt about the pleasingly alliterative ‘pricking out’ and ‘potting in’. I have learnt to tell the difference between the smallest spinach seedling and the self-sowing calendula. I have learnt that a weed is simply any plant out of place. I have learnt about the compost with which to fill the raised beds at home so as to resist the compact clay soil of the garden and I have learnt how to work with the clay rather than to fight it. Learnt the names of plants that grow in these imperfect conditions — Ribes sanguineum, Bergenia cordifolia, Helleborus thibetanus — learnt too, for myself, that it is possible to grow, even in the toughest of conditions.