Saturday, 11 November 2017

Lost Gardens - Catherine Butler

A Pleasure Dome (not necessarily Kubla Khan's)

What does a pleasure dome look like, once it’s been decreed? In “Kubla Khan”, Coleridge suggests that caves of ice may be a prominent feature, which sounds more impressive than comfortable; but he’s on more conventional ground in describing “gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree” and “forests ancient as the hills, / Enfolding sunny spots of greenery”. Surely, nothing is more pleasing than to wander woods or parkland as a long summer’s day gives reluctant way to night, and to see its canopy jewelled with coloured lanterns. Just a grove or so away, friends laugh and dance to a hurdy-gurdy. It doesn’t happen often enough.

Vauxhaull Gardens in its Prime
Perhaps it used to happen more, though. I first heard of Vauxhall Gardens when I read Vanity Fair as a student (until then, Vauxhall was just a type of car). The idea of a garden that you could wander round elegantly, listening to music and happening upon charms and splendours at every turn, was enchanting. For Thackeray it was nostalgic, too. He was writing in the 1840s, at which time Vauxhall – after more than a century of such splendours – had recently gone bankrupt. It was briefly revived at the time of the novel’s writing, but this turned out to be no more than a post-mortem spasm, and it would close again, this time for ever, within the decade.

Vauxhall wasn’t alone. Robert, the younger boy in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, at one point compares the city of Tyre (which he and his siblings have visited by magic) to Rosherville, on the grounds that “it’s the place to spend a happy day”. By 1906 Kipling had already made Tyre the epitome of a city whose glories were past (“Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”), and perhaps Nesbit had that melancholy association in mind in evoking Rosherville Gardens.

But what or where is Rosherville? Ah, you make me sad by asking that question. It was another pleasure garden, in some ways the successor to Vauxhall, and Robert’s remark echoes its slogan. I will quote (via Wikipedia) Robert Hiscock’s A History of Gravesend (1976) on Rosherville’s attractions:

Rosherville Gardens
They were a place of surpassing beauty and a favourite resort of Londoners. Adorned with small Greek temples and statuary set in the cliffs, there were terraces, and archery lawn, Bijou theatre, and Baronial Hall for refreshments, and at one time a lake. At night the gardens were illuminated with thousands of coloured lights and there were fireworks displays and dancing.

Rosherville was hugely popular in the third quarter of the late nineteenth century, but then went into steady decline, and closed in 1901. As with Vauxhall, it enjoyed a short revival during the time Nesbit was writing her book, and closed for the last time a few years later, in 1911.

Then there’s Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea (1965). Battersea Castle in that book is the location for the annual gift of mince-pies to King James III by the Duke of Battersea, during which trumpeters play the Battersea Fanfare. But this simple ceremony too disguises a reference to a lost pleasure garden. Lost to us, if not to Aiken’s original readers.
Battersea Funfair

You see, Aiken’s Battersea Castle is situated just south of the Thames, next to Chelsea Bridge, the position occupied (in our own world) by Battersea Park. In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, a funfair was created in the park, which was hugely popular with Londoners throughout the fifties and sixties. When Aiken wrote her book, I think that many readers would have picked up on the Battersea Fanfare as a punning reference to Battersea Funfair.

Sadly, there was a fatal accident involving the funfair’s Big Dipper in 1972, and it closed a couple of years later. Since then, the existence of the place has slowly faded from the public mind, and it’s now gone the way of Rosherville and Vauxhall, Tyre and Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome. The best pleasure gardens are always in the past.

Gardens are in any case places of ephemerality. Seasons change, fruit grows and rots, buds blossom and blow – and gardens themselves have a natural course.

Great enimy to it, and to all the rest,
  That in the Gardin of Adonis springs,
  Is wicked Tyme, who, with his scyth addrest,
  Does mow the flowring herbes and goodly things,
  And all their glory to the ground downe flings.
  Where they do wither and are fowly mard:
  He flyes about, and with his flaggy winges
Beates downe both leaves and buds without regard.

Melancholy words there from Spenser, but let me bring it back to children’s literature by recommending the party at the end of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll (1948). Jansson loved parties, and this woodland one is just the kind I’d love to attend.

So, if you’re thinking of holding a party like that any time soon, an invitation would be much appreciated.


Katherine Langrish said...

Gorgeous post, and I too would love to attend that Moominvalley party, with all its delicious scents (you can smell them, can't you?) and fireflies and music.

Debbie G said...

Was it the Vauxhall garden that Leon Garfield wrote about? And don't forget the lovely garden park the Hemulen makes in Tove Jansson's story "The Hemulen Who Loved Silence."

Catherine Butler said...

My ignorance of Leon Garfield is one of my many weak spots, but I'd be surprised if he didn't have that same garden in mind.