on Mint Street

something I wrote last year, another beginning to the whole story of our work in Putting Down Roots, St Mungo’s gardening project.  here it is because I can’t wait for ever

Something I wrote last year (2015) as I ploughed over old ground.

Mint street – woke up just now remembering conflict and the objects that were the focus for them. Remember the concrete sculptures/seats which that nice young man cast and polished (to bring out the pattern of the aggregate) with the help of some of the residents at GGS? Was it because some of them felt a sense of ownership that those objects, cast in big plastic plant pots and dustbins, became the place where drinkers regularly hung out? And not in an out of the way, on the edges corner of the park, but central, in the middle of the large area of grass behind the terraces (a map is needed), on a rise so almost commanding the whole of the park.

I can’t remember the process – I know we weren’t involved or consulted – whereby it was decided to solve the problem by getting rid of the sculptures, and I don’t know what happened to them. Were they simply dumped? Peter from BOST didn’t know. It was largely on his initiative that they were taken away. And I’m fairly sure the artist wasn’t consulted. No doubt he’d moved on to other projects, other places, I can’t even remember his name. (Move on! Don’t look back!)

The bold move worked, I have to admit. It undid that conspicuous presence. But how the destruction of their habitat actually affected their habits would be hard to estimate because so many other factors are involved. Groups of drinkers may seem to be themselves a semi-permanent installation but they steadily change. Death, imprisonment, hospitalisation, quarrels within the group, a new flat miles away, efforts by hostel staff to discourage anti-social gatherings, fear of bullying – there were a few occasions when drinkers were attacked by local teenagers – a sudden preference for hanging about on the hostel steps –

There’s a new gathering now, on and around the ‘stage’. Some of them live at the re-opened hostel in Great Guildford Street but most don’t, although this new social focus has opened since the hostel did. There were always rough sleepers and street drinkers hanging out there but not so consistently.

The other day I found various sticks and poles – up to six feet long – hidden in or thrown into the shrubs: dogs’ toys.

The planting spaces around the sides of the stage trashed, but they never worked.

The area to the side of the stage, up to about ten square metres, gradually flattened and laid bare. I’m not sure what goes on there.

A regular path opened up into the neglected garden behind the rock garden where people go to pee.

Some have a sense of responsibility. Two drinkers have reassured me that they always put their cans in the bins and pick up other people’s.

From my point of view the stage was always annoying. It took a chunk out of our beds and was rarely used for the purposes for which it was intended, for shows and performances. The other day Joe managed to open the little hatch set into the stage but found that the electrics underneath had never been connected. Having been taken over by drinkers, should it now be got rid of like the cast concrete sculptures were?

There are and were many points of view and clearly as an interested party I am not well placed to write.

  • BOST, and within it various conflicts and contradictions.
  • Southwark Council and their contractors (ditto)
  • Putting Down Roots (ditto again)
  • local residents
  • other park users, including drinkers

My gardening story – lots of freedom , but ultimately no power, (though maybe I could have been more forceful in meetings and consultations.)

Often I could do what I liked, if only because no one would notice. Because the management of PDR (and of BOST?) became more distant from the everyday life and work of the gardens (Martin 1 still kept his boots, hopefully, under his desk – he tried to get out), the volunteers and I became more independent.

When work began two years ago to remove a section of the back wall, cracked by the big cherry tree, if I had been notified we could have safely taken out the plants that had recently been put in there. As it was, they were destroyed.

About six years ago we planted boxes and yews near the retaining wall which runs beside Marshalsea Road. The idea was that they would develop to echo and match the rounded boxes in our main beds, which give a semi-formal backbone to the otherwise informal garden. Apparently the contractors needed to reinforce the foundations of the retaining wall so the shrubs were taken out and replanted – though that’s not the right word – several feet further in from the wall. Again, if we’d been told, we could have moved them safely. But then I don’t suppose the contractors gave it a minute’s thought. Would they not have discussed it though, with representatives of the council? Of course I didn’t see how they did it, but I’ve never known builders to care for plants, I imagine they just ripped them out, breaking almost all the roots, and stuck them into a bit of a trench. They didn’t show any signs of having been watered. So they all died. Peter, who hadn’t known what was going on said, well, they’ll have to replace them. But replace what exactly? They had been small plants when we put them in, watered through several dry summers until established, trimmed regularly, weeded. Putting new plants in would only be the beginning of replacing them -who would water them, trim them and weed them?

One of the strengths of P D R was that there was usually someone who would go and search for another length of hose, or a hose connector, or who would go and buy one. Two or three times someone climbed over the fence into the adventure playground to turn the tap on if there was no one about. Someone would patiently disentangle and de-kink all the lengths of hosepipe we would need to carry the water right across the park.

And even if a replanting went well, by about 2020 we’d only have plants which looked like the old ones did in 2014. Yet somehow the idea persists that replacing plants is like replacing, say, a toaster. As it is, in spite of Peter’s assurances, none of the plants were replaced, and there might well be nobody who even realises that they were destroyed.

Things happened without me being consulted, but of course I also acted independently. St Mungo’s management, still less BOST or Southwark council, often didn’t know much about what we were up to.

I know the rat killing was indefensible, but I was worn down and worn out by Southwark’s intransigence. No doubt they felt the same way about me. Anyway, here’s my side of the story.

We made the wild life corner by the entrance to the park on Southwark Bridge Road, near the junction with Great Guildford Street. We planted hawthorns and a few wild roses and hollies, even a few oak seedlings. And we allowed brambles to spring up, which was probably a mistake, one of the mistakes. The idea was to make a tangle which would be impenetrable to people but not to birds, and it worked, birds began to nest there, but unfortunately you couldn’t get birds to do the pruning, and it did need pruning once a year. It needed pruning much more than once a year if you were the taxi driver who lived in that little cul de sac which ran along side it. He told me that his daughter was frightened to go out in case someone was hiding in the undergrowth. He used to cut back what he could reach, whenever he felt like it. This was a shame because the plan we were trying to implement involved allowing three or four hawthorns to grow out and flower and bear berries, whilst cutting the rest back hard in the winter, and then after two or three years pruning back the incipient trees before they got too big and allowing others to take their place. The blossom was beautiful and good for bees, and the berries were good for birds. At the front of the thicket was an area of herbaceous plants, including nettles. One year, a triumph! The nettles were full of caterpillars. A week later the council came along and strimmed them all to the ground and we never saw another caterpillar.

Where you have bio-diversity you have rodents. It’s hard for any community gardening organisation to admit to the presence of rats. Better to destroy compost heaps and hedges, better to tear up the whole green manifesto than offer a home to a rat. (I’ve just had a quick look at the Southwark Bio-Diversity Action Plan Report, and it makes me wonder why, if they are doing such good work all over the borough, do they seem to work against bio-diversity in Mint Street?) I’ve heard it said that when the old children’s hospital was demolished a lot of open space was left underground, where there were cellars and basements, and that this has become a rat metropolis. Whatever the reasons, there certainly have always been a lot of rats at Mint Street. We were asked to cut back a strip all around the edge of the wildlife garden – between the perimeter wall and the plants – to allow access to the pest control officers. I didn’t see why they couldn’t put down poison without opening up the site, but was told they had to inspect the area for nests. So we did as we were asked, and no nests were found. Meanwhile, on the other side of the park we had constructed the notorious dead hedges/living fences. We got the idea from Kew. You put some poles or branches into the ground in two rows two or three feet apart, and between them you pile up twigs and prunings, and then you allow ivy, brambles, wild roses to grow through and over this fence, The purpose was: a) to keep rough sleepers out of the back of the park, b) to have a quick and easy way to dispose of prunings and c) to provide more habitat for wild life, birds, insects and, er, yes, probably rats as well. Oh, and a fourth reason, to make part of the park easy to look after, because we were struggling. And a fifth!: this was the sort of work which some of our volunteers really enjoyed, and it was a project which everybody understood. A year or two after we constructed it, I saw wrens flying in and out.

So when we were ordered to destroy it, I was reluctant. And when we were told that no measures would be taken to control the rat population unless we did destroy it, we decided to tackle the rats ourselves. Sometimes a skilled and motivated person would come along who was just right for a particular job. X was serious, sober, intelligent, and working with us helped him to recover from a crisis in which he had lost his home, his job and his partner. Soon afterwards he got a job in security at the Shard and a flat. We found some old pieces of drainpipe in the yard at Great Guildford Street and carefully placed the rat poison, which I’d bought at B and Q, in the middle of them, then placed them invisibly among shrubs or pushed them through the bottom of the dead/living hedge/fence. And very quickly the number of rat sightings fell away to almost zero.

But then of course the council decided that they would get rid of the hedge/fence themselves. And of course I realise that we had absolutely no right to do what we did. But for some reason they only removed it on one side. On the other side (the east side, or the left as you look towards the blue path) it survived, though it became very tatty once PDR had stopped working in the park, until last year when it was finally removed to allow reinforcements to the wall to take place. Then BOST took out all the remaining plants at the back of the park, on the east side, and it remains bare today, apart from some weeds.

When we made the first rock garden, at St George’s, I knew it would never be a one off job. The popular idea, encouraged by TV gardeners and the Chelsea flower show, is that the making of a garden is a short process. You do it, then it’s done. Is this idea partly determined by funding? You have a certain amount of money, to be spent by a certain date. There are no funds for ‘maintenance’, or for the continuing employment of gardeners. But luckily for PDR St Mungo’s provided funding for gardener/trainers to work in public open spaces like Waterloo Green, Emma Cons, St John’s, Mint Street and St George’s. But no longer, alas.

The gravestones.


Of course this part of the job was a one off. At first our brief was to dig over and turf the unsuccessful bed against the old prison wall in St George’s churchyard. Nic and Leigh, with some help from Mick worked heroically to lift the gravestones which we discovered deep in the ground, piled on top of each other, while digging for bindweed roots. They were determined, inspired even. The really heavy, whole stones were used as paving around the rock garden which was constructed using smaller, broken pieces. The idea for the rock garden only emerged as the stones themselves did.

I knew that the work on the rock garden wouldn’t finish when its construction did. Gardening is rarely ‘maintenance’, because a garden is not like a bicycle, which is manufactured and then needs regular cleaning and oiling.

So it became another regular job, which I would try to fit in with Mint Street, where we already had three separate areas to work on: the main garden on the south side, the woodland garden to the north east, and the little wild wildlife area. Sometimes I’d go over to St George’s with one or two keen volunteers after the rest had gone home. Some of them were up for silly things, like breaking pieces of york stone up with a club hammer to make a kind of scree for the surface of the rock garden. Interestingly, in the early 20th century – as late as that – people who spent the night in the old Great Guildford Street hostel would have to pay for their keep by breaking stones in the yard.

In any case, the rock garden was experimental; I didn’t know which plants would thrive and which would die. And now in decline after a great beginning it needs rethinking, replanting.

I always hoped that the project would expand. Many people praised it, so why not? I hoped that one day we would be properly funded for our work in public open spaces. After all, we were working in a part of London where wealth was expansive and ostentatious. And we provided an excellent service.

Trying to find things I’ve written about the virtues of pdr….

I know I’m saying things I’ve said before but it seems to me that what we do best, our product, which we should be marketing more vigorously, is:

Calling the ambulance, directing tourists to the Imperial War Museum, picking up needles with the minimum of fuss (the alternative seems to be an expensively armoured professional hit squad,) pulling soggy sleeping bags out of the bushes, not pruning the shrubs between February and September because we’re aware of the possibility of birds’ nests, chatting to the locals and so helping to create the feeling of a neighbourhood, making interesting and beautiful gardens of a kind rarely seen in heavily used and abused public open spaces with a bare minimum of capital expenditure, improving bio-diversity by choosing plants which produce nectar and seeds, finding a quiet corner in the church yard to bury someone’s beloved cat, blocking up rats’ dens with broken glass, putting street homeless people in touch with outreach workers and giving them cups of tea, stepping in to defuse fights and arguments, patiently collecting a thousand cigarette butts….. collecting hundreds and hundreds of rosemary beetles to save the rosemary bushes (extract from an old diary)

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