Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Saturday, December 1, 2018


I went for a walk in Letchworth Garden City – I had my reasons.  When you get off the train there’s a sign in the station reminding you, if you need reminding, that you’re in the world’s first garden city, though I’d have thought Babylon with its hanging gardens might have been in with a shout.

And if you walk down to the southeastern end of things there’s another signpost hammering home the message. This is the front: 

And this is the back: 

That’s a low relief image of Ebenezer Howard (and not a great likeness, if you ask me), the founder of Letchworth Garden City, and of the garden cities movement in general. 

Now, Howard’s notion of a “garden city” was not as we might imagine it today.  Like so many other people before and since he was worried about urbanization, about people leaving the land and moving to big cities, especially in this case London. 

So he conceived of a much smaller city, adjacent to fields, where people would work the land and then go back to their pleasant, nearby, arts and crafts style homes; which of course did have gardens.

It’s not clear to me how many, if any, agricultural labourers actually moved into Letchworth; the received wisdom was that it was far more a haven for socialists, vegetarians, nudists, teetotalers; New Agers before the term was current.  I’m not sure how many of those are now in Letchworth either.

This picture above taken in 1912 suggests it wasn’t entirely a rural idyll – and those front gardens look extremely perfunctory.  The picture below looks far more as though the inhabitants might, at least, be trying to feed themselves from their own gardens.

 I set myself the task of walking around Letchworth looking at gardens.  I was, for sure, in search of individuality, eccentricity and, OK, a certain kitschness, but all of that was surprisingly hard to find. And yes it was end of November, when few English gardens look their best, even so I really had to search hard to find much of anything out of the ordinary.  But I didn’t fail completely

There were some curious plantings:

Some curious topiary, if that’s the right word in this case:

A decaying chair in the shape of a hand:

And yes, one garden that looked like the householder might be aiming for self-sufficiency:

But the majority were tidy and unexciting – nobody seemed to be expressing themselves through their gardens.  And I wondered if this was a class thing.  Perhaps the upper and lower classes do indeed express themselves through their gardens, either on a large scale or a small,  but the middle classes just keep them neat and tidy, and above all they keep them to themselves.  They don’t want passersby (like me) to know their tastes and their business.  And of course, I was mostly looking at front gardens. It was possible perhaps that there were untold follies and grottos, and for all know hanging gardens, in the back , but somehow I doubted it.

Naturally enough there are public gardens in Letchworth.  There are the Broadway Gardens, a name they got at the time of the Letchworth centenary. For while before that were the John F Kennedy Gardens – a fact memorialized by this block of (I think) granite:

There are also Howard Park and Gardens – which contain an adventure playground, water features, a bowling green and statue of Sappho – not every public garden has one of those.  And for a good while Howard Park and Gardens didn’t have one either.

The statue was presented to the city in 1907 and moved around, ending up in 1939 in the Ball Memorial Gardens. But the statue was stolen in 1998, so what’s there now is a replica, and its been moved round the back of the International Gardens Cities Exhibition, away from prying and criminal eyes.  

Clearly Letchworth contains elements that would have appalled Ebenezer Howard, and I can’t even imagine how he’d feel about some of the businesses on the main drag such as No Morals Tattoos. 

I guess this is known as reaction.

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