The office workers who munch their lunch in the shade of St Giles Church have a contented look on their faces, like cows allowed to roam the green. They think that the little community garden they found just a stone’s throw away from Tottenham Court Road is an oasis of peace, where bees buzz peacefully and little birds chirp tuneful melodies.
Chris can only cackle at this. The gardener who looks after the Phoenix Community Garden – and who looks like a grizzled hipster – has no such romantic delusions.
“See those ducks that just flew off?” he says pointing accusingly at the fowl vanishing into the blue West End sky, “They are mean killers. They come here to our pond and assassinate our frogs. And because their beaks are so inefficient, it’s really messy. They create a bloodbath.”
Two lovers cuddle on the benches, inhaling the aroma of the blossoms, whispering sweet lies in each others’ ears. On another bench, a woman watches her children play. A few yards down, a solitary worker reads his novel in the sun. Suddenly, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street seem miles away. Animal massacres aside, this place is a delightful gem.
“These gardens were only supposed to be here for a short while”, Chris tells me, taking a break from his tending. “They were opened by local residents in 1984, and to this day the gardens have been run by volunteers. At first, we’ve only had a five year lease. Now we’re in our thirteenth year and Camden Council is about to give us another twenty.”
As I look around, it’s hard to believe that this once used to be a car park and before that, a bomb site. So what are the challenges of having such a delicate environment right in the beating heart of this monstrous city?
“We used to have loads of problems here”, Chris explains stroking his beard wistfully, as if to comfort himself.
“Being in the West End, we get everything that comes with it. This area, St Giles, was where the gin mills and rookeries used to be centuries ago. To this day, drug use and anti-social behaviour are a real problem – for example, I’ve often had to get rid of used condoms. But it’s much better now, especially since we’ve had a new, higher railing – that’s changed things overnight.
I ask my new friend, what about nature and shit?
“This is a garden for wildlife”, Chris replies while tenderly caressing a bud. His eyes light up as he speaks about his favourite topic.
“We have a range of birds, from wrens to peregrine falcons. We also have a good population of frogs – these are the only frogs in the West End, by the way. Frogs are important, they indicate a healthy environment” (when they’re not being lacerated by murderous mallards, I think to myself).
“We also have twelve species of bee, butterflies and countless invertebrates.”
So, what’s up next, I ask?
“At the moment, we’re replacing the old building with a larger one. It’s a utility area, we also use it for community events. We’re also planning to become a registered wedding venue.”
And do a lot of people come here?
“Oh yes”, says Chris, “the garden is really popular. The most visitors I ever counted was 560.”
In a day, I ask?
“No, just one lunch time. People stomped all over the place – it was carnage. I just locked myself in the shed, drank tea and didn’t come out again.”
Chris does such a good job, he should be happy, not sad. So if you are planning a visit to the Phoenix Community Gardens, remember to keep off the grass.
PS: The Phoenix Garden can always use donations to keep open, fellas and ladettes!