Account of Walking Southwark’s Healthy Spaces

After a mostly miserable week of rain, it was with a great delight that I awoke to glorious sunshine on Saturday, eager to begin our second event – a walk around the green spaces of Southwark. Clearly others were inspired by the weather and the prospect of a good walk-n-talk, since about fifteen others arrived on time to make up an informed and enthused crowd. Replacing the gloomy clouds with the looming structure of the Shard, we started at Guy’s Hospital, where Clare explained how hospital gardens were used as both sites of recovery but also as gardens to grow medicinal herbs.

On the move

On the move

Over the next ninety minutes we took in fifteen different sites, along the way our guide giving us the poetry of Keats and the judgements of Charles Booth, as well as descriptions of workhouses so grim that you could almost smell the desperation. Aided with maps, we were told not just a story of the developments in health over the last few centuries, but also the changing nature of the urban environment; graveyards replaced with gardens, industry replaced by green and healthier spaces, and public housing erected for moral uplift. Particular highlights for me were the gravestone rockery in St. George’s Churchyard (one wall of which was part of the famous Marshalsea prison of Dicken’s novels), the attractive Victorian social housing of Octavia Hill in the Red Cross Garden, and the calming landscape gardening of Mint St. Park.

George Martyr

The gravestone rockery

After around ninety minutes of touring, we finished at an altogether different kind of garden. Formerly the site of the Cross Bones Cemetery, established originally as an unconsecrated graveyard for ‘single women’ (likely a euphemism for sex workers), it is now technically off-limits – the land owned by TFL. Yet, with a bit of luck and charm, we managed to get access to have a look. What we found was eerily alluring; partly dilapidated, the current caretaker had also installed a range of eccentric sculptures from the rubble of demolitions he had overseen in a former life. From the top end of the garden we could look out and see the city; it was one of the most emotive juxtapositions of London I have experienced, and a truly fantastic way to end what had been an altogether great afternoon.

Cross bones

 Our final site

I learnt a great deal throughout the afternoon, and I hope others did too. As with my talk on historical pageants earlier that week, I was struck with just how knowledgeable those were who joined us. From personal memories of areas to a more specific understanding of historical change, this was no teacher/student experience, but an exercise in discussion and communication. After going on so many tourist-targeted walks, around sites like the Tower of London, where you are lectured by a well-oiled orator, I wasn’t convinced that public walks were worthwhile for group learning. Yet, even with something as seemingly esoteric as gardens and health, this is clearly not always the case. I hope those who joined us on Sunday agree, and I look forward to seeing more people at our future walks and talks!

Tom Hulme

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