The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 8 Commons and Open Spaces

Metropolitan commons and heaths

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Under the present system most of the metropolitan commons and heaths are in the hands of the County Council, and in some cases considerable sums have been spent on them. Among the smaller ones is London Fields, Hackney, the nearest open space to the city. This was in a very untidy state when first taken in hand after 1866. The grass was worn away, and it was the scene of a kind of fair, and the resort of all the worst characters in the neighbourhood. It used to be known as Shoulder of Mutton Fields, and the name survives in a "Cat and Mutton" public-house on the site of a tavern which gave its name to the fields. It was in the eighteenth century a well-known haunt of robbers and foot-pads, and in spite of a watch-house and special guard robberies were frequent. The watch must have been rather slack, as about 1732 a Mr. Baxter was robbed about five in the morning "by two fellows, who started out on him from behind the Watch-House in the Shoulder of Mutton Fields." Hackney is rich in open spaces, as besides London Fields there is Hackney or Well Street Common, near Victoria Park, Mill Fields, Stoke Newington and Clapton Commons, Hackney Downs (over 40 acres) on the north, and Hackney Marshes (337 acres) on the east. These were Lammas Lands, and the marshes were used for grazing until within the last few years, when the rights were bought up and the land finally thrown open to the public in 1894. The river Lea skirts the marsh, and used not unfrequently to flood, doing considerable damage. The London County Council have made four cuts across the bends of the river, forming islands. The water now can more easily flow in a wet season, and the periodical inundations no longer occur. The planting of these islands has not been carried out at all satisfactorily. An utter want of appreciation of the habits of plants or the localities suited to them has been shown. A stiff row of the large saxifrage, S. cordifolia, charming in a rock garden or mixed border, has been put round the water's edge, and behind it, berberis, laurels, and a few flowering bushes suited to a villa garden shrubbery. The opportunity for a really pleasing effect has thus been missed, and money wasted. A few willows and alders, with groups of iris and common yellow flags, and free growing willow herb, and purple loosestrife, would soon, for much less expense, have made the islands worthy of a visit from an artist. Instead, an eyesore to every tasteful gardener and lover of nature has been produced. The beauty of the marsh has always been appreciated by the dwellers in Hackney and Clapton. The view over the fertile fields from the high land was one of the attractions since the time when Pepys wrote, "I every day grow more and more in love with" Hackney.