London was no exception when the fashion of the pleasure garden made its way from the continent in the 17th century, with at least six of them dotted about the city. With the restoration of Charles II to the throne, fun and frivolity were back on the menu, a savory delight to be enjoyed by all (if you had the chinks to pay for it). The pleasure garden was a place for those of quality and gentility to seek amusement and diversion, a place to see and be seen, to be entertained, and to experience the newest thrilling industrial innovations. One such pleasure garden, and a leader of these novel venues, was at Vauxhall in Lambeth. Situated next to the Thames just south of the city, it was one of the prime social destinations of its day.
|Promo for the Pleasure Gardens, c. 1850|
|This map, dated 1753, clearly shows the location of Vauxhall Gardens (marked in pink), then known as Spring Gardens. For reasons unknown, the bottom of the page is north.|
Vauxhall takes its name from the landowners, the Fauxe, or Vaux, family derived from Falkes de Breauté, a mercenary working for King John, who acquired the land by marriage. Sometime after 1615, the land was sold and the development of the pleasure gardens began. The name changed over time - Falkes, Fox, Faux, Vaux - and the existence of a manor house, or hall, would logically give rise to the name Vauxhall. There are Vauxhall Gardens named after the English original in Canada and the US, and the Russian word for railway station is vokzal (Вокзал), attributed to a communication glitch between a delegation of Russians and their English hosts in the late 1800's. Oh, and the griffin emblem used by the car maker? It came from the de Breauté coat of arms.
Prior to that, the land surrounding Vauxhall had been marshland belonging to the manor of Lambeth in the 13th century. It wasn't until the marshlands were drained that the area became arable and began to be developed. Until the completion of Westminster Bridge in 1750 the only crossing on the Thames was at London Bridge, a fair distance away. No matter, the Thames was the M1 of its day and people made the boat journey to Vauxhall quite frequently. The celebrated gardener and diarist John Evelyn visited the gardens when they first opened in 1661, but the first mention of the pleasure gardens came from Samuel Pepys, who visited at least two dozen times, probably more.
In his diary, Pepys wrote of his first visit to the Pleasure Gardens: "Thence home, and with my wife and the two maids, and the boy, took boat and to Foxhall, where I had not been a great while. To the Old Spring Garden [at Charing Cross], and there walked long, and the wenches gathered pinks. Here we staid, and seeing that we could not have anything to eat, but very dear, and with long stay, we went forth again without any notice taken of us, and so we might have done if we had had anything. Thence to the New one [the New Spring Gardens at Vauxhall], where I never was before, which much exceeds the other; and here we also walked, and the boy crept through the hedge and gathered abundance of roses, and, after a long walk, passed out of doors as we did in the other place, and here we had cakes and powdered beef and ale, and so home again by water with much pleasure" (29 May 1662, a Thursday).
|The Grand South Walk 1744|
|A general prospect of Vauxhall Gardens c. 1751 (The Foundling Museum)|
|Balloon ascents were the E-ticket* ride of the 1850's|
|Detail of Stanford's Geological Survey map of 1878 showing the new developments over the former garden site|
|Current Ordnance Survey map of Vauxhall|
This street sign on the Albert Embankment still shows the way to Tethered Balloon Rides, a local attraction until 2002, until the London Eye won out for best and highest panoramic view of the city.
Even though the park is open to the public, it bears no resemblance to its former glorious setting and I found nothing about it even remotely amusing. There are no elaborate bandstands, no supper boxes, no art, no music (except on pedestrians' ear buds), no glittering lamps and no gardens. Just humps of lawn, some trees, the enclosed basketball court and a few benches. The few times I was there people were simply passing through, not lingering as they would have done when the gardens were at their peak which is a shame because the park could be so much more inviting.
A mural on the pedestrian tunnel leading from the railway station hints at the gardens' history, street names like Spring Gardens Walk, Lilac Place, and a pub called The Jolly Gardeners indicate some manner of floriferousness in the vicinity but there isn't a flower garden to be seen, not even a window box or hanging basket at the pub.
|Mural on the wall of the pedestrian tunnel under the railway tracks shows the splendor of the gardens|
My question is: why not honor the gardens' past by planting some, well, gardens? When you look at other public spaces around London such as the Embankment Gardens, the rose garden in Hyde Park, the sunk garden at Kensington Gardens, and the flower beds at Regents Park, not to mention the countless public and private squares throughout the city, one wonders why the Borough of Lambeth has not considered a flower garden at Vauxhall Gardens a municipal necessity?
From what I understand, after the demise of the pleasure gardens the area went downhill pretty rapidly and is still economically depressed but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were girls' and boys' schools, an art school, and a vocational training program all within spitting distance of the gardens. Surely the creation of a garden would not only engage the community and provide educational initiatives for local school children, but would be an appropriate nod to the region's fabulous and long-reaching history, something which England has been known to be particularly proud of when it comes to conservation and restoration measures.
|What Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens needs is more gardens|
*Anyone born before 1982 might remember when Disneyland sold ticket books with alphabetically labelled tickets. An 'E' ticket was reserved for the most thrilling rides in the park, giving rise to the phrase, "An E-ticket ride", which I've often used to describe bus rides over narrow country lanes or certain friends' driving.
Edited to add: I neglected to mention a guided walk of the area lead by Ken Titmuss at http://londontrails.wordpress.com/, who kindly emailed an article detailing the history of the gardens. The walk does not focus on the history of the Pleasure Gardens so much as the development of the area after they closed. Still, the walk is enjoyable and ends at a charmingly restored tea room.