A Visit to Thornhill Gardens

Today, I’m visiting Thornhill Gardens in Islington. Other boroughs surrounding Islington have large open spaces: to the north, Hampstead has Kenwood and the Heath; to the south, the City of London offers you the spires of numerous Wren city churches and the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. Two hundred years ago, Islington itself scarcely existed, except as a village with a small spa attached and it was viewed by City dwellers as a pleasant place to take a walk. It sits on a hill, well above the City of London smogs.

Map of Thornhill Gardens 1940-1960s

As the 19th century got going, a building boom began, throwing up Regency terraces and dozens of small and medium sized squares. The New River had not yet gone completely underground and it still wandered through the borough, so nowadays, there are occasional glimpses of the New River as a short wooded walk with a stream flowing through; and some pocket-sized garden spaces. One of these spaces is Thornhill Gardens.

A statement hollyhock

When I first knew the gardens, they were unloved – not to say unsavoury; there were two repellent public lavatories; the central drinking fountain had gone, and, during the war, there was an extremely basic underground shelter which,  according to two local residents I spoke to who remembered it as an air raid shelter, lacked both sanitation and water. It sounds grim! A number of local residents decided that they’d rather risk the Luftwaffe than spend a night there.

To the discreet compost area where the public loos once were.

Recently, the gardens have been transformed – the whole place is surrounded by thick dark green hedges – including the occasional holly and a lot of mahonia – and I knew nothing about the makeover until, quite by chance, I found a gate open which said:

Thornhill Gardens All Welcome

It is now a Community Garden, which means that anyone is welcome to wander in, relax and enjoy the ambience of calm serenity – which it certainly has. I am very impressed by the transformation. For a start, the grass looks wonderful – it’s proper grass (as opposed to lawn) – it’s thick enough for children to roll about on.

Apple tree doing well

And I was equally impressed by the apple tree which has a number of good-sized apples growing which nobody has stolen. By contrast, the head gardener for the new Kings Cross Development whom I met recently told me sadly that people stole plants or flowers all the time – which meant, of course, that no one else could enjoy them.

In the children’s area

The planting is unpretentious – which I like. It says to me: anyone could grow this and it’s not so delicate that it has to be protected from the weather – or children.

A touch of the Wild West – plus dog

This plant, which looks as though it would be happy in Arizona, says: don’t worry about watering me – I can look after myself. The garden is also full of well-behaved dogs like the one sitting at the back on the left.

A small pond in the Wild Flower area

In the Wild Flower area, I could see various tiny creatures disturbing the water in this small pond and, doubtless, in due course, larger insects, etc., will arrive. I like the way that some solid branches mark out the perimeter of the pond and, at one side smaller branches, twigs and round stones have created a choice of habitat at various levels for a variety of animals or insects. Some pale blue scabious is growing nearby which is a good start.

Bench and St John’s Wort

A bushy semi-circle of St John’s Wort occupies the central space. There was once a drinking fountain here – something which must have been most welcome in the days when the water quality couldn’t be relied on. You can just see the roof of the Warden’s Hut in the background. On my first visit, I saw a fox curled up in a quiet raised place behind a hedge next to the hut.

‘Under the spreading chestnut tree’

I love the new hexagonal seating which surrounds the horse chestnut tree in the north-east corner of the garden. It is made from superfluous wooden pews in the nearby Holy Trinity Church in Cloudesley Square which is undergoing major restoration.

Des. Res living for wild life

I also like the Ziggurat-shaped high rise des. res. for wild life made from carefully-sized cut logs. The ferns growing in and around the logs are small-animal friendly as well as being decorative. Note the blue bird box on a slim trunk in the background; this garden welcomes birds, too, and there are a number of different-sized bird boxes around.

Meeting people: Marie, and Cynthia with her beautiful Samoyed, Diva. They have both lived here all their lives and were a mine of fascinating information

One on the things I most enjoyed about my visit to Thornhill Gardens was meeting people. Marie and Cynthia remembered the air-raid shelter well and they were happy to talk to me about their experiences of the gardens and its history. We sat on one of the comfortable benches and enjoyed a good natter – which also gave me an opportunity to admire Diva.

Looking towards Richmond Avenue

I’d like to end with a few general views. Here, I am standing in the children’s area looking diagonally across Thornhill Gardens. Behind me is the huge horse chestnut, encircled by its hexagon seating. The chestnut itself is surrounded by mahonia bushes which must look wonderful when its yellow flower spikes are out.

Lest We Forget

A simple war memorial with a Celtic cross stands in the south west corner of the garden. A notice in Richmond Avenue, opposite one of the Garden gates, gives the names of five men from Richmond Avenue who were killed in the First World War. One of them, Albert Strasman, aged 29, died of his wounds in Russia on the 11th November, 1918 – Armistice Day.

Five soldiers who must have known Thornhill Gardens well died in Greece, Belgium, Iraq, and Russia; aged 40, 41, 40, 18 and 29.

Last photo, looking north-west. The building in the background was once St Thomas’s Vicarage

I hope you have enjoyed this visit to Thornhill Gardens – an unusual and special place.

Elizabeth Hawksley


The Cabochon Emerald by Elizabeth Hawksley, is now out in e-books.


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8 thoughts on “A Visit to Thornhill Gardens”

    1. Thank you, Jan – I was worried lest I hadn’t managed to get across the atmosphere of tranquillity in Thornhill Gardens but you have reassured me. I suspect that Covid has something to do with it – people seem more kind and co-operative. Everyone I met in the gardens has been very kind and welcoming – even the dogs are well-behaved and cheerful!

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I came across a map of Thornhill Gardens with different trees marked by different-coloured dots – so much of my ‘knowledge’ is due to the artist! I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of similar new small garden initiatives across the country. It does indeed have a very special atmosphere.

  1. I love gardens of any kind and “pocket” gardens are special in their own way. It was interesting to hear about the garden’s past history and then to see how it is being reimagined/revived currently. You are always finding treasures for us to look at and contemplate.

    1. Thank you, Vicki L – that’s very kind – though I confess that it’s not easy finding subjects to blog about during lock down! I hope to re-visit Thornhill Gardens, perhaps in the spring to admire the snowdrops. I’ll keep in eye on it, at any rate; I’ve been told that there’s a secret path around the back …

  2. Sometimes the most interesting things are under our noses, if we only take the time to stop and notice them.
    I believe those Arizonan-looking plants are New Zealand Flax, though it’s a little tricky to tell from a photo.
    Interestingly, there are also equally plain monuments to the fallen here in Germany but with the iron cross and they typically say “remember the victims of the war” (but in German).

    1. Thank you for your comment, Huon. It’s interesting to know that the German war memorials are similarly plain and simple. Thank you for the information about the possible New Zealand Flax. I’ll see what I can find out about it this end.

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