Today, for the first time the garden looks really wintry. Leaves have been falling and now only stems remain on most of the climbers. The constant rain of recent days has caused everything to sag and drip, as if the plants are tired of summer, tired of growing.
The rooftopvegplot is, fundamentally, a summer exercise. Even though I extend the season with herbs and perennials and even though the greenhouse soldiers on, there is less reason to sit up here now – and on a cold, wet day, only a hardy soul would do so. But there is always some bounty in the winter months; I could pick sage, or parsley, wild celery or thyme. Even the odd Russian kale and chicory are soldiering on.
In the greenhouse lettuces and tomatoes are still cropping. But some of my autumn crops have been devastated by slugs. And I, distracted by family matters, did nothing.
The beauty of the winter garden is an acquired taste. It requires one to remember what summers past have been like and to imagine what next spring might bring.
Summer was always a lovely time in this part of London. The clay marshland in this area was long left undeveloped while the area around, more stable ground, soon disappeared under stone and brick. Accounts from the early 18th Century confirm that the market gardens that had developed during medieval times, still endured. But like all edge of city gardens, many had succumbed to the pressure of commerce. The area was scattered with pleasure gardens, public houses, eateries and tea rooms. The focus of all this trade was a burgeoning middle class with money and free time to spend on Sunday rambles into the ‘countryside.’ Development was creeping ever closer.
Mr. J. T. Smith, in his "Book for a Rainy Day," under date of 1772, gives us the following graphic sketch of this locality at that period:
"My dear mother's declining state of health," he writes, "urged my father to consult Dr. Armstrong, who recommended her to rise early and take milk at the cow-house. I was her companion then; and I well remember that, after we had passed Portland Chapel, there were fields all the way on either side. The highway was irregular, with here and there a bank of separation; and that when we had crossed the New Road, there was a turnstile (fn. 3) at the entrance of a meadow, leading to a little old public-house, the sign of the 'Queen's Head and Artichoke;' it was much weather-beaten, though, perhaps, once a tolerably good portrait of Queen Elizabeth. . . . A little beyond a nest of small houses contiguous was another turnstile, opening also into fields, over which we walked to the 'Jew's Harp House Tavern and Tea-Gardens.' It consisted of a large upper room, ascended by an outside staircase, for the accommodation of the company on ball nights; and in this room large parties dined. At the south front of these premises was a large semi-circular enclosure with boxes for tea and ale-drinkers, guarded by deal-board soldiers between every box, painted in proper colours. In the centre of this opening were tables and seats placed for the smokers. On the eastern side of the house there was a trapball-ground; the western side served for a tennis-hall; there were also public and private skittle-grounds. Behind this tavern were several small tenements, with a pretty good portion of ground to each. On the south of the teagardens a number of summer-houses and gardens, fitted up in the truest cockney taste; for on many of these castellated edifices wooden cannons were placed; and at the entrance of each domain, of about the twentieth part of an acre, the old inscription of 'Steel-traps and spring-guns all over these grounds,' with an 'N.B.—Dogs trespassing, will be shot.' In these rural retreats the tenant was usually seen on Sunday evening in a bright scarlet waistcoat, ruffled shirt, and silver shoebuckles, comfortably taking his tea with his family, honouring a Seven-Dial friend with a nod on his peregrination to the famed Wells of Kilburn. William's Farm, the extent of my mother's walk, stood at about a quarter of a mile south; and I remember that the room in which she sat to take the milk was called 'Queen Elizabeth's Kitchen,' and that there was some stained glass in the windows."
In 1720 this area was described as ’green fields and babbling brooks’. A popular retreat was The Queens Head and Artichoke. (Perhaps the Queen Elizabeth Kitchen, referred to above.) The licence itself dates from the time of Queen Elizabeth 1st reign, after whom the pub is named. The origin of its name is attributed to Daniel Clark, Master Cook & Head Gardener to both Elizabeth 1st & James 1st. Originally it was a hunting lodge, from where the monarch would ride out into Regents Park to hunt wild boar. But by the 18th Century its attractions chiefly consisted in a long skittle and 'bumble-puppy' ground, shadowy bowers, perfect for asignations, and abundance of cream, tea, cakes, and other creature comforts. It is mentioned in the Crew’s Survey in 1753 as ‘a ramshackle old tavern’. There is still a pub of that name, but in a slightly different location to the original. Its current building only dates back to the 19th Century.
Even closer by was the Farthing Pie House, now the Green Man at the top of Great Portland Street. It is one of the earliest watering holes in this part of the city and renowned as an excellent place to eat mutton pie, or cured bacon. It seems to have been one of the first local hostelries with a reputation for attracting the literary set. The poet William Blake describes the pub as a place that he walked to as a young man and Henry Carey wrote a song about a girl who visited the pub and enjoyed
“a collection of cheesecakes, gammon of bacon, stuffed beef and bottled ale”.
There is also records of Daniel Defoe and Alexander Dumas supping there. Perhaps then, as now, this slightly more affordable part of London attracted those who liked the buzz of the city, but who couldn’t afford to purchase a town house in the fancy new Georgian Squares that were appearing all around us.
Looking at the old prints today, it is easy to see that anyone with a romantic imagination would surely love to frequent these old hostelries. Even by the mid 18th Century they had acquired antique qualities. Today, if I want the pleasures of a country pub I have to drive off into the Chilterns, or at the very least walk up to Hampstead Heath, where a few pubs still maintain something of a country feel.
In fact the more I think about it the more I’m drawn to rigging some Christmas lights up on the roof, stocking the tiny fridge up there with good beers and lighting a brazier. Even veggie sausages taste better by verdure.