In my last article for Barbican Life, I discussed how growing up in the Barbican pushed me away from city life and instead towards a greater appreciation for nature and the countryside. I explored my experiences of nature-disconnection growing up and how I discovered the world outside when I moved away from home. Inspired by Robert McFarlane’s meditation on walking, wayfinding, and ancient peoples: ‘The Old Ways’, this writing project began as an attempt to trace the greenest walking path through the Barbican. But through my research I found that I was more drawn instead to exploring the relationship between place and memory, noting my experiences and interactions with different spaces around the estate.
As I walked through the Barbican each week in early Spring, I returned to the same places until I found a natural route linking them together. My path begins in the Wildlife Garden, nestled behind Blake House and below Bunyan Court. In many ways, this space may be the Barbican’s best kept secret. Unlike the grand conservatory, which is open to the public, the Wildlife Garden is a much more private and hidden area, which explains why you will rarely find a soul there. As I open the heavy green gate with a large ‘Residents Only’ sign I feel a slight pang of guilt that I am allowed to enjoy this little patch of green, but not the office workers on Beech Street, nor the students at Guildhall or even the residents of the Golden Lane Estate opposite. According to research by Friends of the Earth, nearly 10 million people in the UK currently do not have adequate access to green space or gardens in their neighbourhood. That statistic does not sit well with me either.
I wind through bushes and trees, ducking under branches of honeysuckle and rowan towards my favourite bench. I take in the different shades of green and allow the colours to wash over me. A wise person once told me the Wildlife Garden could be the woods in Gloucestershire, as long as you keep your head down. I sit down and exhale, my shoulders dropping a little as I relax into the space. An albino pigeon keeps me company while a branch cracks under the weight of squirrel.
I discovered the Wildlife Garden during lockdown as an escape from the daily arguments brought on by being in a confined space with my family about issues such as who knocked over the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Or to sit somewhere quiet where I could soothe my hangover from last night’s zoom pub quiz. Even in the relatively short timeframe the garden has existed, desire paths have formed through the wildflower meadow, despite the ‘no walking through the grass’ signs. This comforts me, but now it is time to move on.
I exit the garden and head up the ramp towards the highwalk under the impressive shadow of Lauderdale Tower and towards Beech Gardens. A shard of sunlight pierces the clouds and my mood lifts slightly. In winter I often feel like London is closing in on me but as spring arrives, it relaxes its grip and stretches out in front of me again. Today there are no kids practising parkour, or drill artists shooting a music video or fitness models taking photoshoots – no sign of the usual suspects. I pivot left from the ramp and spot another desire path running through a flowerbed. Mentally apologising to the gardener, I take this shortcut towards the amphitheatre with the lying stones.
During uni holidays I used to come to this spot to smoke cigarettes and hide from my parents. The audience of the low-rise flats in John Trundle House and Bunyan Court facing this space make for a slightly unrelaxing sense of being observed. As I approach the strip of water under Bryer Court my face bounces back at me through the algae, adding to my sense of being silently watched.
Crossing the podium, I cut down the stairs, between Defoe House and Lambert Jones Mews through the “RESIDENTS ONLY” gate. Signs shouting “NO BALL GAMES” remind me of my 8-year-old confusion at not being allowed to play football on the nearest strip of grass turf in the square mile. To quote from the garden rules on the City of London website: “To avoid noise nuisance, we would prefer if large numbers did not play in the garden. If uninvited users are found they will be asked to leave, as will residents found abusing the garden facilities.” This may explain the balcony bellowing I experienced as a young lad from a certain elderly resident for dribbling my football across a patch of grass on my way to the AstroTurf playground. Good thing the vigilantes saw to me before the City police could tell me off for my abuse of the facilities.
Now I’m in the Thomas More garden I feel a slight ache. Weirdly I’m reminded of the fact that they moved an entire section of the Tube line just to make room for the vaulted brickwork under Defoe House, itself a nod to the warehouse cellars which stood on the site before the Blitz. I would sit here during breaks from timed online uni exams during the pandemic. The towering blocks of hundreds of flats facing the square did little to ease my stress. The architects’ attempt to mimic London’s Georgian private garden square explain the uncomfortable feeling of exclusion that this place has. Less of a recreational space, more of an Oxford quad. The Google definition of a Barbican is a fortified outpost or gateway to a walled city. What exactly is it that the residents are trying to keep out?
I’ve always found it hard to resist peeking through the windows of Lambert Jones Mews into the residents’ living rooms. One year a few of the other local children and I timed ourselves running laps around the square as part of a Barbican Olympics we organised. Someone’s parent recorded each of our laps on a stopwatch. If I look back far enough on my notes app, I could probably still find our lap times. Another year, when the gardeners planted bamboo next to the path, our games of hide and seek were dramatically upgraded and we could be lost for hours. I cross the square towards the artificial lake and pass my favourite climbing tree – an awkwardly bent cotoneaster whose branches make a perfect seat for a small child. But this twisted shrub seemed so much taller and precarious when I was small. I head through two sets of gates and up the stairs to the plateau by the fountains. This heaving outdoor public space is perfect for people watching or simply to sit and read a book.
I stroll past the jets of water and the rectangle of deep green lake, down towards the music school where I sat my Grade 1 acoustic guitar exam – a nerve-wracking experience. It always tickles me that anyone can walk through the gates into this section, but no one dares to cross the ‘private property’ threshold. I personally like to hurdle that gate on my runs. The reeds opposite the outdoor seating rustle gently as the Barbican’s famous heron glides past. I take a left into Speed House garden, or the baby playground as we’ve always called it. VHS tapes of me as a toddler crawling through the purple tunnel and being pushed on the tiny swing set pop into my mind. Admiring the ash tree, I wonder how much it has grown since I was that age. I pause to sit on the bench and watch a family enjoying the early spring sun. Two magpies land on the grass. Joy.
We briefly rented a flat in Speed House one year while my parents were having the kitchen refitted. I don’t remember much from this time apart from my dad bringing home a book about zebras one night and playing on the sloped bricks at the end of the garden which made very fun slides. It was again very tempting at that age to spy into the flats with the U-shaped windows before sliding down the ramps. Even now I have to stop myself from peering in.
Out the gate and down towards the waterfall I spot a sign: “DEEP WATER. DANGER TO CHILDREN. NO FISHING”. I only half believed the ‘deep water’ part, but the danger to children warning always put me on edge whenever I had to walk over the slatted bridge which connects the waterfall up with the walkway. I can see my football floating away now the one time I accidentally let it roll into the water. I stop under the falls and take my headphones off to listen to the white noise of rushing water. Up the stairs I take in one of my favourite views looking back towards the church and the arts centre, and a birds-eye of the sunken garden, which is our next stop.
Stepping down into the igloos brings you eye-level with the ducks. I feel safe here under the foliage which presses in over my head. I ease myself down on one of the benches and remember a first kiss I had here when I was a teenager. Or the time another resident asked if I had permission to be here when I was taking photos. Not the first time I have been accused of being a trespasser in my own home – key checks are as routine as border control. My buzzcut look, aged 15, probably didn’t help my case in hindsight.
My path starts to loop back on itself now as I stroll along the other side of the lake towards the square through the passage under the girl’s school. Back in the residents garden now I make a beeline for the weeping white mulberry under whose canopy you could hide and whisper secrets. Peering through its pruned branches, it seems less secluded now. The walk ends under the messy fig tree next to the playground. Trampling back through my past has been a strange experience and I’m sure this route has many different associations for the children who have grown up here.
Despite the literal and psychological fortress the Barbican presents, I have many friendly memories of neighbours and other children who played in the gardens. Working back through my memories of different spots on the estate I realise that many of my childhood experiences involved an innate connection with nature. Perhaps I did not need to move away to realise what I always knew. Nevertheless, I will always be able to criss-cross the estate on my little path, taking in the most wildlife, greenery and nostalgia as possible. Although I may decide to live in a more rural setting in the future, I will always have a connection to this place and its pockets of nature.
The Brutal Reality – Jacob Collett finds the greenest route through the concrete – published in the Summer issue of Barbican Life magazine 2023.