Square Roots

This autumn, the Charterhouse, one of our oldest spaces, is opening up as our newest museum. Renowned EC1-based landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan explains his part in the job: redesigning Charterhouse Square.

The Charterhouse is often referred to as a “hidden gem”; so, too, is the square in front of it. Largely private and outstandingly historic, it is unique among the squares of London.

The central enclosure is the largest green space of the 3.5 hectare Charterhouse estate, with its mosaic of courtyards, gardens and pathways, which once featured orchards, kitchen gardens and wilderness. It has the air of a cathedral close, and is imbued with an atmosphere redolent of great antiquity and pre-Reformation monasticism.

Like so many places of ancient habitation, it has experienced its share of social and structural vicissitudes. The central area was first laid out in 1371 when a Carthusian monastery was established on the site, which was being used as a burial ground for victims of the Black Death.

Later, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the priory was transformed into a private mansion, and the burial ground into a verdant forecourt for the same. The square took its present, trapezoidal shape in the late seventeenth century, and from the mid-18th century was enclosed and spruced up in the manner of a traditional London square. Since the Fifties, the central garden enclosure has been reasonably dull and uninteresting.

When it was decided a few years ago to work towards opening up parts of the Charterhouse to the public, my company was lucky enough to be commissioned to improve the landscape of the square. As a Clerkenwell-based studio, we were delighted to be given the opportunity to recast one of its most important and atmospheric green spaces.

We wanted to enhance the square’s secluded, precinctual air, to strengthen the visual and physical links between the central garden and the Charterhouse and all the other buildings in the square, and to make the gardens more attractive and welcoming. We also proposed to encourage biodiversity, through the introduction of semi- natural planting around the margins, including installing a traditional country hedge along the perimeter railings.

We felt this was important as the square is currently terribly sterile; an ecological survey from 2014 considered it to be of “low ecological value” and “unsuitable for most protected species”. The introduction of traditional English hedging (including hawthorn, blackthorn, holly, common privet, hazel, rowan and guelder rose), supplemented in stretches by densely planted broad shrubberies of native woodland species, should provide habitat for birds commonly associated with woodland or woodland-edge conditions.

A range of naturalising bulbs, such as Narcissus poeticus, Camassia quamash and Scilla sibirica, will also be planted in the grass. Besides the plants, we are putting in more gas lighting, a new network of gravel paths and 10 bespoke benches in the form of coiled serpents bearing the arms of the Carthusian Order. These are based on a 19th century design. There will also be an octagonal cast-iron pavilion – to be smothered with living greenery – in the south- east corner of the gardens.

The inspiration for this came from Prince Charles, who, in his capacity as a Royal Governor of The Charterhouse, was keen to see something within the gardens that evoked the presence of the 14th century chapel that once stood within the former burial ground. Our aim has been to create a “garden cabinet”, in the spirit of the late 17th century, which serves as both a shady retreat and a place that provides insights into the history of the square. A turned- oak baluster surmounted by a four-sided pulpit will sit at the centre; it will bear ceramic tiles inscribed with brief histories of four of the most distinguished and influential residents of the square – namely Walter de Manny, Edward North, Thomas Howard and Thomas Sutton.

The building work for the project, which started this summer, is expected to be completed by late autumn, after which time the garden will be open to the public during the opening hours of the Charterhouse museum (see box). It is likely to become a popular haven for all Clerkenwell’s workers and residents – not to mention for wildlife.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is the author of “The London Square”, published by Yale University Press.

The Charterhouse is due to open to the public as a museum this November, thanks to Lottery funding. Local practice Eric Parry Architects is creating a special entrance hall, and the Museum of London is partnering the project, bringing its expertise to the curating of the exhibits and the running of a learning programme. Entrance is free; there will be paid tours available for the rest of the site. For updates and details, visit www.thecharterhouse.org.