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Verdant and varied – Bournemouth gardens

Bournemouth is rightly proud of the fact that its Gardens are grade II listed. An even greater source of pride is the pleasure and refreshment that they give to hundreds of thousands of visitors and residents every year. John Newth has visited them.

The shape of some of the beds has been changed to encourage a more informal approach

The stream which gave its name to Bournemouth was once a sluggish brook that meandered to the sea through an area of boggy, desolate land good for nothing except perhaps to provide grazing for a few animals. Today the Bourne Stream is the central feature of Bournemouth Gardens, which themselves do as much as anything except the beach to give modern Bournemouth its character and appeal. They are one of the busiest green spaces in the country, appreciated equally by visitors, by office-workers who in summer swarm out to sit on the grass and eat their lunch, and by anyone using them as the main route between the town centre and the sea.
Durrant Road is not far from the Gardens, and it was the Durrant family who in the 1860s and 1870s took leases on them from the Meyrick Estate and created a linear park 1¾ miles long: from Coy Pond, the meeting-point of two watercourses rising on Canford Heath and Talbot Heath, to today’s Pier Approach. What are now the Central Gardens were known as ‘Miss Durrant’s Garden’ and were privately owned until 1921. The initial designs owed much to Decimus Burton, architect to the Meyrick Estate.

Bournemouth Borough Council's gardens team won a Silver Gilt award from the RHS for this Mary Shelley/Robert Louis Stevenson inspired Very Victorian Garden Gothic design

The Lower Gardens have been the most popular of the three sections ever since Bournemouth was developing as a health resort, encouraged by the supposed beneficial effect of the many pine trees on the surrounding air; Pine Walk in the Lower Gardens was once known as ‘Invalids’ Walk’. It is in the Lower Gardens that you will find the most formal planting, although except in the area of seven beds known as the Seven Sisters, the shape of the beds has been changed to encourage a more informal approach. Chris Evans, Bournemouth’s Nursery Manager, designs summer planting plans that include not only favourites like geraniums, marigolds and dahlias but the unexpected: banana plants and chillies, for example. Before that, there is the show of spring planting to celebrate the end of winter: tulips, polyanthus and wallflowers, of course, but also species like foxgloves and lupins which last well into June and bridge the gap between spring and summer.

Children's Corner in the Lower Gardens as it was in 1914, painted by Ernest Haslehurst for the 1915 Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch edition of Beautiful Britain

In charge of all Bournemouth’s gardens – including the smallest roundabout as long as it has flowers on it – is Robin Garrett, who has spent all his life in Bournemouth and is now Head Gardener. It is his job to deal with the heavy usage of the Lower Gardens and keep them looking at their best. Litter is a continual problem and despite more than fifty bins in the Lower Gardens alone, an early-morning sweep for litter is an essential part of the routine: ‘I don’t understand why people come here because they like the Gardens, and then spoil them,’ says Robin. A big change that Robin has seen is that the grass is rarely watered in these environmentally-conscious times but allowed to brown off in the summer, safe in the knowledge that the autumn rains will bring out the green again.
It is the Lower Gardens that see most of the activities like a band playing on the Bandstand – less often now, thanks to the falling number of military bands – candlelight nights, and marquees pitched for major events such as the Air Festival. Its dominant feature is the Bournemouth Balloon, which goes busily up and down to 500 feet on its tethered cable all summer, giving views for at least twenty miles round Bournemouth on a good day.
As you walk away from the sea, cross the Square and enter the Central Gardens, the difference is immediately obvious. Clustered around the stream is a fenced area of lush vegetation known as Paradise. Further up the Gardens there is a herbaceous border and beds devoted to things like heathers, but little formal planting. Instead, the emphasis is on shrubs, trees and grass noticeably greener than that in the Lower Gardens: this is a wetter area and floods easily as water pours off the surrounding streets and buildings. The stream is less formally channelled and more of a feature here, and the variety of unusual trees is breath-taking. When the herbaceous border is cut back in the autumn, the debris, like all suitable waste produced in the Gardens, is shredded and composted for future use.

Part of 'Paradise': the 21st-century Central Gardens' wildlife haven

The most striking structure in the Central Gardens is the town’s war memorial, built in 1921 at the same time as the former Mount Dore Hotel, just across Bourne Avenue, was converted to the Town Hall. Now commemorating the dead of both World Wars, it was designed by the borough’s deputy architect and features two lions, one asleep and one awake, as on Canova’s tomb of Pope Clement XIII in St Peter’s. Alongside is a bed which Robin Garrett hopes to use for plants with red flowers, if possible in bloom in early November. It was filled with roses, but he finds that they are prone to ever more tiresome problems, especially black spot.

A section of the Upper Gardens as they were as private gardens in 1914

Walk up past the tennis courts and as you go under the elevated Wessex Way, you enter the Upper Gardens. Here things are more informal still, to the point of wildness. The stream is still the focal point and in places, boardwalks are necessary to take the path across its boggy margins. The trees are a feature here, divided into European, Asian and American sections. The unfamiliar species are hard to identify without a guide but among the most impressive are giant redwood, Monterey pine, Persian ironwood and wellingtonia. Robin Garrett refers to the Upper Gardens as a ‘hidden wilderness’ and it is hard to disagree with him. Yet they are crossed by Queens Road, Prince of Wales Road and Branksome Wood Road, the last marking the boundary between Bournemouth and Poole so that the last quarter-mile or so of the Gardens, and Coy Pond, are actually
in Poole.
Like the balloon in the Lower Gardens and the war memorial in the Central Gardens, the Upper Gardens has its iconic structure: a water tower built in 1885 to supply a nearby fountain. Both the fountain and the water wheel in the stream that fed it were removed during the War, but the water tower remains in all its neo-Gothic glory and is home to a colony of bats. In fact, the Upper Gardens in particular are a magnet for wildlife – butterflies of all sorts, woodpeckers, goldcrests and a host of small mammals. Wildflowers include damp-lovers like flag irises as well as ragged robin, lady’s smock and orchids.

The water tower in the Upper Gardens is home to a colony of bats

Robin Garrett has a team of eleven gardeners working throughout the town centre, but the Gardens are easily the most labour-intensive single project. Even in winter there are shrubs and trees to be pruned, grass to be maintained, leaves to be cleared. In May to June the summer bedding plants are put in and weeds begin to thrive and need control: ‘If you don’t like weeding, don’t be a gardener!’ says Robin. The grass is mown regularly, usually early in the morning before obstructions like recumbent sunbathers start to appear. In October to November the summer plants are lifted and the beds dug over and composted to receive the spring planting – and so the cycle begins again.

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