The Secret Garden – Living with the past.

First of all, credit for this post must go to Dan Slee, Walsall Council’s Press and Publicity Officer, without whose noble efforts this article would not have been written. Twatter does have some uses, after all. Dan, you’re a star.

One of the things I intended to do with this blog was to share knowledge of places that I’d discovered on my travels. Not the popular, well known places but those quirky, unexpected and hidden gems one so often is aware of, but never visits; I want to share one of them with you here. Few people outside of the immediate vicinity of Church Hill in Walsall seem to know of the Memorial Gardens… shrouded in trees, enclosed within tall walls and mesh gates they’ve existed in this peaceful spot since their completion in 1952. They were created during the last phase of slum clearance around the hilltop parish church of Saint Matthew, whose elegant outline dominates Walsall town centre below it. Church Hill itself is a green oasis in a sea of often hideous modern architecture – the worst of the 1960’s in the guise of the Overstrand, Tameway Tower and Telephone Exchange. Later additions have been little better – an ugly 1980’s Sainsbury store has recently been demolished to be replaced by an even more gruesome Asda shed, testament to the concept that we apparently learn nothing from town planning history.

Crossing Upper Rushall Street at the top of the market, it’s a daunting climb up to the church – one can either take the steps, or the cobbled lane adjacent, both equally treacherous in wet weather. Upon reaching the small quiet close at the summit, one becomes aware that beyond the trees to the right, there exists an odd construction of brick walls, a curious glass and concrete chapel on stilts and an odd little balcony overlooking the approach to the church. If the visitor turns right, towards the block of maisonettes, they will discover that in the long wall beside them, there are intricate gates to an enclosed and beautiful oasis, screened from the world around it. This is Walsall’s memorial gardens, erected in memory to those we lost in two world wars. It’s a wonderful tribute.

I first became aware of the Memorial Garden in 1989 – I found it whilst visiting the church to take pictures of the town. Back then it was quite dilapidated, but still held its’ secluded beauty, and was permanently open. The groundsman’s house, built into the western corner of the site, was abandoned and vandalised, but there was access to the terrace at the front, which made a great place to sit on the benches and ponder the urban landscape before me.P1000858 I came here regularly for four years, and then just didn’t visit again… I didn’t find myself in Walsall with time on my hands, so the secret garden slid quietly into a warm memory. About 3 years ago I started to come up to the church again, very occasionally. Every time, I found the garden locked. It was still immaculately kept, but frustratingly out of bounds. the groundsmans’ house had been renovated and was now occupied, and the terrace to the front – where I’d spent so many hours previously – was now it’s private garden. I was pleased to see the gardens so well looked after, but annoyed that I couldn’t go in. I vowed to arrange a visit – if only for old times’ sake.

Recently, Walsall Council has opened a presence on the social network Twitter, which I’d just (reluctantly) signed up to since starting the blog. I decided to give it a try,  asking about access to the garden. After some diligent research, Dan Slee emailed me with the information that the gardens were generally open most weekdays when staff were on site, between about 7:30AM and 3:30PM. I decided to take a wander up there this morning, and the results are scattered through this post.

The gardens were designed by leading designer Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe after the second world war, the first stone apparently being laid by Princess Margaret on the 1st May, 1951, as recorded on the slate memorial slab itself. P1000806Whether Her Royal Highness personally crowbarred the monolith into position, before  descending onto her knees and engaging in a spot of grouting isn’t recorded, but I suspect she had some help. The first phase of the facility, the main garden itself ,was opened in 1952 – the second phase was completed around 1960, and included the memorial chapel in the Eastern corner, the old folk’s maisonettes adjacent and the church hall. Since then, the gardens fell into disrepair by the early nineties, but were refurbished along with the derelict groundsmans’ house which was sold as a private, 3 bedroom residence. It’s currently up for sale again with Jaymans, and details can be found here. As befits a home of such architectural significance, it’s priced at just shy of £350,000. I’ll get my coat…

Visiting on a sunny Monday morning in early summer, I found Church Hill quiet, but not deserted. I took in a circuit of the church itself, and then headed slowly over to the gardens, which were, to my surprise, open. An elderly gentleman who lived nearby walked over and chatted to me. He showed clear affection for the place, and explained how the opening hours worked… I was then on my own; I spent an hour wandering around, wallowing in memories and admiring the wide variety of plants. I studied the architecture, and reflected on those who never survived the war, to whom it is dedicated. I think they’d like the place, it’s a genuine oasis of calm. My only regret was that the terrace was now closed off, but I can understand why; such gardens are a rarity because they offer seclusion, and that isolation clearly attracts those with dubious intent. Having people live on site again was clearly a wise move, and any evidence of the shadier side of life was confined to the end of the drive on New Street.

I wandered back down into town and off to work, content that I had revisited a prominent and formative place from my youth. It’s true that you can’t jump into the same river twice, and the gardens had changed since those earlier days – but the timeless character of the location remained unaltered. To anyone interested, I strongly recommend a visit. Walsall justly has a reputation for being harsh and industrial, but there are within it little oases like this, just waiting to be discovered.

There’s just one final mystery, and I’m not sure if it’s even any of my business, but there’s something here that haunts me. Under the memorial chapel ,opposite the lych gate of the church, there’s a bench. The bench has the following, heart-wrenching dedication:

Memorial plaque on the bench beneath the chapel

Memorial plaque on the bench beneath the chapel

In Memory of
Donna Louise 1972-1974
Samantha 1964-1983
Then steal away, give little warning
Choose thine own time
Say not good-night, but in some brighter clime
Bid me good-morning
Anna Letitia Barbauld

This belies a unique, potted tragedy. Two deaths, both at a young age – coupled with such a  tender, haunting verse. Perhaps the dedication was intended to remain private, but I’d really love to know the history. It fills me with sadness every time I see it. I feel the gardens belong to Donna Louise and Samantha too: may they, like those who died in the service of their country, never be forgotten, their garden a place of reflection for us all.

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7 Responses to The Secret Garden – Living with the past.

  1. danslee says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for your kind words on your blog and on Twitter. Really, really decent of you. A very well written piece on what is a quiet corner of Walsall. Prompted by this we’re also doing a pic with the Express & Star and Advertiser to remind people it’s there.

    Glad you found our Twitter feed @walsallcouncil useful. I passionately believe that things like Twitter are all about a two way conversation. This is a good example of that.

    There are lots of hidden corners in Walsall that are special. Let me know if I can be of any help in the future.

    You’re dead right. The Memorial garden in Church Hill is a great find. I’d not noticed the plaque to Samantha and Donna Louise before.

    It really adds to the sense of tranquility and poigniancy.

    I was born in 1972, the same year as Donna was. If she had lived she would have been 37 too. On days like these when there is sunshine outside it’s good to be reminded that life is fragile and precious.

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