This year's association of Gardens Trusts Conference, organised by our London Parks & Gardens Trust, explored public landscape in East London, an area not well known to many delegates. The venue, Queen Mary and Westfield Colleges, sits next to Regentís Canal, a stone's throw from Mile End Park. The opening reception and dinner took place in the Octagon Library, Queen's Building (1892), while our accommodation and talks were at the recently completed residential Westfield Village (2004).
The Conference opened with a seminar on Open Garden Squares Weekend covering its inception in 1998, when 42 squares participated, to this year's 200 venues and 16,000 visitors, as well as a discussion of future plans. Surely an inspiration to other Trusts to organize similar events.
Later that afternoon, after a walk along the canal, Sally Prothero guided delegates through Victoria Park - the oldest public park in London - pointing out recently restored sites including the pagoda, bridges, playgrounds, the replanted Old English Garden and Islamic water feature. Talks by Ken Worpole and Alan Powers gave an historic overview of the changing public landscape of East London and the 1943 London Open Space Plan, promoted by Sir Patrick Abercrombie. Mile End Park was part of the Plan but not much happened there until 1995, when it successfully bid for Millennium Commission funding. Mike Rowan, Director from 2003-10, led us on a tour of the 90-acre linear green space, which now provides walking, play, recreation and sports areas, as well as an arts park and formal water gardens. Fortified by a quick lunch we were bussed to the Thames Barrier Park, 2000. Constructed in 1982 to protect London from flooding, the anticipated need for the Thames Barrier was perhaps twice a year; but we learned that the Barrier actually closed 14 times in 2013! The park is served by the Docklands Light Railway and offers promenade views of the Thames Barrier and across the river to distant Kent and Surrey Hills. We were free to wander and tea was provided in the excellent café.
Sally Williams, Public Arts Consultant, led our evening walk through Canary Wharf. Beginning at Weatferry Circus (1990), we strolled down West India Avenue, through a series of squares and parks dotted with award-winning artworks to 'a haven of peace and lustiness', Jubilee Park, laid out in 2002 above the tube station. In fact, most open space in Canary Wharf is a roof garden built above stations, malls, and car parks. Our walk ended at the Pearson Room in Canada Square, where we enjoyed an elegant conference dinner, conversation and wine. It was a splendid evening but early next morning we reassembled for talks by designers and planners of the Olympic Park, preparing us for afternoon visits. In three years, the 250-acre, heavily contaminated site was transformed to accommodate the most sustainable – and greenest ever – Olympic Games. The site runs along the River Lea and the park is designed to provide flood control – a showcase of British horticultural diversity, areas of urban entertainment and sports activities. We toured parts of the park now open to the public, and were privileged to visit areas still under construction, due to open in spring 2014 when the new parks will link to other London open spaces via paths and riverside walks. This was an inspiring and thought-provoking finale to a weekend of Eastern Promise, and discussion continued over tea and goodbyes at Queen Mary College.
Chairman Mike Dawson pointed out that LPGT members worked for two years organising the conference programme, accommodation, brochure and administration. We owe them, and our speakers, a big vote of thanks. All their efforts certainly paid off with an extremely interesting and enjoyable conference, hailed by AGT Chair Steffie Shields as 'a triumph'.