Gardening Journalist

Country Life Magazine


Although it may be hard to imagine in these days of niggardly budgets, railway station gardens have a long and distinguished tradition. MARK GRIFFITHS coats into Charlbury, Oxfordshire where Roddy Llewellyn and friends have revived the art of station gardening.

Charlbury Station, OxfordshireIn the century between Brunel and Beeching the railway garden, with station platforms in full bloom and booking offices framed with window boxes and hanging baskets, became one of Britain's most cherished horticultural features. Railway workers seem to have taken the idea from the transport system they ultimately displaced - the canal network, where lock keepers regularly made pocket waterside paradises, some of which still exist. Convinced that first impressions mattered, the railway companies encouraged their employees, as did local boroughs and such august organs as The Gardener's Chronicle. By 1930's, it was difficult to alight in summer without being greeted by foaming gypsophila, rosy nosegays and other props of the English cottage garden.

Charlbury Station, OxfordshireNor was the phenomenon purely rural. In the years between the two world wars, a commuter could leave his own garden in, say, Gerrards Cross, arrive amid the vibrant bedding and baskets of Marylebone and then disappear below ground before emerging for the pièce de résistance - Farringdon Station in the City, the platforms of which, today so gloomy and barren, were once lined with full-blown herbaceous borders. These were, I should add, borders that might even have made our commuter feel slightly insecure about what he had left behind at home: they ran along the concourse and soared with 6ft delphiniums and hollyhocks, Gertrude Jekyll herself would not have disdained them, and they were by no means unique within the national rail system.

Encouraging these gardens was characteristic of a railways management that preferred its passengers not just to travel, but to arrive in hope. And it was not only the customers who were satisfied. Railway gardening seems to have accomplished feats of industrial relations and employee well-being that would put much of today's counselling and carrot-and-stickery to shame.

Curiously it seems to have fostered in station workers exactly the two principles on which the modern rail network is said to run - competitiveness and ownership. Newspaper reports from the front line of such fiercely contested events as the 1931 Southern Railways Fruit and Vegetable Show held at Raynes Park in London described a commitment to productivity that stood still for no time and motion man. In the 1930's, it was chaps who knew their onions, not Il Duce, who got trains to run on time.

There are still a few fine station gardens, and brave individuals who battle to sustain them. But, for the most part, we have lost sight of what in just 100 years became one of Britain's best-loved horticultural traditions. On many platforms, the beds from those years survive, but they tend to be filled at best with standard issue municipal greenery, at worst with human detritus too horrible to tell. Greening stations has to be a lower priority than coaxing trains to keep roughly to the schedule without crashing. So this story ought by rights to be one of those 'Why, oh why?' and 'Where did it all go wrong?' pieces. Except it is not - because of the remarkable and, one would hope, exemplary tale of Charlbury Station in Oxfordshire.

Garden designer Roddy Llewellyn describes the attractions of this Cotswold gateway with special affection: 'It has always struck me as the ideal of a British country train station. The building itself has great charm, and it was not so long ago that the stationmaster would still light a coal fire there to greet us passengers on winter mornings. Somehow Charlbury has kept that atmosphere, of perfect peace for long periods and then of sudden comings and goings, that reminds me of rural stations in Wales in the 1950s, with all their steam and clattering milk churns. It is full of the ghosts of departed passengers.'

'The building itself has great charm, and it was not so long ago that the stationmaster would still light a coal fire there to greet us passengers on winter mornings. Somehow Charlbury has kept that atmosphere'

Until about five years ago, Charlbury's stationmaster, John Cox, kept the platform garden going with just as much ardour as he had the fire. With his retirement, however, the roses began to look exhausted and a staghorn sumach tree ran amok. Mr LLewellyn offered to take the garden over on a purely voluntary basis, gathering a crack team of helpers that included circuit judge Andrew Campbell Geddes, garden photographer and author Andrew Lawson, and the former chairman of British Rail the late Sir Peter Parker.

The Charlbury Station gardeners at the start of the project, among them Roddy Llewellyn (with broom); centre left, Andrew Lawson; and centre right Sir Peter Parker, who is commemorate in the garden (below).

'We dug deep into our own gardens to find whatever we had to spare', Mr Llewellyn tells me, 'and assembled some wonderful plants: grey Garrya elliptica and pink Viburnum x bodnantense Charles Lamont for winter; tulips and daffodils for spring; the grass Stipa tenuissima and perennials such as Verbascum Helen Johnson and stachys for summer; Aster x frikartii Mönch, an enormous, unidentified rudbeckia from my own garden, monkshood and the remnants of the original sumach for autumn.'

Mr Llewellyn is, however, at pains to stress that, as serendipity brought together the Charlbury Station gardeners, so has it made the garden, too. 'It is not a designed garden in any sense. We simply used what we had to spar, and that, I think, is why some of the plant associations are so good: they're accidental, put together with no thought as to colour or juxtaposition.' He is particularly pleased with the lucky pairing of the poached-egg plant, Limnanthes douglasii, with the deep mauve Geranium Bill Wallis, and the way in which annual self-seeders such as poppies drift gauzily through the station borders in the summer.

The memory of Sir Peter ParkerThe garden at Charlbury is dedicated to the memory of Sir Peter Parker, the enlightened railway chief-turned-station-gardener who died in 2002.

The team has since been joined by Hugh Phillimore and still convenes beside the tracks: 'We do it because we enjoy it, and we enjoy each other's company,' Mr Llewellyn says, 'and there is also this marvellous sense of the platform, our adopted garden, being full of visitors or passengers at one moment and deserted the next. One can have some extraordinary chats en passant with travellers'.

In taking on Charlbury, Mr Llewellyn and his companions have met with nothing but encouragement from the railway owners themselves, which prompts the thought that volunteer action may be the best way to revitalise our tradition of station gardens. 'It would, of course, be excellent if other garden lovers did similar things at other stations. But one cannot prescribe that sort of involvement.' Mr Llewellyn says, 'It really has to be what it always use to be - a free expression of love for a place'.

Photographs: Andrew Lawson