In the beginning
In the late 1990s, Matrimony Place, the walkway running down beside St Paul’s Church and connecting Rectory Grove above with the Wandsworth Road below, had become unattractive and unsafe. It was ill-lit, with uneven surfaces, and the earlier cast iron railings – removed as part of the war effort – had been replaced by unsightly wire fencing hung on concrete pillars.
Lambeth Borough Council joined with local community volunteers and members of St Paul’s parish council to renovate the whole of Matrimony Place. They raised money to replace the wire netting with new cast iron railings, to repave the whole path, and to instal new lighting.
At the same time, the vicar of St Paul’s, Justine Allain Chapman, had the idea to transform the area of waste ground running alongside Matrimony Place into a space that could benefit the local community. This long stretch of land, on the far side of the Place from the church, was formerly an extension to the St Paul’s burial ground; but the lower part, nearest the Wandsworth Road, had been cleared of gravestones at an earlier date, and all the memorials re-erected or stored at the upper end. Since then, the area had been mainly used for dumping rubbish and as a convenient local dog-run.
Launch of Eden
A small team of volunteers spent two years fundraising, while canvassing local opinion on the best use for the site. Various options were explored, from an artisan street market to a children’s adventure playground. Meanwhile, the volunteers physically cleared the area of old bedsteads and other rusty and rotten furniture, heroin needles, brambles and Japanese knotweed.
The decision was finally reached to transform the space into a community garden. There would be a particular emphasis on serving those living in local supported housing, people with mental health challenges or addiction problems, or those with learning disabilities; but the garden would aim to bring together everyone from the local community, offering a wide range of activities for families and children, as well as a space of beauty and tranquillity to sit and relax in the middle of urban South London.
A key milestone was receiving funding in 2000 from the Metropolitan Housing Trust to install a shed and pay for a part time administrator and gardener. Railway sleepers were ordered to make raised beds – there were concerns about digging down for fear of disturbing human remains – and a fig tree was planted to mark the opening of Eden.
The early years
When Stephen Barney was appointed gardener in 2003 he brought with him a vision for a country garden in the heart of London. Following his design, the upper garden was divided from the lower, and funding was found for woven willow fences and wooden benches. An immensely knowledgeable gardener, Stephen was a committed conservationist. His aim was to create and maintain a sustainable habitat for wildlife, and to promote biodiversity through planting British species and organic gardening. In 2004 Eden was awarded its first Green Pennant – an award for the best community and volunteer run urban green spaces. In 2012 Stephen himself won a Lambeth Champion award for his outstanding services to the local community.
Crucially, if Eden was to be certified as a wildlife garden, it had to have water, and in 2009 the local MP, Kate Hoey, officially ‘opened’ the pond at the lower end of the garden; it was initially supplied by rainwater from butts positioned under the church roof and fed via a pipe laid under Matrimony Place. After-school clubs – the Caterpillar Club and later Wild City – began using Eden regularly, learning about the natural world and using it as a springboard for creative activities; the garden was also used regularly by Lambeth Mind.
In 2008 the London Beekeepers Association, who had been hiring St Paul’s community centre for their training sessions, installed two hives at the lower end of the garden; that same year Eden began participating in London Open Garden Squares weekends, and the successful Friends of Eden was launched.
Eden today…and tomorrow
Eden continues to be celebrated for its achievements: it has gone on to receive the Green Pennant award year on year; as part of St Paul’s churchyard, it also receives the Green Flag award annually for providing the local community with a green space that everyone can enjoy; and it has been recognised initially as ‘thriving’ and latterly as ‘outstanding’ in the London in Bloom awards.
Over the years, Eden has engaged the local community with lecture series, bat talks, bird watch days and pond-dipping, as well as annual celebrations of the summer and winter solstices.
Since the early days, raised beds have been given to those who volunteer regularly and have no outdoor space of their own, and this is still the case today. Eden’s current gardener, Benny Hawksbee, began by volunteering at Eden and earning his raised bed. Another passionate environmental campaigner, he continues Stephen’s vision to make Eden a haven for native plants and wildlife, and to be a beacon for sustainability and biodiversity. He and the rest of the Eden team are helping St Paul’s in their efforts to become an Eco church – a scheme run by environmental charity A Rocha UK. In 2020 St Paul’s achieved their bronze Eco Church award and began working towards silver.
Eden now sells its own honey from what has become a full-scale training apiary; it is expanding the green space further into the churchyard and beyond; it has a committed community of volunteers; and, during the lockdown of 2020, more people than ever before have discovered the hidden gem that is Eden and been comforted by its tranquillity.