Walk into Bonnington Square Garden, and you’re smacked with the fat, spicy smell of rosemary. The hazy, sweet, laundered perfume of lavender soon follows. It’s like you’re not in London at all. The only sound is the grating screech of the magpies skimming between the Mediterranean palm trees, and the contralto murmur of the bees.
Bonnington Square Garden is a unique creation of local Vauxhall residents who decided to build a public garden together, which everyone could enjoy (they are open to the public daily until sundown normally). They were heavily influenced the history of Bonnington Square in the Eighties: squatters famously moved into the empty erstwhile miners’ houses in the square, which dated back to the 1860s and were scheduled for demolition. The houses were saved, the squatters were allowed to form a cooperative to lease the houses, and a special, rather fierce sense of community has prevailed here ever since.
The pleasure gardens of Bonnington Square are beautifully chaotic, with walnut, mulberry and beech trees, banana plants, a pergola cloaked in pongy wisteria, and plantings of bamboo. Everywhere is heaped with shrubs and creeping vines, and there plenty of little nooks with benches to just sit and read.
There is also a huge slip wheel dating back to the 1860s, salvaged from a marble factory, plonked at one end of the gardens.
Head to the north-east side and you’ll notice a tiny passageway. It leads to an even bigger secret: the Harleyford Road Community Garden.
It was a wasteland until local residents started growing vegetables here in 1984. The carrots and tomatoes were still going strong last time I visited. You’ll also notice a small pond and a ‘wildlife area’ piled with nettles, which is a magnet for butterflies and insects.
There doesn’t seem to be any logic to the garden design, and there’s lots of unusual coloured thistles and purple flowering shrubs popular with the bees, which lends it an English wilderness feel.
Once you’re done enjoying these green spaces, take some time to admire the houses around the square itself. They are almost completely covered in greenery, including stinky mimosas and Judas trees. Colourful flower boxes decorate the window panes.
Book ahead to eat at unusual cooperative-run Bonnington Cafe on Vauxhall Grove afterwards.
The vegetarian restaurant has a rotating menu and roster of volunteer chefs from the community (open 12pm-2pm; then 6.30pm-10.30pm; cash only). It’s most atmospheric in the evening, when the fireplace is burning and the candles are lit. The menu varies wildly depending on who is cooking, so you could get a traditional British meal or a Japanese spread.
Bonnington Square is located at Bonnington Square SW8 1TE. It’s normally open daily from the morning until sundown. The Harleyford Road gardens are also open daily until dusk.