Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Benhill Road Nature Garden is lovely little space, winding and colourful, designed to encourage and provide a friendly environment for birds, insects and other wildlife. Overlooking the park is a sculptured mural, mounted on the sports hall of the adjacent Brunswick Park School. Two of my favourites types of things in one small space – urban nature and post-war urban public art. Both garden and sculpture have been restored during the recent regeneration of the Elmington Estate.
The Elmington Estate was built by the London County Council and completed in 1958 as part of the post-war reconstruction of London. The Abercrombie Plan which had created the strategy for post-war regeneration in London put forward the proposal that public art could be used to help reinstate a sense of community within a fractured townscape. By 1956, the London County Council had an annual budget of £20,000 to commission or purchase existing sculptures for public spaces that included schools, colleges, shopping centres as well as social housing estates through its Patronage of the Arts Scheme. Pieces were selected mainly on the advice of the Arts Council and, until the demise of the London County Council in 1965 when the Greater London Council took over, they purchased or commissioned 50 works of art.
Willi Soukop was commissioned by the LCC to create a mural for one of the external walls of the Tenants’ Clubroom located in the centre of the estate. The LCC wanted the sculpture to commemorate Robert Browning who was born in Camberwell and an interpretation of Browning’s poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ was chosen. The artist said he hoped “that this piece of work, although presented in an unconventional form, will become acceptable to the people who live around, and from the conversations I had with children and adults when working on the site I do feel this hope fully justified.” A short film of the unveiling ceremony can be seen here.
The 'Pied Piper of Hamlyn' by Willi Soukop shown on its original site on the side of the Clubroom on the Elmington Estate, Camberwell.
The Nature Garden was originally created in 1982 by Southwark Council, Friends of the Earth and the London Wildlife Trust on a site where previously prefabs had stood, built on what had previously been a bombsite. Sadly much of the garden fell into disrepair and many features, like the pond, disappeared due to lack of upkeep. During consultations with the Elmington Residents Steering Group, Southwark Council learned that restoring the Nature Garden during the regeneration of the estate was a high priority with the residents. Keeping the mature trees, the garden was redesigned to include native hedges, wildflower meadow, a learning zone, sensory and open planting beds, three stag beetle loggeries and three mini beast towers. The pond has been reinstated providing a perfect habitat for frogs and other water life with a platform for tadpoling.
When the T&RA Hall (former clubroom) was demolished in 2001, the mural of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn was carefully taken down and placed into storage. Later it was skilfully restored and remounted on the side of Brunswick Park Primary School Sports Hall that overlooks the Garden. The restored Nature Garden was reopened in June 2015 and maintained by Southwark Council with the help of local volunteers.