The idea of creating the garden came to a school-teacher, Anthea Douglas, when she was cycling to work. It was chance that curiosity got the better of her that day. On impulse she stopped and took a peek through a hole in the high wall. What met her eyes was a bomb-site.
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“It was derelict”, she says, “but I saw immediately this deserted place could become a garden for the school children and the local community. She discovered the street (now long gone) was named after Nicholas Culpeper, the great seventeenth century English herbalist whose printing press was in nearby Clerkenwell. It seemed meant to be”.
At the time Anthea was working at the White Lion Free School, near the Angel, an area notorious for dense building and traffic, with little green space. The idea of making a garden caught the imagination of her colleagues. Nearby Penton Primary School joined the scheme, and the two schools pulled together to raise money from a local improvement fund. With that in hand they persuaded the Council to rent the site to them. At first this was only on a temporary basis as the area had been ear-marked for a GP surgery.
Anthea insisted that Culpeper principles should follow the ethos of the White Lion School, namely a place without hierarchy, where everyone’s skills are valid, where all members are involved in making decisions, and no one feels threatened. While Culpeper has changed over the years this early ethos (with adherence to organic principles) is still practised. Friendliness, tolerance, and a relaxed atmosphere are still the garden’s greatest strengths.
Another of the founders, architect Peter Sutton, drew up a plan free of charge in conjunction with landscape architect Kay Mitchell. Anthea recalls that “with the site agreed, some cash in the bank, and a professional plan, the Council finally realised we were serious. They then came up with a grant for the capital works”. They also paid a salary for fellow teacher, Roz Dunwell, who left the school and became the first “garden-worker”. She was to be the mover and shaker who got the garden built and established. She had contacts with the building trade and managed to get a supply of free bricks, and the use of earth-moving equipment. A partnership was established with Community Service Volunteers (CSV) who were running ‘Operation Clean-Up’ in Islington at the time. Unemployed CSV trainees, under their supervisor, who heroically used an upturned water tank as his office, substantially completed the structural works. They built walls, levelled the land, put up fences and laid pipes. All this was achieved in eight months.
Then it was time for the school children, for whom the garden had been largely designed, to make their mark. About a hundred young ‘tree sisters’ and ‘tree brothers’ poured in to help plant trees, now mature, which are so much a feature of the garden today. Communal areas were marked out. Plots were allocated to local people without gardens who lived within a square mile around the site. It is to all these men, women and children nearly forty years ago that we owe the garden of today.