Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

Chapter 8: The Invisible Gardener

By Paul Slade
<<<Previous Chapter  –  Contents   –  Next Chapter>>>
Cross Bones
Murder Ballads
Secret London

About three weeks after the October vigil, I spent a couple of hours interviewing John Constable in a Borough High Street café, then asked him if we could retrace his steps on the night he first met the Goose. As we turned north from Little Dorritt Court into Redcross Way itself, he talked me through it all. The same trees he'd passed under that night overshadowed us now, the same Victorian railway arch glowered ahead and the same century-smoothed kerbstones echoed our footsteps. (60)
On our left passed Octavia Hill's 1887 charity cottages and the gardens where William Kirwan had strolled just before meeting his killers in 1892. To our right was the house once occupied by Victorian workhouse reformer Janet Johnson and - just a few yards ahead now - Cross Bones itself. The sky was darkening into early evening and the closer we came to the burial ground's gates, the more John Constable seemed to morph into John Crow before my eyes. I began to see what he'd meant about the 21st Century dropping away when you walked these streets. (61)
We paused at the gates so I could point out the handful of offerings I'd left there a few days earlier and examine the entry door for any fresh graffiti. As recently as 2004, Constable told me, security at the site was so loose that passers-by could sometimes find this door swinging open and pop in for their own casual tour. That's exactly what a local resident called Peter Porter did while showing an American visitor round Southwark in May that year, but what the two men found made a pretty depressing sight. Porter described their visit on a south London message board: (62)

"Several diseased-looking dogs ran at us, barking loudly and frightening my guest. Then two men emerged from the old industrial building in the northeast part of the yard, both wearing dirty clothes and looking aggressive.
"One held a syringe of the type used for doctors' injections. The other brandished a metal pipe and began telling us to 'F*** off' out of their 'f***ing yard' etc. With the dogs barking out of control, we feared for our physical safety. Then the man with the syringe started shouting at his companion, who retreated, muttering what sounded like death threats over his shoulder.
"The man with the syringe apologised for his friend, who he said was sick. He said that he and four or five friends were living in the sheds, that a couple of them had mental health problems and all had a drug habit. Then he asked us for some money. I said maybe, but could we see where he lived?
"He led us to the door of the large shed and we popped our heads in. After a few seconds, we withdrew for the smell of excrement was indescribable. In the room, I saw two women, one middle-aged and one younger, lying on what appeared to be piles of decomposing rubbish on the concrete floor. Our host explained that the older woman lived there and the younger one was 'waiting for gear'. He then asked us if we wanted to score, as we were in the right place and there was some 'wicked brown' available.
"He then demanded money from us again. I thought it wise to give him 1 and, as he accompanied us back to the gate, I asked what sort of facilities these women had. He explained there was no plumbing of any sort and they have to use the ground as a combined toilet, bathroom and kitchen.
"My guest has gone back to America to report that medieval conditions exist in 2004, a stone's throw from London Bridge. A permanent resting place for thousands of humans is being defiled and desecrated. I have informed the police and the council about this visit in the hopes that something may be done."

The area of Cross Bones which Porter's discussing here seems to be not the burial ground itself, but the concrete yard directly inside the site gates - which now shows nothing but a bare surface and a lot of overgrown foliage. The graves themselves are a few yards south of this area, still within the Cross Bones walls but shielded from view. Whether it was Porter's report that jabbed Southwark's police and council officers into action, I don't know, but soon afterwards the junkies were evicted and measures taken to ensure the door stayed locked. (64)

'One of the larger concrete chunks clearly shows bones and the crown of a skull'

To Transport for London's credit, it's continued to allow Constable and his team enough access to let them help to keep the site tidy. On St George's Day 2007, for example, the volunteers cleared rubbish from all over the burial ground and planted some seeds for the beginnings of a wild garden. That was when Constable first noticed that someone else had been hard at work there before them, clearing overgrown vegetation, assembling stones from the site into geometric sculptures and shaping the bushes into his own careful designs. No-one had ever seen this mysterious figure in action, so Constable nicknamed him The Invisible Gardener. Among the rumours surrounding this secret horticulturalist, it's said that he began his connection with the site as a Network Rail employee, that he once lived in a caravan inside the Cross Bones gates and that he's the dancing figure showing Geni707 round the site's interior in a video that's since disappeared from YouTube.
The Invisible Gardener finally introduced himself one Saturday in June 2007, when a lanky figure strolled up and shook Constable's hand at the Cross Bones gates. "He actually revealed himself to me," Constable said. "It was one of the least attended [vigils] ever, there was just me and one woman there. The Invisible Gardener just came up to me."
Constable didn't feel at liberty to give me The Invisible Gardener's real name when I asked him, and all I was initially able to discover from other sources was that he'd been some sort of muse for the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. The matter rested there till a PlanetSlade reader who knew I was working on Cross Bones got in touch. That e-mail passed on a link to a 2009 piece in The Independent profiling Andy Hulme, who'd met Westwood when she employed him as her gardener and went on to design the floral catwalk set for her 1994 Erotic Zones show. Towards the end of this piece, he shows the paper's Emma Townshend a photograph which anyone who knew Cross Bones was sure to recognise.
"It's a stark pyramid of brick in a wild open space, backed by railway bridges and a faraway glimpse of the Swiss Re building," Townshend writes. "Straggly buddleias flourish in the Tarmac cracks. The pyramid is weighty and silent, giving shape to the neglected urban space. 'That's my garden,' he says." (65)
Armed with this information, I started Googling Hulme and discovered that his own Victorian country-gentleman look had inspired a whole menswear collection for Westwood in 2009, leading to profiles of him appearing in several national newspapers and a host of fashion mags. Every one of these articles uses the word "muse" to describe his relationship with Westwood - exactly the word my first informant had chosen. One also mentions his run-ins with the police as a youngster, confirming the rebel streak he'd need to conduct guerrilla gardening on Cross Bones' epic scale. The Sunday Times' profile coyly refers to him having a Southwark 'garden', carefully placing that final word in quotation marks to suggest a hidden significance. (66)
Final confirmation came when I contacted Hulme himself and - slightly to my surprise - he gave permission for his name to be used here. "The anonymity and secrecy around that garden was not something I sought," he told me. "However, when I exhibited some photos of it earlier this year I did present it as the work of an obsessed security guard, now vanished, known as The Invisible Gardener. It seemed like a better story."
Hulme has done remarkable work at Cross Bones, transforming the druggy hellhole Porter describes into a truly beautiful spot. The garden he's created there would not look out of place as a setting for Alice in Wonderland or a forgotten park in The Prisoner's Portmeirion. Here's what one lucky group of gate visitors saw when they turned up for the Summer Solstice vigil in June 2008:

"John Crow led the way through the secret doorway, a battered old building site door graffitied with the invitation to 'Touch for Love'. Stewards in reflective tabards (the Goose Samurai), guide the 50 celebrants round the safe pathways.
"Crow shows us The Shrine of the Lost and Found, a circle of bricks surrounding a primitive stone cross with a red lantern at its centre. On the bricks are arranged a fragment of a jawbone, a plastic lizard, a broken pair of glasses, half a scissor, a green comb and a tangle of tiny coloured wires - objects found during a previous clean-up of the site by these informal Friends of Cross Bones.
"And Crow shows us the knot-garden, ablaze with poppies, in the shape of an eternity sign - or, more precisely, a double-diamond <><> - walled with rubble cleared from the site. [This is] enclosed by broken bricks and concrete chunks retrieved by The Invisible Gardener and his trusty sidekick Sidney from the aftermath of a previous Museum of London excavation.
"One of the larger chunks, from a more recent structure on the site, clearly shows bones and the crown of a skull protruding from the concrete foundations that ripped them from their resting place. This evening, bathed in the light of the setting sun, the gardens are vividly stained with red and black poppies."

Maxkollective has an excellent Flickr set of July 2008 photographs showing many of the same features inside Cross Bones' grounds here - and a second set showing that year's Summer Solstice in progress at the gates themselves. There you'll see features like TIG's white brick pyramid, as skilfully built as any dry-stone wall, the bush he's carefully clipped into the shape of a dagger-pierced heart and the apple tree he's lovingly grafted with mistletoe. Elsewhere in the garden, there's a perfect topiary sculpture of a Scottie dog, a massive swing set constructed from old railway sleepers and much, much more.
All the sculptures, planting and topiary at Cross Bones has been done with great care, but nothing there is manicured into such antiseptic tidiness that it's soul risks being lost. The site's ramshackle magic is only enhanced by the imagination and outlaw creativity which people like Constable and Hulme have exercised there. If Tom Waits has a garden, it must surely look like this. (68)

Key facts: A short history of The Clink

"The clink" has been a British slang term for any prison ever since the early 16th Century and is still widely used in that sense on both sides of the Atlantic today.
     In The Convict, for example, a US episode of The Office first aired in November 2006, a character called Martin Nash says: "I got involved in some insider trading, so I spent a little time in the clink". It's the Bishop of Winchester's notorious Southwark prison which gave us this long-standing term.
     The Bishop would have had some sort of prison at his disposal ever since about 860AD, but at that time it was probably just a single cell in a priests' college. When he took over responsibility for policing the Liberty surrounding Southwark palace in the 12th Century, naturally a bigger prison was required.
     He built the first version of the Clink on Maiden Lane, opposite what's now Sumner Street. It looked like a medieval castle's gatehouse - there's a Gatehouse Street on the site to this day - with circular towers at each corner and battlements topping the walls. Very soon, the Clink gained a reputation for utter brutality.
     "Unspeakable treatment became commonplace," says Jennifer Jones' Southwark history guide. "Entirely at the mercy of their keepers, prisoners were obliged to beg or prostitute themselves in order to provide the income necessary to improve their conditions by bribing the jailers."
     In 1352, the law changed, allowing debtors to be imprisoned and that increased the Clink's population a great deal, giving the staff even greater opportunity for corruption. A century later, when Bishop Henry Beaufort died, he left 400 in his will to be distributed to inmates at the Clink and other local prisons. This would have been worth perhaps 1m in today's money and Beaufort hoped the prisoners would use it to alleviate their misery.
     Our first written record of this prison being called the Clink dates to 1503. Fifty years later, the Catholic Queen Mary I began imprisoning Protestant dissidents there and her successor, the Protestant Elizabeth I, did the same for Catholic heretics. Elizabeth jailed a lot of Protestant puritans in the Clink as well, where many of them starved.
     Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, both of whom served time in the Clink before being hanged at Tyburn in 1593, were founders of the puritans' Independent Church, whose congregation supplied many of the pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower's 1620 voyage. Barrowe had originally come to the Clink only to visit Greenwood, but when the keepers realised who he was, they refused to let him out again.
     The Clink was still known as a fearful place where prisoners were left to rot. Its main function for the next 100 years was to jail offenders from the nearby brothels, bearpits, theatres and taverns.
     By 1745, the building was in such terrible disrepair that its inmates had to be moved to a new site near Borough Market. The prison's name was transferred to its new premises too, which much later led to that whole street being named Clink Street. In 1780, the Gordon Riots burnt out the Clink and it never opened as a jail again. There's a prison museum on its site in Clink Street today, where it pulls in thousands of tourists.
     In 2002, the legendary graffiti artist Banksy painted this Chequebook Vandalism piece on the Clink's outside wall. Southwark Council promptly painted over it and must be kicking themselves for doing so today. A Banksy mural removed from a wall in Wood Green, North London, fetched over 750,000 at auction in June 2013.