Christmas has finally caught up with me. Over the last two weeks with the mad dash to shop, wrap, visit relatives and plough through the heavy workload that seems to align itself with Christmas, I have spent very little time outside in nature. At this time of year with the added stresses and strains of the holiday season it is important every now and then to find a place to stop, to breath and take stock. Luckily for me I know the perfect spot to find a moment’s silence and solace in the city.
Newarke Houses Museum sits at the heart of the city of Leicester and just a stones-throw away from my office. What was once two historic houses, Wygston’s Chantry House and Skeffington House is now a museum that tells the story of contemporary Leicester and the history of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment but it’s not the museum that I come here for; it’s the quarter acre gardens. Flanked by the historic walls of the old town, Leicester Castle and moat, this small patch of Box, Yew, fruit trees and herbaceous borders is an oasis of calm amongst the bustle of students from the neighbouring De Montfort University and, despite their close proximity, remains so in every season of the year. Behind the gardens lie both the Grand Union Canal and River Soar whilst mere footsteps away are the much larger Castle Gardens; all three of which are a magnate for people. So why are Newarke Gardens so tranquil? Well, given that the gardens are walled and accessible only via either the museum itself or a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, chocolate box wrought-iron gate it simply seems to be that not many people even know it’s here. In spring and summer I spend many a lunch break camped on the grass with a sandwich and a book. When I need to get out of the office and realign myself with nature and the outdoors then there really is no better place to just sit and be.
In December the blooms may have faded and the temperatures plummeted but the same rules still apply. Having truly tired of the stream of emails filling my work inbox and spending lunches shuffling through the crowds (like swimming through treacle!) in search of those illusive perfect presents, I head to the gardens in search of some peace and quiet. I plonk myself on a bench nestled beneath and between the Yew. Within seconds I make a friend. A Robin perches itself on the trellis a mere arms length away and begins a shallow, fluty tune, begging for my sandwich crumbs. I oblige as the Robin takes the crumbs from the arm of the bench before hopping to the ground, at one point perching on my shoe. All around me blackbirds, a dozen or so, rifle through the leaf-litter in search of insects, grubs and worms, passing between my feet, beneath the bench, weaving in and out of the Box hedges. A Thrush pecks heartily at the remains of fallen fruit discarded by the naked trees above. I watch as two Great Tits sporadically scurry up and down the branches of an overhanging Cherry tree above in search of an invertebrate lunch, stopping only occasionally to tilt their heads, give me the eyes and berate me with neat little chirps. Two Wrens chase one another between old, gap-strewn stonework of the ancient walls. Their frenzied calls and manic flight reminds me, longingly, of early spring and territorial arguments.
In recent weeks I’ve seen Goldfinches descend on the greying seed-heads of Alliums, Agapanthus and Teasel. In Autumn I witnessed Blue Tits pick away at Hoverflies gathered on the Ivy blooms that have graced the ancient walls here for decades, if not centuries. I’ve seen Greenfinches, Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrests and even a Great Spotted Woodpecker all in this quarter acre too, whilst in Summer the garden is alive with the buzz of Bees on Marjoram, Lavender and Buuddleia. I’ve been entranced by the gentle flutter of Small and Large White Butterflies, Orange Tips, Peacocks, Meadow Browns and Holly Blues. The whole place is positively alive and it seems remarkable given the surrounding tower-blocks and factories, busy junctions, the constant crawl of traffic, of petrol and diesel.
These hidden gems can be found in every city. Despite their often minuscule proportions, many still show signs and healthy characteristics of a diverse ecosystem. It seems it’s not just us that appreciate these places of calm and solitude. Our urban wildlife was likely once rural after all; the buildings and roads simply sprang up and multiplied, over time encasing these last bastions of micro green wilderness and their inhabitants in a giant concrete box. It is not ideal and our cities should always strive to be greener, to offer something to nature but it does seem that here in the Newarke Gardens, life isn’t just hanging on, it is thriving.
The garden provides plenty of inspiration too. For those who want to turn to their own gardens in an effort to re-engage with wildlife or lend a helping hand to nature, the Newarke Gardens prove that with a little selective planting, some scruffy edges, sheltered corners and a readily available supply of food and water (natural or otherwise) it really is possible to bring nature to any doorstep. If these birds are happy to sing between the baritone bars of heavy traffic in the city centre, then the possibilities are endless for the urban, suburban and rural garden and the wildlife they can harbour.
These inner-city pockets might be a lifeline for the wildlife but they offer us a lifeline too; they are a gateway to the natural world for people less able to make the journey to the countryside, they provide shelter from the hustle and bustle of the city, the constraints of work, of people, of computer screens and the stresses of modern life. If you are heading into the city this Christmas week, why not avoid that crowded café and head for an unexplored, urban retreat instead?