I’ve been to the Olympics! Admittedly, four years late.
We seem to have made a habit of missing them, arriving in Beijing – from our then home of Kuala Lumpur – to miss the 2008 Olympics by a matter of days, living on completely the wrong side of the world in 2012 and then leaving the Southern Hemisphere just as the Olympics arrived there this year.
And having not yet bought a TV in London it’s even a challenge to follow from afar, so instead, Paul and I ventured over to Stratford to try and find some Olympic-magic there.
I’m not sure we quite got a sense of the atmosphere four years ago, but we were surprisingly pleased by what we did find. I had heard about the stunning meadow planting that had wowed everyone back in 2012, but assumed that four years on, it may not be quite the same. So often public landscaping looks amazing at the off, but as the focus drops away, so does the brilliance and the enchantment and instead you find gaps, weeds and misfit replacements staring back at you. It makes me feel a little sad and I’m left wondering why nobody cared enough to keep it going. And, indeed, why they took on quite such a sizeable challenge if the funds and/or will was not there in the long run. I find myself mumbling, “do less, so you can do it well”, so very often.
But no. How delightfully wrong I was. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was completely different. Not only had it been immaculately maintained but the feeling of establishment, developed over four years of growth, resulted in what I could only imagine to be increasingly impressive gardens.
I can’t claim to have seen all the planting across the 560 acres of Olympic parkland, but I’m pretty convinced the ‘2012 Gardens’ are probably one of its highlights. Divided into four climatic zones, 250 species from around the world form four quite different spaces, all inspired by natural habitats. These pay tribute to Britain’s long history of exploration, trade and planting collecting, reflecting the resultant huge diversity and variety of British gardens today.
This garden was all about prairie planting and is oh, so fashionable for it. The lovely cone flower, Echinacea, so synonymous with North America. Selecting a diverse range of plants with roughly equal heights has resulted in a very contemporary, pleasing effect.
Very much a reflection of South African flora, Agapanthus and Eremurus jostled with red-hot pokers (Kniphofia) creating a bolder, chunkier look than the other gardens. The Agapanthus remind me that just this morning, as I walked along Gloucester Road, I saw someone carrying a very expensive looking, exquisitely wrapped bouquet consisting, simply, of three stems of blue Agapanthus flowers. I had a little giggle to myself and thought of all my Aussie and Kiwi friends who would find this sight equally curious. No doubt they had also had a life of careful nurture and regular feeding with special Agapanthus fertiliser!
The Asian garden focuses on structure and foliage from the edges of Asian woodlands. I loved that the Buxus hedges still looked neat and tidy and enjoyed the structure they provided alongside the looseness of the neighbouring meadows.
At this point I have a confession. I have some lovely photos of English-looking meadow plantings, but when I got home and studied a map of the park (must think to do this in advance next time), realised I wasn’t entirely sure if I had actually seen the ‘Europe 2012 Garden’ proper. I’ve read that it is an ‘enhanced traditional hay meadow’, so hopefully you’ll humour me and give the benefit of the doubt that the meadows I saw were indeed part of this quartet of gardens!
So did I have a favourite?
The answer is yes, I did. Whilst the concept of having gardens from around the world is perfect for the Olympic Games, if I had my hands tied behind my back and was forced to pick just one, it would have to be the European garden. Or at least the English-style meadow planting that I did come across.
I found it entirely fascinating that I picked this one (in a way that surely only a true garden nerd can). Was it because it just felt right, given it’s location? Was it some subconscious attraction dating back to my childhood? Or was it that English designers had taken the English meadow concept and tried to shoehorn other regions into it, with mixed results? I really wasn’t sure.
The park’s website describes the four gardens as:
“a contemporary appreciation of the form & structure of diverse plant habitats from across the globe”
suggesting that they were each a representation of their natural environment, not English-meadowified versions.
Try as I might, I’m still not sure which, if any, of these explanations is the correct one. All three seem very plausible. The only solution for it seems to be that I should keep travelling and exploring the world such that I can add further data to this ‘important’ research. And it seems the very first thing I need to do is book flights to Tokyo for 23 July 2020, to test out those Asian habitats whilst not missing yet another Olympic games!