Since then the gardens have been transformed. Local residents have turned the site into an area for wildlife conservation, with attractive communal gardens and protected woodlands. In addition, there are 76 small plots on which local people grow their own produce. The gardens are also an educational facility, with a classroom used by local schools. Because the Borough of Islington has the least amount of green space of any London borough, the small garden has become an immensely valuable resource.
Nicola Freshwater, chair of the Friends of King Henry’s Walk Garden, which manages the site, explains: "We wanted a garden that would make people go ‘wow!’. We think we’ve succeeded." In 2008 the site was awarded a prize as the best community garden in London. And it is now the holder of a Green Pennant Award.
The management of the site has had to work hard to raise around £200,000. Various council departments were able to contribute to the budget. Tesco gave £18,000 towards building a classroom, capable of taking up to 30 children. Marnie Rose, deputy chair of the Friends of King Henry’s Walk Garden, is heavily involved with the teaching. She says: "We are open two days a week for primary-school classes. We get the children to plant things and to look for creatures in the woodland. We’ve even got two hives, so we can teach them about bees."
The garden has no full-time staff, so it is open to the public only at weekends. However, local people can become key-holders by paying £10 a year. This entitles them to use the gardens at any time. "We get a lot of people who just want to sit quietly, enjoy the garden or have a picnic," says Freshwater. There are also clubs — including an art club and a wine club — that meet on the site.
Like much of Islington, the Mildmay Grove area is socially divided. In addition to the traditional working-class families there are large numbers of professional people. The management has tried to use the gardens to break down social barriers. "We have four major events a year. Because we have a large Turkish community, last year we ran a Turkish barbecue day. In May this year we had 400 attending a festival of herbs. We had local chefs, discussions about herbal remedies and we even built a pizza oven in a wooden composting bin. It was a great event," says Freshwater.
As for the future, the Friends of King Henry’s Walk Garden is considering becoming a registered charity. According to Freshwater, this would give it access to other sources of income, including lottery funds. She says: "We’ve got a successful formula and we need to keep up the level of enthusiasm and get all sectors of the community involved."
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