Open Garden Squares Weekend Poems

flower poemsA beautiful day on Bankside today, in the Dean of Southwark Cathedral’s garden as part of Mixed Borders, the Poetry School’s poet-in-residence collaboration with London Parks and Gardens Trust who run London Open Garden Squares weekend. 500 visitors, and many gallons of lemonade sold.

I wrote 10 poems about the history of the area, laying them out in flower shapes because the Dean is a George Herbert fan, and the one fun fact we all know about Herbert is his skill with the pattern poem. In the photo, you can see the flower poems collaged on top of photos and illustrations.

Thank you to all of the staff and volunteers who made me so welcome. Here are the poems …

John Taylor (1578 – 1653) was a waterman, ferrying passengers across the Thames at Bankside. A prolific and popular writer, he dubbed himself ‘The Water Poet’ and once rowed the river in a paper boat.

We call it The Knowledge –

a lifetime of learning the moods

of the river, its currents and

eddies, its bridges and wharves

and how the sun strikes

silver pennies off its surface.

We are soaked in this water,

knowing its tidal rise and fall

could sink three men, standing

on each others’ shoulders. I once

folded a poem into a boat and

rowed it downstream from the A

of the spring to the Z of the sea.

Hop in, I’ll take you all the way.

C17th Bankside was home to a bear-baiting pit. George Stone and Harry Hunks are bears made famous by the pursuit, as was Sackerson, a fighting bear who features in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

My lords, ladies & gentlemen –

connoisseurs of the ursine arts –

welcome to the Bear Garden!

Tonight’s triple bill is truly

a Battle of the Beasts – gaze

upon the claws and cruel teeth

of Grizzly George Stone, mark

the foaming maw of Harry Hunks,

behold the bear who Bill our Bard

of Bankside has written into

immortality: watch Sackerson

fling the dogs from his neck,

paw the blood from his eyes and

burst apart his iron chains.

Then watch him watching you.

Elizabethan Bankside was a fish-farming area; its ponds were called ‘stews’. This is part of a recipe for Carp Pie taken from a 1672 cookery book, and found in full on

Take a large Carp and scale him,

gut and wash him clean, and dry

him well, then lay Butter into your

Pie, and fill your Carps belly with

this Pudding … Sew up his Belly,

and lay him into your Pie then lay

in the Balls of Pudding, with some

Oysters, Shrimps and Capers, and

the yolks of hard Eggs and a little

Slice of Bacon, then put in large

Mace and Butter, so close it and

bake it, then cut off the Lid, and

stick it full of pretty Conceits

made in Paste, and serve it in hot.

A 1746 map of the area behind Cardinal Cap Alley shows ‘The Skin Market’, which was probably where rabbit skins were treated and turned into hats. Later on, the bowler hat was invented in Southwark.

The rabbit skins arrive

in scores – headless, footless,

stacked. All day, we pluck

their bellies and flanks in clouds

of fluff and fumes. We’re cogs

and works, machines for turning

fur to felt to hats.  Doe to bowler,

buck to tricorn, black and cocked.

It might be the mercury talking

but once I wore mine in the rain.

I swear the wet crown shivered,

shook, then leapt from my head

and ran off down the road,

white scut bobbing in the dark.

Industrial Bankside has been home at some point to both soap-making and glass-making factories.

Start the shift.

The whistle blows soap –

bubbles float upstream,

light split and swirling

on their skins. Breath,

held above the river,

pops like spent coins.

End the shift.

The whistle blows glass –

bubbles race downstream,

each gin-green globe

a cooled white sun.

Crack and fracture,

exhalation of song.

In the 1870s, a family lived in this street whose daughters were military embroideresses, hand-sewing decorations for soldiers’ and service uniforms. Britain at that time was fighting a war in West Africa.

Dearest Edmund stitch

today I sewed stitch a dozen

numbers for policemen’s

collars stitch and a pair

of epaulettes stitch set to be

sent out stitch to the Gold

Coast stitch to think stitch that

they might gleam on your

shoulders stitch I pray you keep

safe stitch there’s gold thread

stitch tangled round my finger

stitch if the thread tightens

stitch Edmund stitch my finger

stitch darkens double stitch knot

In modern times, mudlarking along the Thames foreshore is an archaeological hobby. In the nineteenth century, searching for saleable items was a dirty and dangerous source of income for the very poor.

I walked along the Thames edge

and found a clay pipe, a glass bead,

an oyster shell, a leather shoe,

a thicket of pins, a lace end,

a bone button, a chicken bone,

a lead soldier, a smashed saucer,

a green bottle, a stone bottle,

a stone axe, a silver spoon,

a copper coin, a wooden comb,

a sawn off gun, a wedding ring

and – sprung from the lockbox

of the river bed – a mudlark’s

bag and its scratted goods: a rag,

some coal and a hank of rope.

Actress and film star Anna Lee lived at 49 Bankside in the 1930s. Maybe she would have played Shakespeare if The Globe had been here then too. There are ten of his female characters featured in this flowery cento cut-up poem. 

Here’s flowers for you: hot lavender,

mints, savoury, marjoram, root

of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

rosemary (that’s for remembrance),

pansies (that’s for thoughts),

the unsullied lily, the wild thyme,

the nodding violet, sweet musk

roses – in faith, a very flower.

My women! Against the blown rose

may they stop their nose that kneel’d

unto the buds. My sweet Rose,

my dear Rose, be merry. A rose

by any other name would smell as sweet.

Of all flow’rs, methinks a rose is best.

‘I became aware of an unrolling’ wrote Matisse about the construction of ‘The Snail’ which hangs in the Tate, over the Deanery garden wall. Here, a gardener becomes aware of his own snail situation …

I became aware

of an unrolling

I became aware

of slow motion

I became aware

of silver vectors

I became aware

of beer and copper

I became aware

of lace in the lettuce

I became aware

of thrushes rumbling

I became aware

of an unrolling

From the 1400s to the 1800s, occasional Frost Fairs took place on the Thames when it froze over. An unfulfilled plan to celebrate the Millennium would have frozen the river artificially.

‘We’ll lock down the Thames,

stop the river in its tracks,

turn it slush and glass and stone

and then we’ll put the ice-rink

here. That’s a triple toe loop

from the Tate to St Paul’s.

Here the dog sled races, here

the penguin exhibition, here

the penguin exhibition shop.

Here the eight times life size

holographic polar bear.’

Down deep, a muscled eel plaits

and knots itself and waits

for the coming of the whales.


















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