There’s never been anything like the Garden Bridge before, so it presents a special challenge to its landscape designer, Dan Pearson. He’s treating it like a story, he tells David Sexton.
Dan Pearson is perhaps not quite such a household name in gardening as the likes of Alan Titchmarsh or Monty Don. Although he used to present television programmes and still writes a gardening column, for some years now the main focus of his work has been as a garden designer, working internationally, from offices based in Westminster Bridge Road.
Among those in the know, his taste is revered more than that of anyone else now at work in Britain — celebrated this summer at an exhibition, Green Fuse, at the Museum of Garden History. He is particularly admired for the way he combines naturalistic perennial planting with a strong sense of style and sculptural structure. Yet although Pearson has created many gardens around the world — such as his work for the Millennium Forest in Japan — there’s relatively little of it to be seen in London. There’s the garden for Maggie’s Centre for cancer care at Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith, Handyside Gardens in the new King’s Cross development and a tiny garden for the Evelina Children’s Hospital. But that’s about all.
That’s going to change when the Garden Bridge between Temple and the South Bank is built — for Dan Pearson is already far advanced in plans for this most exciting of London’s future projects. When we meet at his spacious studio — his practice employs just nine people, because he doesn’t want it to get too big or formulaic — he’s just returned from working in San Francisco and Hawaii for three weeks and is still recovering from coming “back to winter and dark nights from flip-flops and T-shirts”.
But though he’s softly spoken and very engaging — even more so one-to-one than in public appearances, I would say — his focus is intense. It’s no surprise to learn that he dropped out of school at 17 to study at Wisley, already knowing then what he wanted to do, exactly what he’s doing now at 49.
He had known the designer Thomas Heatherwick for some time before earlier this year Heatherwick approached him with his plans for a garden bridge, which he wanted to have the sense of wildness that he had seen in Pearson’s own town garden in Peckham. “He said, come up this afternoon — and when I got up there, Joanna [Lumley, another key backer of the Garden Bridge] was up there as well and the two of them explained the project to me — and it was impossible not to be excited by it so we started working on it immediately.”
There has never been anything quite like the Garden Bridge before. There’s the High Line in New York — but that was a pre-existing structure, a disused railway, with its own plant life already there to influence its design. The Garden Bridge, though, will be entirely new, something where there was nothing, a special challenge for a designer whose work always responds to a sense of place first.
Dan Pearson has addressed this by developing a story, a narrative, for the garden, “to allow you to move from one place to another and have a series of different chapters”, in five different zones.
He wanted to link it to the Thames and its estuarine life — “I’ve always stayed close to it or liked to be near it, because it’s this big elemental thing which moves backwards and forwards every day” — and he had read in Pepys’ Diaries about the watermeadows and osier beds, and before that marshland, there used to be on the South Bank.
“We thought about creating a series of environments that could take us from the South Bank, where there’s a younger part of London with a closer link to nature, through to the older part of the city, where we could have more ornamental plants that would feel more connected to older gardens — so we’ve got a parkland quality at one end, and what we’re calling pioneer vegetation at the other end.
“In the middle, where the bridge reaches its teetering point, where you’ve got that view out, up and down the river, we’re calling that the Scarp — so we’ve looked at cliff-top environments and the plants that would survive in those exposed situations” — including Mediterranean plants such as cistus and phillyrea as well as British natives.
In between, over the two piers of the bridge, where it will be widest and the soil deepest — 1.5 metres, ample for trees — there will be woodland copses and glades, one “wild”, one “cultivated”, with figure-of-eight pathways through and round them. The plan at the moment is to have some 270 trees altogether on the bridge, many of them multi-stemmed so they can better thrive in such a windy situation — birches, such as Betula nigra with its peeling bark, and lacinated alders among them. There might be oaks too and he mentions a plan for a specimen mulberry, suitably gnarled, hoping some of these trees will in time generate their own folklore and associations for Londoners as the bridge ages.
On the south side, Pearson is envisaging shrubby willows with their coloured stems, and catkins, which can be regularly coppiced — while on the northern approach he’s thinking of hawthorns, perhaps ornamental varieties, some perhaps to be clipped to connect with the more formal feel there, perhaps liquidambars too.
“We’ve developed a palette that means we’ve got a continuity of vegetation, so you look at the bridge as a whole and it doesn’t look like a strange mishmash like an arboretum. So one thing will feather into the next and touch down again elsewhere,” he says.
He’s concerned that the garden should be seasonal, indeed “different in every week of the year, so you can return to it and have a renewed and fresh experience and it’s a delight in that way”.
There’ll be plenty of things like teasels that can be left over the winter — and no resort to bedding plants. “I think people are very attuned now to a naturalistic garden, not having to sing and dance all the time,” he says — and emphasises that the Garden Bridge will always be dramatic anyway, an exercise in fantasy, just by its nature. “It’s an extraordinary idea, a floating garden that rises over water and doesn’t touch it and has all this space around it — it’s already got a magical quality to it.”
And, he points out, though London has wonderful parks — “every time I fly over London I’m always fascinated by how linked they are and how wonderful our street trees are” — it has very few good public gardens, only five or so altogether, Chelsea Physic being the nearest. “That’s why this has been named a garden bridge, not a park on a bridge, because it is going to be a garden, and it’s going to be accessible to everybody and so central — and we feel very excited about that being something we can bring to London.”
It’s all the more exciting, for those who us love his work, that it will be a Dan Pearson garden that soars over the river. It has to happen, I blurt, as we look at the “mood-board” of sketches and snaps that is the garden’s current incarnation.
“Exactly the words I was about to use,” he says. “When we gave our first press conference, Joanna was so captivating, she said, ‘I can see it from here’. We all could. I’m walking my dog” — he has the most beautiful eight-month old lurcher, Woody, with him there in the studio — “over the Wobbly Bridge every night just to get a sense of what it’s going to be like. I can see it too!” And I, like every Londoner who loves gardens, just can’t wait to see it as well.
Highticulture: What will grow
The tall ones
Field maple (Acer campestre) and elder trees will run the length of the bridge. The UK’s only native maple can grow to 20m and live for 350 years.
Featuring Amelanchier lamarckii (right), which turns a spectacular bronze colour in autumn. Birds love the berries.
In the north
The trees and plants on the northern side of the bridge have been chosen to add character. Look out for Clerodendrum trichotomum, known as the peanut butter tree because its downy leaves produce that smell when crushed. The white petals turn pink as they mature (left).
On the southern side there will be Fagus sylvatica “Laciniata”, a hardy beech with smooth bark that can grow up to 12m tall.
Among the evergreens on the bridge is Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree (right).
Pearson is including pioneer tree species, which have the ability to rebalance damaged ecosystems, including Prunus cerasifera, the cherry plum, and Elaeagnus angustifolia, the Russian olive.