The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens would have to be in my top five places I would like to travel back in time to visit. But until someone sorts out the mechanics of time travel, doing one of London Trails’ walks is the next best thing. The Londonphile has written about Ken Titmuss’ walks before, in which he utilises old maps to guide you around old (and lost) London town. And while it was the opportunity to see the old site of the Pleasure Gardens that inspired me to book onto his Vauxhall walk, of course it turned out to be about so much more than that – although the gardens and its remains is the focus of this post.
Entire books have been written about the decadent playground that was Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, and one can hardly do it justice in a blog post…But in short, Vauxhall provided entertainment to Londoners for almost 200 years from its opening in 1661. Although it was not located along the banks of the Thames as is often assumed, pleasure-seekers did originally arrive by boat (prior to construction of the Vauxhall Bridge). The entertainment on offer varied over the years, but included music, art, ballet, fireworks, tightrope walkers and hot air balloons. A re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo was held in 1827 featuring 1,000 soldiers, while Handel held a dry run of sorts (sans fireworks) for his Music for the Royal Fireworks here the night before it was performed. Tens of thousands of revellers often partied and promenaded here per night - a mixture of celebrities, authors, royalty and whoever could afford the entry fee – and it wasn’t unusual for festivities to last until three or four in the morning.
The landscaping and structures found in the Gardens added greatly to Vauxhall’s atmosphere, especially its tree lined avenues which were illuminated with thousands of lamps. And then of course there were the ‘dark walks’ – the not-so-illuminated walkways along the back of the gardens, which gained a special reputation for secret assignations. The private supper boxes (decorated with paintings – some possibly by Gainsborough) are more well known, as is the magnificent Rococo orchestra loggia, but ruins, statues, cascades and arches were also scattered throughout the gardens. The party finally came to an end in 1859, partly due to the infringement of the train and its accompanying smoke between the gardens and the Thames, and as revellers drifted off to newer venues, such as the Crystal Palace. The closest analogy to modern times that I can come up with for the Gardens is a giant, alfresco, multi-arts nightclub – or maybe an ongoing outdoor festival.
But what remains and what has happend to the site? Whereas on Ken’s Bermondsey walk I found the story to be one of renewal and regeneration, constantly moving onwards and upwards, Vauxhall has had more of an unusual trajectory. Soon after the Pleasure Gardens closed the area was filled with quite dense housing and some industry. By 1864 all twelve acres were completely built over. However, the area suffered greatly in the Blitz due to its proximity to the Thames and much of this construction was lost. Ultimately the site that once housed the Gardens became a large recreational area and remains so today. So the Pleasure Gardens is once again an open space for people to visit and enjoy – a tale of an area reverting back to its previous history.
Lambeth Parks now manages the space -they have re-named it Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, erected a sign about the site’s history and the nameplate pictured at the very top of this post. Two large columns that frame the view into the park have been added at the Kennington Lane entrance (pictured above). Another section of the park is named Spring Gardens – after the Pleasure Gardens’ original name New Spring Gardens. The walk also took us past what is now the only remaining structure from the original Pleasure Gardens. This is the old manager’s house (pictured below) – which has now found a new use as the vicarage of St Peter’s.
This post is merely a taster of Ken’s walk – which as luck would have it is running again on 31 March; new dates are added throughout the year. Without giving too much away, some of the highlights include London’s most unlikely high street and what must be the world’s most ornate (former) head office. And, of course, the remains of the glorious Pleasure Gardens. I also highly recommend tea and cake afterwards at the delightful Tea House Theatre. Located in an 1886 public house constructed in the building frenzy after the Gardens closed, this establishment is bringing back the art of tea drinking to Vauxhall – it had been a popular refreshment at the Pleasure Gardens – another sign of the site reverting to type.