Getting to know Allens Gardens

A Stoke Newington park home to a wealth of nature including a rare, giant coastal redwood tree


TOWERING at up to 300 feet, or 36 storeys high, the coastal redwood is the skyscraper of the natural world. It is also one of the largest, rarest and most ancient species of tree in the world.

They are native to California, on the west coast of North America, and they languish, tragically, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list. They are so rare, in fact, concerned scientists are cloning them in labs to help save them from extinction.

But, incredibly, one of these magnificent trees – albeit not quite one of the giants just yet – grows in Allens Gardens, a little-known park tucked behind Bethune Road in Stoke Newington. And no-one has any idea how it got there.

Sally Haywill, spokesperson for the Allens Gardens User Group, says: “It is astonishing. It is currently the tallest tree in the gardens – looking like it is determined to live up to its reputation as the tallest in the world.”

It’s not the only surprise in Allens Gardens, a small, nature-packed, green lung and ecological haven in one of the borough’s most built-up areas. 

Sally continues: “It is absolutely teeming with a range of trees, plants, fungi, insects and other wildlife, notably birds. We’ve identified 80 different plants, shrubs or trees growing in the gardens, including the quite rare wild service tree of Fontainebleau, which is apparently one of the best specimens in Hackney. And, of course, the redwood.”

The gardens were created in 1874 by prominent Stoke Newington Quaker Matthew Allen who, according to historical records, built them alongside Bethune Flats (pictured above), his ‘dwellings for the middle classes’.

At that time, the communal green space included a croquet lawn, long gravelled walk with flower borders, greenhouse, gardener’s cottage, potting sheds, and coach house and stables. There was also a bowling green and children’s playground, and tenants could buy produce grown in the kitchen garden.

Then, for reasons unknown, the gardens were locked up and forgotten for nearly 100 years, until local people teamed up with the Council, which now manages them, to bring the wilderness back into use in the early 1990s. 

Now, members of the community flock to the park, ‘valuing its serenity, seclusion and beauty,’ says Sally, a teacher. Adding: “It gives us humans that live near it a wonderful, literal breathing space in a crowded city. It is a rare place of tranquility and refuge from a busy world.” 

Indeed, the London Parks and Gardens Trust describe the gardens as having ‘the atmosphere of a secret garden’, shielded, as they are, behind homes on one side and bounded by the Enfield to Liverpool Street railway track on the other. 

In a nod to the park’s past life, Growing Communities, a community-led food-growing organisation in Hackney, set up one of its first urban market gardens (pictured above) in the park in 2004. It is now one of the project’s main growing sites, producing a vast array of organic salads and fruit. The team also introduced a garden shed to the site as well as an eco-building with a compost toilet and living sedum roof.

However, the gardens, which sit in a designated nature conservation area, are not just an oasis for people: it is a much-needed sanctuary for insects and animals seeking succour and sustenance from the surrounding urban sprawl.

“The beautiful small leaved lime tree consistently flowers early each summer, providing honeybees and other pollinators with a welcome source of nectar,” says Sally. Adding: “The horse chestnuts flower in the spring, and providevital early sources of both nectar and pollen. 

“The dandelions at the top end are one of the earliest sources of food for honeybees, and other insects, as are the flowers of the mirabelle plum tree in the woody area. The ivy growing on trees and walls is the essential last crop of flowers, around October, before the insects snuggle down for the winter.”

The little park forms part of a vital green corridor, stretching north-westerly up the long back gardens of Cranwich and Bethune roads towards the leafy banks of the East Bank and West Bank Nature Reserve, a two kilometre stretch of railway cutting near Stamford Hill Station, as well as southwards into Abney Park Cemetery.

Explore Hackney's other hidden gems and get away from it all without leaving the borough.

By Jane Ball