Driven Round the Bend

Making British roundabouts interesting

Words & Pictures: John Hoyland

At the intersection of three tree-lined avenues in Letchworth Garden City a sign on a small traffic island proudly boasts that this was the UK’s first roundabout.  The sign is shiny and new; the plants around it old and tired.  Hebes, pruned to within an inch of their livers; a few straggly cistus that are about to expire; a clump of bergenia looking like it has been untouched by human hands since it was first planted.  Lining the pavements around the roundabout are a few old roses, tied to sagging wires, looking wretched and uncared for in poor soil.

This historic roundabout is emblematic of the sorry state of the plantings on roundabouts, road verges and public spaces throughout Britain.  For the most part they are miserable, poorly maintained places.  When they are planted and maintained, sponsored by the local dry-cleaners or chamber of commerce, they are humdrum, soulless places, touched by neither passion nor imagination.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Adventurous cities like Bristol, seaside towns and tourist destinations realise that roundabouts and roadside verges can be welcoming, cheerful places that lift the spirits. But in the vast majority of towns and cities, where most of us live and work, they are, at best, drab, at worst, an eyesore. I recently drove into a small town past a roundabout that supported an old wire fence covered in a tangle of plastic carrier bags and strewn with empty beer cans.  Welcome to our town!

I spend a lot of time, for work and for pleasure, driving around the Continent, particularly in France.  You can’t fail to be delighted by the flair, plantsmanship and enthusiasm on display in their roadside plantings.  The very best roundabouts are elegant, beautifully-designed places that most of us would be happy to have as a garden.  Of course, some are kitsch, like the giant wicker bottle permanently spilling out its sparkling wine planted in white petunias that you will come across in the Aude. Others are just bizarre.  What is the model ‘nodding donkey’ pump in the middle of a roundabout in Aquitaine all about?  But I’d much rather have an “Oh-my-god,-what-is-that-we’ve-just-driven past” reaction than the mind-numbing haze that most British roundabouts induce.

Above all there is a strong sense of local identity in French public planting. Vineyards, orchards and lavender fields are recreated in miniature, regional products and local history celebrated. There is never that ‘Groundhog Day’ feeling that you have already driven through this place, that the plantings throughout the entire country are indistinguishable. There are no rules, regulations or planting plans that direct the French displays: they are governed by local pride and the imagination and skill of the person responsible for planting them.

Of course, larger French towns and cities have been able, up until now, to support parks departments that have the skill and resources to grow plants and maintain plantings.  Here in Britain, most parks department have gone and public spaces are looked after by landscape maintenance companies whose tight margins mean that can do little more than mow grass and cut back shrubs (it can’t be described as pruning).

Some French towns have sought the help of plant experts, such as David and Bella Gordon, an English couple who run a nursery, Plantagenet Plants, in central France.  By choosing robust, drought-resistant and long-flowering perennials, combined with grasses, they have created planting schemes for roundabouts that are eye-catching and require little maintenance.

In smaller towns and villages in France, though, planting and maintaining is often done by a part-time employee of the council or a few volunteers who are left to get on with the job.

Britain has some of the best nurseries, plantspeople and garden designers in the world, so we should be able to do something about the sorry state of our roundabouts.  We also have a tradition of volunteering and of civic pride.  I think it’s time to take the responsibility for public plantings away from the dead hands of local administrators and national organisations.  Give the income from roundabout sponsors to local gardening clubs, horticultural societies, and guerilla gardeners. Let these groups take on the planting of roadsides and roundabouts.  That way we might have a bit more beauty and jollity and charm to welcome us into our towns and villages.

If the Letchworth roundabout were in France it would be planted up as a garden of one of the town’s famous 1905 Cheap Cottages Exhibition or would celebrate its most famous company, Spirella, which at the beginning of the last century was the biggest name in women’s undergarments.  Now there’s an idea.  How to recreate corsets in bedding plants …?