Above: Looking north in the gardens which are one three levels.
Space in the City of London is at a premium and with the price of land being so expensive those who administer it have to decide whether a public garden can be justified. Many of the little gardens in the City were once churchyards and, being consecrated ground, no development is the site for offices is permitted.
Cleary Gardens was never consecrated ground and so it is all the more surprising to find gardens at this location. As the City Website mentions – “The open space is separated over three tiers with the garden’s wooden arbours, shaded seating and lower lawn providing the ideal lunchtime spot.” There seems some confusion over the name. The City of London Website lists the open space as ‘Cleary Garden’ but the name board in the gardens (also produced by the City of London) gives the name as ‘Cleary Gardens’.
Part of the site was once a Roman bathhouse, a Scheduled Monument in the City, first listed in 1986. The bathhouse was constructed in the late 1st century and at some point in the 2nd century appears to have been enlarged and altered. It is thought to have originally extended about 75m along the former river frontage. The site is likely to have been a public bathhouse, although it has been suggested that it may have been part of a palace or other large building with a bath complex attached. In the 3rd century, the building was abandoned, partly demolished and much of the material was robbed for other uses. Several buildings subsequently occupied the site in the later Roman period and there is evidence of some industrial usage.
Documentary evidence records that by the late 9th century a stone building, known as Hwaetmundes stan, existed on the site. Several later medieval and post-medieval features survive on the site, such as a chalk-lined well and the remains of an undercroft, which are included in the scheduling.
The Roman public bath building was identified in 1964. It was situated on either side of the lower end of Huggin Lane, which once ran down the eastern side of the gardens. The baths were clearly located on a spring line as it was the small private bathhouse at Billingsgate in the east of the City. It is unfortunate that the bath building was totally destroyed by mechanical excavators in 1956. Although parts of the Roman baths still remain – hence the listing – no part of the Roman structure is visible to the public.
Exposed cellars from before the Second World War were also on the site before the gardens were created. By tidying up the site and preserving the Roman remains underground, it was possible to lay out the gardens and create a much appreciated open space in the City.
The gardens are named after Fred Cleary (1905-1984), a great campaigner for increasing the City’s open spaces. Cleary was Chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and had been instrumental in the 1970s in encouraging the planting of trees and the creation of new gardens in the City – in fact, his nickname was ‘Flowering Fred’.
In 2007 Cleary Gardens underwent a major redevelopment as the Loire Valley Wines Legacy Garden, with vines and aromatic plants to evoke the flavours and bouquet of wines from the Loire region. Those who find the gardens are always surprised that such a place of peace and tranquillity exists just a few hundred yards east of Mansion House underground station, beside the busy Queen Victoria Street.