London Parks and Gardens Trust

The Wilderness, Croydon Shirley


The Wilderness survives as a four acre, albeit overgrown, private garden on Shirley Church Road, Croydon.  Between 1904–1923 the garden was experimental and influential, created by the Rev. William Wilks, an amateur and gifted horticulturist and Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society. 

The garden is highly significant as an interpretation of the ‘Wild Garden’, as a plant collection, as an ecological resource and as a well-known local landmark that holds inherent communal interest for both the residents of Hall Grange and the wider community.


If I were to propose that the term “wild” should be defined by a lack of, rather than an abundance of and that this “lack of” allows us as human beings to connect into the landscape and consequently benefit from its therapeutic qualities, would this approach resonate with you?

By “lack” I mean the lack of human intervention; the absence of our touch upon a self-determining medium. Like a baby bird that once handled by us is often rejected by its community, I would propose that the more we intervene the less able we are to truly benefit from a landscape in therapeutic terms.

This thought has led me to consider how “private” wild landscapes can be gardens and about how far wild gardening could become more about a reintroduction of a local landscape type at a small scale than a planting style. 

One project is currently allowing me to explore this thinking in greater depth, in the company of a man who, I feel, shared my thoughts though working at the beginning of the twentieth century, The Reverend William Wilks. He was an amateur and gifted horticulturalist, Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society with a memorial gate at Wisley and a community man in his role as Vicar of St John’s Parish Church, Shirley.  (image 1 Wilks)

His landscape was a piece of virgin heath and woodland adjacent to his vicarage, referred to as The Wilderness. He had already created a garden traditional for his time around his home, but next door he would break free of the traditions of his time.

Inspired by the writing and philosophy of William Robinson and his book “Wild Gardening” and guided by his own ideas on execution he set about from 1904 to 1922, embellishing this existing four acre landscape with individual shrubs and trees that he considered would enhance this existing sense of wild and create a paintable landscape. (Image 2 – overall historic)

Initially for self expression and pleasure it would become a place of therapeutic recovery from an undisclosed illness that eventually forced his retirement and his move to a new house on this wild landscape. His ethos can be summarised as that of a man with an enquiring mind grounded in a deep love of the process and beauty of the natural world.

Eschewing all hard landscape and planted borders, he had grass paths mown in different locations each year that took the walker past new plants, conceived views and presented evolving planting “arrangements”. 

The landscape is best described by The Gardener’s Chronicle of 1920 who returned to the Wilderness and wrote ‘True to our expectations we found a most beautiful pleasance laid out and planting on unorthodox lines but embodying the true features of a natural garden’ but with ‘an orderliness in the whole scheme’. 

His sense of experimentation extended into his grafting techniques for fruit trees called “approach” grafting and the mixing of single specimens of exotics into his wild landscape to see if and how they would enhance the apparent connection and the paintability of his landscape. (Image 3 – experimental planting)

As part of the design team we are looking to reintroduce this wild landscape and the ecological diversity that comes with woodland, heathland and bog. The design team are reaping the benefits of Wilks inquiring approach but also some of the problems, such as invasive species  like bamboo and Rhododendron ponticum that he planted and that have remained unchecked for decades and require extensive removal to allow the biodiversity to reestablish itself. (image 4 – overgrown)

I see the project as a reintroduction, as years of well intentioned management have meant that the original diversity has been lost due to the invasive species and self sown trees. The result of Wilks experimentation has in fact resulted in the need for an increased level of intervention rather than a reduction in it. There are still however, wonderful pockets of heathland planting, a rare bog area abundant in flora particularly rare Sphagnum moss and woodlands that hold the promise of rich potential. (image 5 bog garden)

This is still a significant landscape that has never in all its history been gardened in the traditional sense or worked with heavy machinery. It therefore remains a unique opportunity to reestablish a lost wilderness. 

But what of the therapeutic qualities that I referred to at the beginning of the article? Now owned by a care home, our project will create a fully accessible piece of wild landscape at their back door. Accessible and protected, it will be a safe place to visit unaided and open to all residents, their visitors and to the general public (on regular days). I am personally most excited to see its impact on the residents’ well-being and quality of life in preference to a more traditional garden. Also the benefits to those who volunteer, not only “the hands in the ground” benefits but the training on the light touch and sensitive management and maintenance we are striving for. 

We will continue to ask ourselves how could this safe and accessible wild landscape continue to support other community sectors as it once supported the Rev Wilks and inspire the continuing debate on our sense of the wild, its beauty, its therapeutic qualities to all ages and abilities and above all to challenge our modern ideas on how we connect to the landscape.