Located right next to Highgate Cemetery, Waterlow Park is your typical north London public park, where grassy slopes alternate with trees and shrubberies and hidden ponds. It was donated to the City Council in 1889 by politician and philanthropist Sir Sidney Waterlow who intended it as “a garden for the gardenless”. Waterlow had created the park by merging the grounds of several estates he had acquired in the area. Perhaps the most prominent of these estates was Lauderdale House, which still stands in an elevated position in the northeast section of the park. It is surrounded by an ornate terraced garden markedly distinct from the rest of the park.
In its present state, Lauderdale House sports a fine neoclassical façade, dating to c. 1760. At its core, however, the house is much older: It was first built as a timber-framed structure in (or slightly before) 1582 for Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had passed into the possession of John Maitland (1616–1682), 1st Duke of Lauderdale, councillor and favourite of Charles II. A source from that time already describes the house as “having an English garden with terraces, orange trees and a fountain”.
It seems that the gardens’ architectural structure has remained largely unchanged since then: To this day, the terraces are retained by brick walls dating from the seventeenth century. The buttressed southwest wall, which now separates the garden from the surrounding park, is particularly impressive.
Two sets of stone steps lead from the park onto the lower terrace; another flight of steps connects the latter to the upper terrace and the house itself. The steps are somewhat younger than the walls, some of them said to be of eighteenth-century origin, others presumably rebuilt in the Victorian period.
While its architectural ‘framework’ is thus of a rather venerable age, the garden itself was much altered in later times. It underwent its most decisive remodelling in the years after 1850, when Lauderdale House was leased to the clergyman and scholar James Yates (1789–1871). Under his patronage, the house became “famed for its garden-parties, at which the literary and scientific celebrities were gathered to meet the lions of the season”, as James Thorne’s 1876 Handbook of the Environs of London informs us. “The terraced garden”, Thorne continues, “with its brilliant flowers and velvet lawns, was in Mr. Yates’s time a charming example of an old-fashioned garden, treated with the best modern skill.” As we know from other sources, Yates also added an orchard, a hedged kitchen garden, a palm house and other glasshouses to the grounds.
Not long after Yates’ death, however, the garden had fallen into decay. In 1893, John E. Locking characterises it as “a wilderness of shrubs and flowers”, and an overall rather desolate place: “As one mounts the steps of the terrace, overgrown with snapdragon, broken many of them, and the balustrades falling down, somehow there is a feeling of sadness. (…) Here, in tangled confusion, the iris, the evening primrose, the marigold, the hollyhock, the camomile, the Portugal laurel, the sweet pea, burridge, and the rowan-tree ‘for luck’, grow and flourish at their own sweet will in the long silky grass.”
Today, after some further ups and downs, Lauderdale House and its gardens are once again a well-kept and charming site. Having been restored to their former glory from 2001–2005, with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund, they are now a lovely place for a stroll or for simply sitting down on a bench – or for enjoying a cuppa and a slice of cake in Lauderdale House Café…