One of London's finest qualities is that whenever you're on the verge of thinking you've seen it all, a new part reveals itself - often down a passage you've walked past numerous times. For a five year period I worked in WC2, 7 days a week, odd shifts, day and night. It's an area which includes the Strand, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Aldwych and many other busy West End districts. As a result, daily, I had hours to kill between shifts and being too far to return home and too tired to sit down for fear of falling asleep - I took to the pavements. There's hardly a street, or stretch of WC2 I haven't walked up, along, around about and back again. Peering over fences: very probably. Wandering into private forecourts uninvited. Guilty, m'lud. So it was a surprise to come across the Phoenix Garden, when I must have walked by its entrance on Shaftesbury Avenue hundreds of times down the years. It has a sign and everything.
Shaftesbury Avenue is a street of two halves. The south end runs into Piccadilly Circus and is ten-deep with pedestrians. An especially tourist-heavy, hot zone. If you were in the market to buy a Buckingham Palace snowglobe, or tea-towel with teddy bear dressed as a grenadier guard on it, you'd generally grub about down here. As you pass the Curzon cinema, heading north-east, you cross Cambridge Circus and the Shaftesbury Avenue on the far side, changes completely in character: leafy and light on foot traffic.
The entrance to Phoenix Garden is here. The garden was part of a project to introduce community green spaces in Covent Garden during the 1980s, this one being created in 1984-5 and officially opened in 1986. It's also the only one still remaining. Originally WW2 bomb damaged, the site became a car park until its conversion to a garden. The rubble from pulverised buildings was used to build retaining walls and also provided useful bedrock, to lay the garden upon. The Phoenix Garden is a registered charity and staffed by volunteers who also stage events throughout the year. A recent one at the time of writing, was its annual agricultural show featuring Punch and Judy, Morris Dancers, bell ringing, stalls and of course - you'd never know this was all going on, just out of sight of tourist-drenched, Cambridge Circus.
Ordinarily it's a fine place to nibble an alfresco sandwich, take the weight off, watch bees zig-zagging through the wild flowers and rest up as your pulse eases. It's popular with steet buskers, I saw a few meet up on a patch of grass near me and 'lightly jam' with muted fret-boards - but it's most popular with readers. Three out of four were browsing a paper, magazine or book and no-one was in a hurry to be elsewhere.
If you need an inexpensive pit-stop to balance your Qi, contemplate urban fauna or disappear within the pages of a book - sidle up Stacey Street. Let the city honk and beep to itself for a while.
If you like the cut of Phoenix Garden's jib and fancy getting involved, visit: http://www.phoenixgarden.org for volunteer information.
Entry to the Phoenix Garden is free.
Opening times: 8:30am - dusk every day of the year.
Phoenix Garden, 21 Stacey Street, City of London, Greater London WC2H 8DG.
Call: 44 20 7379 3187 (Ooh! A park with a phone number)
Nearest Tube: Tottenham Court Road or Covent Garden