This is probably one of the most famous parks in London that you didn’t know the name of, as it’s where journalists interview politicians when standing outside Parliament.
It’s also a fairly recent addition to the area, as it’s the result of post-WW2 bomb site clearance. It’s difficult to imagine it, but the Palace of Westminster used to be surrounded by a lot more houses, and this open lawn was once a row of ordinary looking Georgian houses that were offices and accommodation for Parliament.
It sits next to Abingdon Street, which until the 18th century was known as Dirty Lane, but renamed if only to avoid political jokes about the name, at the same time as the row of houses were built. After the war, the southern half was in ruins, and the rest not much better off, and thanks to the rise of the motor car, in 1957 Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee decided that what the area really needed was a car park. So the remaining houses were flattened, and in 1963-4, the Ministry of Works built a two-storey underground car park on the site.
The lawn we see today is the car park roof.
It was originally called Abingdon Street Gardens and is now simply Abingdon Green. However, the park is often called College Green, as there’s another much larger, and private, garden on the other side of the wall it sits next to, and that’s College Garden, part of Westminster Abbey.
So what is often called College Green is officially Abingdon Green after the nearby Abingdon Street, the name of the road that runs in front of Parliament.
Today, the pocket park is set out as a lawn bisected by a cross-shaped path. The roadside of the park is lined with thick bedding planting to help dampen down the road noise for the TV crews doing their thing. Apart from the medieval wall on the opposite side, the only significant decoration is the large bronze sculpture, which is “Knife Edge Two Piece” by Henry Moore, and he gave it to the nation.
He had a choice of either Hyde Park or outside Parliament, and said at the time “When I was offered the site near the House of Lords for the ‘Two-Piece Knife Edge’ sculpture, I like the place so much that I didn’t bother to go and see an alternative site in Hyde Park.”
The sculpture was unveiled on 1st November 1967.
The sculpture was not universally liked though, and Neil Martin MP was of the opinion a few weeks later that “it is a very poor artistic judgment to have dumped this sculpture on the grass against the background of the Palace of Westminster”
Today it would be unthinkable to remove it, although technically, it turned out that when Moore gifted it to the nation, no formal legal owner was created to look after it, and it was only in 2011 that the House of Commons took legal title of the sculpture, and paid for it to be cleaned.
The park used to be unfenced, but in recent years the lawn has been the site of increasingly aggressive protests, and in the end, it was decided to add a low wall and gate to the southern end closest to where camera crews interview politicians. It’s rarely closed, but is there in case it’s needed.
The park is legally owned by the Corporate Officer of the House of Commons and is rented when needed by journalists from the House of Commons. As it’s private land, although there is a permissive route through the park, there’s no legal right of way, so it can be closed off, as happens when it’s filled for major events or protests.
At the northern end of the pocket park is the ancient Jewel Tower, once part of the medieval Palace of Westminster, and now a visitor attraction owned by English Heritage. Visitors to go on tours of Parliament used to buy their tickets from the sunken space next to the Jewel Tower, but these days ticket sales are mainly done online instead so the space has been taken over as outdoor seating for the small cafe inside the tower.
The pocket park is also quite famous for what’s underneath it — that car park is the very same that appears in the opening credits of The Prisoner, where the future Number 6 parks his car on his way to resign from the Service.