Past: Rochester Square is a half-acre, private square in the heart of Camden.
Originally part of lands owned by the Canons of Cathedral of St. Pauls and later the estate of the Marquis of Camden, it and the street surrounding it derives its name from the father of the second Marquis’ wife: the Bishop of Rochester.
Records show land and buildings at Rochester Square being used as a nursery for more than a century, from the 1840s, and also contain earlier (1820s) references to a nearby nursery on land leased to Robert Montgomery and located on the northeast side of Rochester Square road between Camden Road and Stratford Villas, where present day homes and buildings now stand.
In the early twentieth century, the nursery came to be owned by Stroud’s, a company best known as a film prop business that specialised in the supply and rental of palms for the entertainment industry and whose clients included the likes of Elton John and the Carry On films.
This business began to enter terminal decline in the late 1980s, ceased operations not long thereafter, and the nursery was left to become derelict. Multiple groups of squatters inhabited the property and the area got a brief mention in The Libertines' 2015 hit album, Anthems for Doomed Youth: “Holed up in squats in theatre bars . . . to Camden we will crawl . . . I’ll meet you in the shadows by Rochester square.”
download full history by Sally Williams 2016, Keeper of the Inventory for the London Parks and Gardens Trust.
Present: Clean Up
In July 2016, with various amazing friends and others, we began to clean up the space as much as possible to be able to see its original aspect and to be able to start maintaining and allowing use of it. The process so far has included:
Securing the Square:
When the nursery was acquired in February, it was occupied by a large and varying group of squatters that were living in the nursery buildings as well as many shelters constructed on the surrounding land. Face to face meetings were held to see if a consensual solution was achievable - including the possibility of those willing to “live with rules” to remain at the square as guardians - but it became clear that discord among the squat “community” was rife, negotiations quickly broke down, and an eviction was completed in early July.
Loose asbestos that squatters had been using to construct makeshift structures was tested and removed by a specialist team shortly after the eviction.
Recycle / Reuse
In the 3 weeks following eviction, squatters continued to be allowed back onsite to collect several van loads of material they could reuse in their new abodes, including 2 grand pianos. Other usable items were collected by charities or distributed to neighbours.
All of the squatters’ missing cats accounted for and reunited with their keepers within 2 weeks of the eviction.
9 mostly large (47kg) gas cylinders – one of which had been cut open and fashioned into a makeshift stove – were removed by Flogas.
A 3000 litre fuel tank that supplied the furnace used to heat the greenhouses was emptied of  year old red diesel fuel, cleansed, cut with an oxy-fuel torch, and removed in early August by DP Fuel Tank Services. They also decontaminated the site where the tank was located.
The site clearance was far more extensive than we had anticipated and involved removing 133 tonnes of debris, not including what was reused / recycled or that required specialist disposal (asbestos, electrical and white goods, gas cylinders, fuel tank, etc.).
A drains specialist has now cleared substantial, accumulated debris from the mains drains. There was only one semi-functional toilet (since replaced) for the up to 50 people previously in occupation and this deep clean resolved the noxious odour that had occasionally been noted around the eastern corner of the property.
Large amounts wasted food and other rubbish has had accumulated at the nursery or been periodically dumped at the neighbouring St. Pancras Way Estate. With the kind help of Kevin Brown at Camden Council, secure storage and proper rubbish disposal procedures are now in place.
Removal of open stores of food, cleaning, and professional pest control have attended to thriving population of rats and mice that previously inhabited the nursery.
Knotweed treatment was commenced 2 years ago and many large and mature stands were killed at that time. However, difficulty in gaining entry to the square, occupants’ discontent about the use of herbicides, and the large volume of junk obstructing inspection meant comprehensive treatment was impossible. Once the terrain was clear and accessible, the knotweed contractor stepped up the treatment regime and 4 treatments were applied during the 2016 growing session. The weather has also been cooperated, with hot and dry conditions following each treatment, and results have been good.
Future: Step by step
Trees and shrubbery
Despite the square being almost entirely hard surfaced, there are numerous trees and shrubs at the nursery, almost all them self seeded around the perimeter and untended for many years. A professional arborist was hired in the summer 2016 to complete a detailed survey of the trees and to prepare a plan for each of them. This plan has been completed, submitted to the Camden Council and posted on their website, and it is expected that tree surgeons should in position to begin this work in early 2017.
A detailed, laser measured topographic survey of the site that captured existing buildings, trees, and ground levels has been completed. This was completed in late summer 2016 and has now been augmented with a further survey that used ground penetrating radar and tracing to establish the location and routing of underground drainage, electric, gas, sewerage, and water utilities as well as searches for any underground assets of TfL, National Grid, Thames Water, BT, and UK Power Networks. Ground investigation via trial pits and boreholes will commence in 2017 and test for any contamination as well as establishing groundwater and soil conditions at various depths.