In a previous blog post (An abundance of courgettes) I have named my favourite place in London as the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth. On a two-day trip to London this week a visit to the garden was on my agenda, even in February this garden has a good show of spring bulbs and other delights.
John Rocque, Map of London, 1746
There was a church on the site of St Mary-at-Lambeth since 1042, the medieval stone church was erected in 1377. It was deconsecrated and closed in 1972 and was due for demolition until John and Rosemary Nicholson put together a business plan for its survival. They were interested in the two royal gardeners and plant hunters, John Tradescant, father and son, both buried at St Mary’s. The tomb of William Bligh, captain of HMS Bounty is also in the churchyard. Their project involved restoring the church and churchyard and establishing a museum of garden history, the Tradescant Trust was created and the museum opened in 1977. Years of fundraising and volunteer help secured the building, acquired the Victorian school next door, and established the garden.
The knot garden sited within the old brick wall was sheltered and intimate, an oasis of calm. Miniature fruit trees and climbing roses lived in the shelter of the wall, brick paths were installed and stone benches encouraged visitors to sit and enjoy. Wildlife abounded. Plant fairs were held in the garden to raise funds. A small café had homemade cakes for hungry visitors. A permanent exhibition of historic garden tools could be viewed within the church building, with artefacts and documents relating to the Tradescants. Among the museum’s treasures is Gertrude Jekyll’s desk. Temporary exhibitions on gardening themes were held from time to time.
A programme of refurbishment has been ongoing for many years thanks to UK Lottery funding. On my last visit good progress was being made on restoring the church and I noticed from their website that a new café was opened. On our arrival we saw that it was now possible to climb the church tower. We climbed the 131 steps to see views of the River Thames and Westminster on the far side of the river. I hoped to get an overview of the garden from this height, but I could not see it.
Imagine my astonishment when we descended the tower and made our way to the garden, to find that it was gone. The new build, café and learning centre, had replaced my beloved knot garden, that place of quiet and peace was no more. I cannot imagine a museum of garden history without it its central beating heart, its living soul. Now a small courtyard space has some planting and a few potted plants are in evidence outside the café, but for me the magic is gone.
For someone who never knew or loved the walled knot garden this museum offers much of interest and the extent of the passion and commitment that has brought it to a viable visitor attraction cannot be underestimated. St Mary’s Gardens outside the museum is a nice little park maintained by Lambeth Parks and Greenspaces and is a good place to sit.
 For a good account of the project see Founding the Museum of Garden History, compiled by Elizabeth Fleming (London, Museum of Garden History, 2006).