Far be it from me to suggest that gardeners are an inquisitive bunch, but if we were to see a long, high wall which hid a garden from public view, would we turn down an opportunity to visit that garden? I know I wouldn't, especially if those garden gates had been closed to the public for 800 years. EIGHT HUNDRED! It feels as if I have been waiting every second of those 800 years to see this garden!
Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, has the oldest continuously cultivated garden in London. Imagine! If you, like me, spent eternal terms at school colouring in booklets about Tudors, and then immersed yourself in televised Tudor shenanigans in later life, would you be able to contain yourself at the idea of wandering around Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s patch? The very notion that this garden had already been in cultivation for 300 years in Henry VIII's time was almost enough to sidetrack me from the plants!
Of course, the garden is not as it was when Cranmer annulled Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and married Henry to Anne Boleyn. Major changes took place after 1783, when John Moore became Archbishop. Walkways, tree belts and contouring made at his instigation can still be seen today. A fig tree, which was over 200 years old at the time, survived the changes. Ficus carica 'White Marseilles', was planted by Reginal Pole, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1556 (the year Cranmer was executed and just nine years after Henry VIII's death).
Archbishop Pole had been in exile for part of Henry VIII's reign, and it is thought that he brought the fig cutting to Lambeth Palace from Southern Italy. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave Pope Francis a cutting from the fig tree.
Nowadays the garden is maintained according to organic principles where possible. For the compostholics among us (which I hope is everybody), here is a photo of the engine room of the garden. Apart from the aforementioned wall, you can just about see the edge of the compost bays with their more advanced contents opposite these bins. I wouldn't normally excite us all with compost pictures, but then again, inspecting composting areas at palaces isn't an everyday occurrence for me.
At around ten acres, it is the second largest private garden in London (the garden at Buckingham Palace being bigger). It is located across the river from Parliament and right under the nose of St Thomas’ Hospital, so it is a busy place, yet it is surprisingly peaceful. Bee hives, flowers, lawns, trees, a swing, topiary, and a heron fishing in the pond. If it wasn't for the tops of double-decker buses and the Palace of Westminster peeping over the wall, we might be forgiven for thinking that we were in the countryside.
This private garden is used by the Archbishop, his family and staff. Despite its size, the layout makes it feel comfortable. It is one of those rare gardens that has a dimension which goes beyond design. It is not just all the layers of history; it is a special place to be.
The garden is only open to the public on two more occasions this year: the first Wednesdays in September and in October. If you happen to be in London on one of those Wednesday afternoons, I recommend that you grab the opportunity to visit; entry is just £4. It is next door to the Garden Museum, so it is very easy to combine a visit to the two.