London's secret gardens

By Rebecca Dalzell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 30, 2010; 12:00 PM

When I lived in London a few years ago, I often went apple-picking in the fall. But there was no need to drive to the country. Instead, I took the No. 39 bus from my apartment in Clapham, carrying a canvas bag for loot, and got off at Putney Bridge, on the Thames in the west of the city. On one side of the bridge, Putney High Street buzzes with Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's shoppers; on the other, towering London planes lean over a quiet esplanade at Bishops Park. Now popular with dog-walkers and joggers, the park was once part of the secluded estate of Fulham Palace, summer retreat for the bishops of London until 1973.

Visiting the palace still feels like a country escape, with the Tudor courtyard, the Victorian chapel and the Georgian manor whose elegant cafe faces a lawn that's often swarming with children. The 18th-century kitchen garden, catering to no one now, lies undisturbed. Down a gravel path at the back of the lawn is a narrow doorway in a low brick wall. When I visited again last fall, it still felt as though the gate was open by chance. Passing through is like entering the Secret Garden, a place too lovely to enter without a key. In one corner, behind a trestle of wisteria, rosemary, thyme and lavender grow in neat clumps. Hard pears, fallen from high branches, strew the long grass beside a small meadow of wildflowers. Apple trees line the central path, and when I had come in late August they sagged with fruit. Some apples I picked prematurely, liking them so small, and some I let grow, watching them mature over the weeks. They were crunchy and tasted rich and earthy, some tart and some sweet, with shiny reddish-yellow or pocked green skin. It was a bucolic pleasure I never imagined I'd find in a major city.

Fulham Palace may have London's only orchard, but it is one of many small green spaces tucked behind the city's busy streets. Unlike the stately Hyde or Green parks, these gardens aren't tourist or weekend destinations and are best known to nannies or local workers looking for a shady lunchtime bench. Yet they are intimate vantage points on the sprawling city, nooks where its history is personal, touchable. Each gives visitors a sense of discovery, as if they have turned the lock on the door to the city's hidden world.

At the Chelsea Physic Garden, that unlatched London belongs to apothecaries. Beside the Thames in a quiet residential neighborhood, it is the second-oldest botanic garden in England. Founded in 1673 to promote the study of botany in relation to medicine, the garden still cultivates rare plants and is used for research. Within its brick walls you sense an ancient reverence for plants and herbs that is largely lost now.

Covering about two square blocks, it's crossed with pebble paths that pass plants both strange and familiar - eucalyptus or oryza sativa - categorized by country of origin and uses. The garden's proximity to the river creates a warmer microclimate, so nonnative plants survive there, including an olive and a grapefruit tree. This cultivation was fully private for more than 200 years, but the garden is now open to visitors in spring and summer.

There are enough curiosities here to lose yourself for a couple of hours, even if you've never planted a seed. Signs and labels for some of the garden's 5,000 species are surprisingly absorbing. Valeriana officinalis is a "sedative for nervous strain." Great Burnet, wrote botanist John Parkinson in 1629, makes "the heart merrie." Black cumin is known as "the digester" in Sanskrit. A moldy bench, we're told, is not for sitting - that growth is actually lichen, which is being studied. Plots are dedicated to Chelsea's past curators, who emerge as an impressive bunch. Robert Fortune, for instance, brought back 190 plants, including wisteria and kumquat, from China and Japan in the 19th century.

Fulham and Chelsea are residential neighborhoods, but other gardens lie smack in business districts. You can walk down the Strand, dodging black cabs and smartly dressed executives, without any clue to the several acres of greenery just down an alley next to the George pub. The elegant Gothic confines there make up the Temple, two of the city's four Inns of Court. Colleges of sorts for barristers, the 16th-century Inns house chambers, chapels, dining halls, libraries and even a few apartments. Buildings ring manicured gardens with towering trees.

Entered through narrow passageways or guarded driveways, the Inns are open to the public during the day and connect almost seamlessly from the Thames to Oxford Street - a good trick for avoiding crowds. Best for picnics is Gray's Inn, on High Holborn, whose lawn is open for weekday lunchtime. Plus, you're sitting steps from where alumnus Francis Bacon may have pondered his famous aphorisms.

The ancient City of London, the financial center, holds a trove of lush pockets, many in tiny churchyards. One of the most unusual is Postman's Park, nestled behind St. Botolph's Aldersgate and modern office buildings. Shady and still, with a fountain and benches, it at first looks like an ordinary, if pleasant, retreat from the thronged blocks around St. Paul's. But in one corner, a wooden awning protects a wall of painted ceramic plaques that honor individuals who died heroic deaths, the brainchild of 19th-century artist George Frederic Watts. The inscriptions are one-line tragedies: Twelve-year-old David Selves "supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms," and 19-year-old railway clerk William Donald "drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed" in 1876.

Farther east in the City, I once glanced down a gray alley and saw an empty Gothic window frame - the remains of a bombed-out church. Nothing else of St. Dunstan-in-the-East is visible from Eastcheap, the busy artery a block away. But go a few steps closer, and the tower suddenly appears, Christopher Wren's most feminine spire curving to a gemlike point nearly 200 feet up.

Next to the sooty tower is a door frame entering into a side garden and then the church. The stone walls, stained by moss, are draped in billowing ivy that sags over the aisles and fills the pointed arches of the tall windows. The nave is carpeted in grass and centers on a squat fountain and a ring of shrubs. Where the altar would be sit a lone bench and a pair of palms.

St. Dunstan's was built in 1697 and bombed in 1941. Its congregation is now mostly City workers at lunchtime. The restoration has made the bombing seem tidy, since all four walls remain and the tower and spire are unscathed. Wren, who liked his churches simple and unadorned, might have appreciated how naturally spiritual this one has become. Where other churches have lofty or painted ceilings evoking the heavens, St. Dunstan's opens right to them. It is this, and the weaving tendrils of ivy in the window-frames, that gives the space a hushed holiness.

There has been a church on this spot for more than 1,000 years. It is hard to imagine the City then, for there are so few remnants of that time. Though the streets follow the medieval layout, the buildings lining them are mostly cold and modern. St. Dunstan's exists as if suspended in time, its overgrown state at once recalling the wild of the ancient past, the reconstruction after the Great Fire, and the war.

It is both a refuge from the city and a symbol of it, a garden that promises to endure.

Dalzell is a writer and urban historian living in New York City.

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