Eyesite: Gardeners' world
Saturday 08 August 1998
Winterson's exotic feminist- adventure hybrid has its roots in the travels of John Tradescant, a 17th-century explorer who was the first Englishman to search for plants in an organised way, journeying to Russia, America and Algiers to uproot and return with many of the plants we're familiar with today.
The story of John Tradescant is at the heart of the charming Museum of Garden History in St Mary's, a building which, for 900 years, was the parish church of Lambeth. Today it sits inauspiciously in the backyard of Lambeth Palace, sheltered from the Lambeth Bridge roundabout by a line of tall trees which sway in the summer breeze.
Inside, the women volunteers behind the museum's counters - selling china plates decorated with husks of sweetcorn, and English wine and honey - give a village hall feel to this marvellous little place. A Swedish guide book, they note in amusement, contains a description of a place staffed by tweed-wearing spinsters whose hair is tightly wound in buns. While this caricature is, of course, unfair, it captures something of an eccentric place. After all, Tradescant sailed the ocean so that the English could grow tulip trees; a museum in his honour is bound to be a little idiosyncratic.
The main body of the former church has been well-stocked with exotic species of garden paraphernalia. Glass cases glint with fantastical implements: malt shovels, wasp traps, a glorious pair of cucumber straighteners. Spud hoes, grape scissors and a voluminous bell jar. An ominous-looking cabinet displays a serious collection of gardening axes, lined up at 45 degrees as if in mid-swing.
Taking centre stage in the weed-killing display is the two-foot long "undentable" syringe, a fearsome fluted tube of brass which is displayed alongside the equally uncompromising "Whikeham Weed Eradicator". Fearsome as these devices appear, one imagines they would meet their match in one of the adjoining display cases; the freakish "vegetable lamb" is the plant equivalent of the Elephant Man, a woody plant whose four curved "legs" and hairy "back" would have Mr Whikeham turning in his plot. Despite its animal appearance, this hideous stump is nothing more than the root of a species of fern. It was discovered, appropriately, in Tartary, the land of Genghis Khan.
The Tradescant Garden, to the rear of St Mary's, is laid out as a knot garden, its prettiness and calm aura battling with the noise of traffic and aeroplanes. Plants are labelled with the date of their first noted appearance in this country, while cool stone benches, one in the shade of a false acacia, are available for less attentive contemplation of the garden. Exquisite pot plants for sale include curly spearmint, cape daisies and French honeysuckle. The grand tomb of John Tradescant and his family is also here, as are the bones of Captain Bligh, deposed captain of the mutinous Bounty.
Back inside, tea can be taken at the trellised altar. In an atmosphere of subdued confusion, visitors sit as quiet as mice, swapping child-like glances as they wonder whether it's all right to eat chocolate cake in church. The homely strains of Dvorak's New World symphony drift softly from the rafters.
Stepping outside, into the bright lights of the big city, with Parliament glaring across the river and cars rushing all around, one wonders how such a peaceful place can exist in the heart of London, and what exactly happened to the last two hours.
The Museum of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, SE1 (0171-401 8865) Mon-Fri 10.30am-4pm, Sun 10.30am-5pm, closed Sat, admission free; the Ark Garden, a collection of Tradescant's rarer plants, is open Wed 10.30am-4pm
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