Eyesite: Gardeners' world

"What I would like is to have some of Tradescant grafted onto me so I could be a hero like him," states the narrator of Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson's third novel. "He will flourish in any climate, pack his ships with precious things and be welcomed with full honours when the King is restored."

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

    Recruitment Genius: General Processor

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

    Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot