Gardening: A scent of London's green past

The Herb Garden at Shoreditch is a reminder of the East End's roots, says Patricia Cleveland-Peck
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The East End of London conjures up images of urban decay and traffic pollution rather than orchards and gardens, yet in the past Hackney, Hoxton and Shoreditch were important horticultural areas. In the late 16th century there was a botanical garden in Homerton that included plants collected by Mathias de L'obel of Lobelia fame; Pepys mentions a visit to an East End garden in 1666 in which oranges were growing; at Hackney House in 1700 a deer park was created. The good soil and plentiful water supply made the area a mecca for market gardens. In 1590 Gerard wrote in his Herball: "The small Turnep which groweth by Hackney ... are the best that ever I tasted".

Plant nurseries abounded. There was even one specialising in vines. The most influential was the nursery that Conrad Loddiges established in Mare Street in 1774. Here he developed the largest hothouse in the world; it contained a tropical rainforest of exotic plants, some of which he supplied to Kew and Chatsworth.

The area was also rich in pleasure gardens. Pepys records a trip out of London (which stank in summer) with his wife "to take the ayre to Hackney; there light and play at shuffleboard, eat cream and good cherries; and so with good refreshment home".

The Eagle pleasure gardens in City Road (celebrated in the song "Pop goes the weasel") survived into the 19th century, but the spread of the metropolis and the consequent increase in land prices meant that more and more green spaces fell to speculative builders. With development came the problems of pollution. The modern image of the East End emerged.

Yet the ghosts of the old gardeners lingered about the place too insistently for the love of green things to be eradicated. East End backyards and window boxes continued to flower. Even today the private gardens of Albion Square (a winner in last year's London Squares Competition) are open under the National Gardens Scheme in June.

At the same time, vestiges of the green past have survived in the parks. Victoria Park, Springfield Park and Clissold Park, if no longer in their heyday, provide acres of open space for the community, while small pockets such as Allen's Garden in Bethune Road and St Thomas's churchyard are half-forgotten, secret gardens in which people can escape for a while from urban concerns.

Today, the place in which the green and tranquil spirit of the old East End is most strongly captured must be the Herb Garden at the Geffrye Museum. Situated in a walled enclosure beside the old almshouses that make up this friendly museum, this garden is not, in fact, old. It was created in 1991 on a derelict site in the hope that it would serve as a sort of "spiritual heir to the legacy of horticultural interest and botanical delights once common in Shoreditch ..."

Within the brick walls, four square beds containing aromatic herbs such as lavender, southernwood, thyme, bergamot, mints and rosemary surround a central well-head designed by the local ceramicist Kate Malone. Benches overhung with sweet-smelling climbers and roses stand against the walls, while between them are beds planted with different types of herbs: dye plants, culinary herbs, herbs for bees, herbs for medicinal purposes, cosmetic herbs - even household herbs such as fleabane, which was once used to kill fleas, and pennyroyal, whose strong scent deterred ants. A further area is given over to cosmetic herbs, and there is a bed devoted to salad herbs, reminding us that in Tudor times a "sallet" was not the floppy lettuce leaf, tired tomato and chunk of cucumber with which we are often fobbed off; it could feature as many as 50 different plants.

The educational value of this garden is inestimable in an area where few people have the opportunity to experience the natural world at first hand. "Local people think of it as theirs," says Christine Lalumia, who initiated the project. "Some even bring us plants."

In the gentlest way it teaches a great deal, underlining man's continuing reliance on plant power. The museum itself is laid out as a series of domestic interiors dating from 1600 to 1950, and the garden shows what an important role herbs played in the past, providing the major source materials for flavourings, medicine and cosmetics.

It becomes apparent, however, that the chemical and pharmaceutical advances of this century have by no means banished herbs. Indeed a backlash against synthetic drugs and preservatives has revived interest in green medicine, aromatherapy and all things herbal.

Most of the East End gardens have long been buried under pavements, but their spiritual heir, the Herb Garden at the Geffrye, continues to offer visitors a welcome. "It is such a beautiful, safe and thoughtful place," says Christine Lalumia. "It's much used and much loved."

Indeed, to sit in this peaceful garden listening to the birds and bees, surrounded by the soft colours of the plants and breathing in their sweet and aromatic scents, is to feel at one with London's green past and full of hope for its future.

The Herb Garden at the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road E2 (0171-739 9893), is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday 2pm-5pm. Admission is free.