The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 1 Introduction

Old London palace gardens

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London was a city of palaces in Plantagenet times, and the great nobles had their gardens near or surrounding their castles. Bayard's Castle, facing the river for centuries, had its gardens, and there were spacious gardens within the precincts of the Tower when it was the chief royal residence in London, and outside the walls of the City fine dwellings and large gardens were clustered together. Among the most famous in the thirteenth century was the Earl of Lincoln's, purchased from the Dominicans, when they outgrew their demesne in Holborn, and migrated to the riverside, where their memory ever lives under their popular name of the Black Friars. Minute accounts of the expenses of this garden are preserved in the Manor Roll, and a very fairly accurate picture of what it was can be pieced together. The chief flowers in it were roses, and the choicest to be found at that date, the sweet-scented double red "rosa gallica," would be in profusion. It might be that, in the shady corners of the garden, periwinkle trailed upon the ground, and violets perfumed the air. White Madonna lilies reared their stately heads among the clove pinks, lavender, and thyme. Peonies, columbines, hollyhocks, honeysuckle, corncockles, and iris, white, purple, and yellow, made no mean show. The orchard could boast of many kinds of pears and apples, cherries and nuts. A piece of water described as "the greater ditch" (MSS. Manor Roll in the Record Office) formed the fish stew where pike were kept and artificially fed. Besides all this, there was a considerable vineyard. It was thought a favourable spot for vines, and the Bishop of Ely's vineyard, the site of which is still remembered by Vine Street, was hard by. A good deal of imagination is now required to conjure up a picture of a vintage in Holborn. Amid the crowd of cabs, carts, carriages, and omnibuses rolling all day over the Viaduct from Oxford Street to the heart of the City, it needs as fertile a brain as that of the poet who pictured the vision of poor Susan as she listens to the song of the bird in Wood Street to call up such a scene. The gardens sloping down to the "bourne" were carefully enclosed-the Earl of Lincoln's by strong wooden palings, that of Ely Place by a thorn hedge with wooden gates fitted with keys and locks (MSS. Manor Roll, Archives of Ely Cathedral.). The inner gardens, that were specially reserved for the Bishop, the great garden and the "grassyard," were separated by railings and locked doors from the vineyard. The "grassyard" was mown, and a tithe of the proceeds from the sale of the grass paid to the Rector of St. Andrew's, Holborn. The wine produced was more of the character of vinegar, and was also sold; as much as thirty gallons of this "verjuice" was produced in one year. Extra hands were hired to weed and dress the vineyard, and apparently the vineyard entailed a good deal of trouble, and for many years it was let. Think of a warm day in early autumn, clusters of grapes hanging from the twisted vines, men and women in gay colours carrying baskets of ripe fruit to the vats where they were trodden, and the crimson juice squeezed out; the mellow rays of the sinking sun light up the high walls and many towers of the City, and the distant pile of Westminster is half hidden by the mists rising from the river, while there, too, the vintage is in full swing, and the song (See Alexander Necham, De Naturis Rerum, twelfth century.) of the grape-gatherers breaks the stillness of the October evening. Away to the north the landscape is bounded by the wooded heights of Hampstead and Highgate. Most of the country round London then was forest land, and in spite of the changes of centuries a few acres of the original forest remain in Highgate Woods to this day, now owned by the Corporation of London. Between the hills and the city on the north-cast lay the marshy ground known as Moorfields, for some 800 years the favourite resort of Londoners wishing to take the air. Gradually this open space has been built over, although a few green patches, such as Finsbury Square, the Artillery Ground, or the more distant Bunhill Fields, have remained through the changes time has wrought. This space might have been like one of the other heaths or commons of London, a beautiful open space in the heart of the town, but the supposed exigencies of modern civilisation, with the usual want of foresight, have banished the life-giving fresh air, and the Corporation of London has had to go far afield, to Burnham Beeches and Epping Forest, to supply what once was at its door. Literally at its door, as the busy street of Moorgate recalls the Mayor, Thomas Falconer by name, who in 1415 "caused the wall of the citie to be broken neere unto Coleman Street, and there builded a posterne now called Moorgate, upon the Mooreside, where was never gate before. This gate he made for ease of the citizens, that way to passe upon cawseys into the Field for their recreation." (Stowe, "Survey of London"). The fields in question were at that time a marsh, and though some fifty years later "dikes and bridges" were made, it was many years before the whole moor was drained. The task at one time seemed so difficult that the chronicler Stowe, in 1598, feared that even if the earth was raised until it was level with the city walls it would be "but little dryer," such was the "moorish" nature of the ground. Moorfields was the scene of many curious dramas during its history It was the great place for displays, sham fights, and sports of the citizens. Pepys notes in his Diary, July 26, 1664, that there was much discourse about "the fray yesterday in Moorfields, how the butchers at first did beat the weavers (between whom there hath been ever an old competition for mastery), but at last the weavers rallied and beat them." Such scenes were very frequent, and Moorfields for generations was the theatre of such contests. During the time of the Great Fire, numbers of homeless people camped out there, passing days of discomfort and anxiety about their few remaining household goods. Pepys in his casual way alludes to them: "5th September,... Into Moorefields (our feet ready to burn, walking through the town among hot coles), and find that full of people, and poor wretches carrying their goods there, and everybody keeping his goods together by themselves (and a great blessing it is to them that it is fair weather for them to keep abroad night and day); drunk there and paid twopence for a plain penny loaf." The "trained bands" used Moorfields as their exercise ground, and no doubt the prototype of John Gilpin disported himself there. As the fields were drained after 1527 they became more and more the favourite resort of citizens of all ranks. Laid out more as a public garden in 1606, they continued the chief open space of the city until a few generations ago.