Surprises at the Garden Museum

IMG_6094A week later than planned I went to see Rachel Warne’ s exhibition Faded Glory at the Garden Museum. As so often, I got there just days before it closed. I frequently do this, thinking ‘Oh, it’s on for ages,’ and often regret my tardiness as it means I rarely have time to go back and see whatever it was again. In this case, although the exhibition is small, I would certainly have gone back. Chris’ post has entirely done it justice so I won’t write any more about it here.

As it was, I spent far longer at the museum than I intended and discovered far more than I expected to. Just as I was leaving I was told that there was a guided tour and, on impulse, I decided to join it. At first I was the only person, but in the end there were seven of us and the guide coped brilliantly with the fact that part of her audience spoke only French. It was utterly fascinating; I cannot recommend these tours highly enough. They take place at 2 o’clock and we learnt about the history of the church, the history of the museum and, along the way, about the potteries of Lambeth and the fact that for many years the only ferry across the Thames which could take horses and carriages was at Lambeth. This gave rise to Horseferry Road, leading to the river on the north side, and the now vanished Horseferry Street on the south side. We were then taken round the garden and were shown a lot of details that I had missed, even though, by that stage, I’d already been round the beds twice.  

Briefly, the Garden Museum is housed in St Mary-at-Lambeth, just south of Lambeth Bridge. There has been a church on this site since the 11th century, but in the late 20th century the congregation declined, the building fell into disrepair and was finally deconsecrated. The area at the front is more churchyard than garden, whereas the graveyard beyond has been transformed into a garden. There is a knot garden designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury in the centre, but the main focus of the garden is probably the tomb of the John Tradescants, father and son. They were gardeners to, amongst other people, Charles I and II and travelled extensively, collecting plants and curios wherever they went. Their story really deserves a post of its own but the important point here is that their grave was the reason the church was saved and the museum created. In honour of them the garden contains only plants which they discovered, or which they would have known, i.e. nothing later than the 17th century.

The garden is helped by having a beautiful stone church along one side and a splendidly tall brick wall on another (the boundary wall of Lambeth Palace). The roads leading to Lambeth Bridge are just beyond the two remaining sides, but it is surprisingly easy to ignore them. The stone of the church is pale grey and almost anything would look good against it; a little periwinkle nestling in the shadows looked especially pretty. The tall brick wall is covered with Virginia creeper. Autumn is clearly its high point, but the day I visited, the stems hung there in a forlorn and strangely attractive manner. Virginia creeper 1Perhaps the plant knows that it will only have one more season of glory on the wall, for next autumn the museum will close and begin a period of major work begins, which will see the garden partly built over.

My first reaction was one of horror, but, having looked at the model of what it will be like and read about the plans, I see why they are doing it. Much as I hate change (see my earlier post), I think it is a good idea and even though the edges of the garden will be lost, the knot garden will remain, surrounded by an enticing-sounding cloister. The entrance area will also be brought into the garden, so in fact the garden will grow in size and, designed by the Dan Pearson Studio, I have high hopes that it will be absolutely lovely. There will be three pavilion buildings housing classrooms, studios and, crucially for me, an enlarged café. This will apparently retain its unique character, but will have a better kitchen, access from the street and outdoor seating in both areas of the garden. The inside of the church will then have more display space and more of their amazing collection will be put on show in the newly opened Pelham chapel.

It is worth visiting the museum this year, before the changes, and it will be even more worth visiting after the work has been done.


Weekly tours take place on most Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm. There are also end-of-the-month tours on the last Tuesdays and Wednesdays of every month, also at 2pm. The tour I went on was the Tuesday one and gives the history of the church and the Museum.

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