Fulham Palace: bishops’ garden blooms again
by Abigail Willis
Acting head gardener Lindsay Schuman has a good excuse for not double-digging the new veg beds at Fulham Palace gardens: she’s simply not allowed to. Packed with archaeological interest, and home to the Bishops of London for over 1000 years, Fulham Palace is a protected site and that goes for its soil as much as its venerable Grade I listed buildings. Within the 2-acre walled garden the permitted digging depth is 30 cms, while in the 11 acres beyond its mellow brick walls, the limit is a scant 10cm. It’s not however a restriction that’s cramping anyone’s style – this is a garden poised to reclaim its rightful place in horticultural history.
Once spoken of in the same breath as the Chelsea Physic Garden, Fulham Palace was an important botanical garden in the 17th century, visited by the likes of John Evelyn and Hans Sloane. It was Henry Compton, Bishop of London between 1675 and 1713, who put Fulham Palace on the horticultural map. The botanising Bishop grew over 1000 exotic species in his stovehouses and sourced seeds and plants from the colonies (territories that, handily for Compton, were under his jurisdiction as Bishop of London). Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and black walnut (Juglans nigra) were two of Compton’s American introductions and are still represented at Fulham Palace today – albeit by modern specimens. Such were the garden’s horticultural riches that Hans Sloane collected specimens here for his eponymous herbarium (now in the care of the Natural History Museum).
Compton’s collection was largely dispersed after his death and the garden altered by subsequent incumbents to their own taste. Thus in the 1760s Bishop Terrick had the grounds re-landscaped in the Romantic style while in the 1830s Bishop Blomfield planted a knot garden; in the early 20th century sports-mad Bishop Winnington-Ingram installed a grass tennis court. The 1970s saw the departure of the last resident Bishop of London at the Palace and the garden went into decline. Its current renaissance – part of a larger redevelopment programme at the Palace – is entering its final phase but has already seen the restoration of the once derelict Victorian vinery and bothies in the walled garden and the replanting of Bishop Blomfield’s knot garden.
Plans to restore the walled garden to full horticultural production are also well-advanced. The south-facing veg beds created at the start of the year have just come to the end of a productive first season, supplying fresh vegetables to The Square, Phil Howard’s acclaimed restaurant in Mayfair – a mutually beneficial partnership that will resume next year. The bumper apple and pear crop has been dispatched to a co-operative cider maker, while the two bees hives installed in 2013 have also covered themselves in glory, producing a decent crop of runny honey that scooped first prize at the National Honey Show.
So now seems a perfect point at which to celebrate ‘The Famous & Historic Garden at Fulham Palace’ and a recently opened exhibition of the same name does exactly that. Organized by Museum of Fulham Palace curator Miranda Poliakoff to coincide with the tercentenary of Compton’s death, the exhibition displays all sorts of documentary evidence of the garden’s development over the years – including photos, prints and paintings of its most famous trees, as well as historic books such as Faulkner’s Fulham.
Although Compton is rightly the star of the show, other gardening bishops get a look in – such as Bishop Grindal who introduced the tamarisk to this county and who may have planted the holm oak, the oldest tree in the garden now designated a Great Tree of London. Compton’s entrepreneurial head gardener George London is also given his due – a skilled plantsman, London went on to found the Brompton Park Nursery.
Trees – so much a part of the garden’s historic identity – will play a vital role in its future and the exhibition includes a survey of the Fulham Palace trees conducted by Lear Associates in August 2013. Colour-coded by age and period, the survey reveals that much of the Palace’s wooded seclusion is due to a proliferation of 20th-century weed trees such as self-seeded sycamore. The accompanying Landscape Masterplan, drawn up by Dominic Cole Landscape Architects, for the long-term future of the garden, proposes to thin some of these to open up historic views and to use remaining trees to better tell the story of the garden and its horticultural significance.
Future plans also include widening the paths, installation of a new orchard, a new composting area and the reintroduction of espaliered fruit trees. As Lindsay says, it’s an exciting time to be gardening at Fulham Palace – she and her team of two senior gardeners, three student gardeners and a band of volunteers get to work in a garden that is extremely old but at the same time evolving – “It’s not just maintenance, we’re part of creating something new”.
Lindsay will be talking about her year managing the Fulham Palace walled garden on Wednesday 19 February, as part of the Head Gardeners Lecture Series being held at the Jessie Mylne Education Centre (other head gardeners in the series include Anthony Boulding, Horticultural Manager at Hampton Court Palace on 15 January and Syon Park’s Head Gardener, Topher Martyn, on 21 May).
For its many visitors however, Fulham Palace Garden is a place of leisure – and this too is in keeping with historical precedent. In the days of the Bishops the Palace hosted pageants and garden parties while today its capacious lawns are a popular picnic venue during the summer months. It’s no coincidence that among the finds unearthed during a recent archaeological dig in the walled garden was a Swiss army penknife, complete with champagne cork still embedded in one of its many blades. This is a garden with a sense of history, yes, but one that knows how to enjoy itself too.
Museum of Fulham Palace
London SW6 6EA
020 7610 7165
Exhibition open Sat-Wed 1pm-4pm, until 23 April 2014