Busy Lizzie

Trea Martyn describes how urban living and a historical oasis in the capital inspired her interest in garden history, and in Elizabethan gardens in particular.


Like every other inhabitant of London, I appreciated its parks and squares and tried to live within walking distance of a green space. But the real starting point for me came when I was living in Shoreditch, East London, overlooking a canal though miles from any park. A few minutes down the Kingsland Road, however, in the midst of takeaways, restaurants and shops, stood the Geffrye Museum, a domestic interiors museum located within eighteenth-century alms houses surrounded by spacious grounds planted with ancient plane trees. At the side, a path led to a walled herb garden centred on a bronze fountain.

I was in my second year of a PhD investigating how Alexander Pope’s dealings with his powerful patrons enabled him to become one of the few poets to have made a fortune from writing poetry. In between writing chapters of my thesis, I went for walks in the City, finishing with a stroll around the grounds of the Geffrye Museum. Here I would sit, beneath a canopy of jasmine, listening to the fountain and enjoying the scents of the herbs.

The garden at the Geffrye Museum engendered in me a curiosity about plants and their medicinal uses: though I was supposed to be researching eighteenth-century poets and the brave new world of high finance, now and then for light relief I ordered a few books on herbalism from the British Library, including herbals by John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper; along with this went a typically late-1990s set of interests that encompassed, among other things, pure plant oils, Ayurveda (with its emphasis on the power of plants in healing) and organic fruit, vegetables and herbs bought at Spitalfields Market. I discovered that Hoxton, near my home, was once famous for its market and nursery gardens.

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