London's Little Gardens: Geffrye Museum's Herb Garden

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 6 months ago
London's Little Gardens: Geffrye Museum's Herb Garden

We plonk ourselves down on a seat and within seconds, a squirrel has tightrope-walked his way along the back of the bench, perched tentatively on our shoulder and given us a good sniff, bold as you like. Deciding we're of no interest, he totters off to a nearby bin, dives in head first, and comes back with a sandwich (ham and cheese, we later discover) which he proceeds to unwrap and munch his way through.

We've been to the Geffrye Museum before, but this is the first time we've acquainted ourselves with the wildlife. We're in the front garden, on Kingsland Road, an expanse of green lawn, flanked by the almshouses which form the core of the museum itself.

Aged trees filter the flickering sunlight. Benches are full of office workers lunching, pensioners reading newspapers, toddlers letting off steam. A circus group is practising on the lawn, all multi-coloured hula hoops and flying streamers.

But the front garden isn't what we're here to see, and we proceed round the left side of the building to the museum's lesser-known herb gardens.

The first thing of note are three tombstones. They're set in a rather dark and dingy corner, a damp spot which rarely gets any sunlight. Officially, it's known as the Ironmongers' Graveyard (the museum is situated in the former Geffrye's Almshouse of the Ironmongers' Company). The remains of Sir Robert and Lady Geffrye are buried here, along with Thomas Bethon, a member of the Ironmonger's Company, and Maria Chapman, a matron of the almshouses. It's a foreboding welcome to the gardens, but do persevere.

Pass the plaque marking the time capsule on your right — the time capsule itself is of course buried deep — and head deeper in. Entering the walled garden feels like a secret in itself — it's the stuff childhood dreams are made of, a black wooden door pinned back against the brickwork acting as an invite inside.

The walled garden is split into quadrants, a pergola-covered bench nestled into each of the four walls. A brick pathway skirts the edge of the garden, and criss crosses the middle. The sun beats down on the trickling central fountain. The fragrant smell — jasmine? honeysuckle? — is enough to put us in mind of the countryside — excluding, of course, the Overground trains gliding past on the tracks just a few metres above. A closer look at the green floor tiles surrounding the fountain reveals dedications to the people and organisations who helped create it.

Outside of the walled garden, the herbs continue. Considerable thought has gone into the garden — it's organised into time periods, as is the museum. Each plant is carefully labelled, some more alarmingly than others, and historical research has gone into getting an accurate layout for each time period. By the time we reach the late-Georgian period, the smell of freshly-baked cookies from the museum's cafe is almost too much to bear.

We'll be honest; this isn't our first trip to the Geffrye Museum's gardens. The wisteria of a few weeks ago has died off, but the gardens as a whole are greener, more luscious now in May.

Focus is very much on herbs and historical accuracy rather than aesthetics, so it's not London's most colourful garden — but it does get increasingly vibrant towards the far end of the brick footpaths.

At the end of the path, a 'No Entry' signs appear on the gate, despite the garden seeming to continue beyond — and then we see why:

The other side of the short hedge is a cluster of beehives, visible to the public but at a safe distance. It's clearly working. The whole area is a hive of activity. Bees and wasps swarm the plants, butterflies flutter by — and schoolchildren arrive en-masse at Hoxton station opposite, ready for a day at the museum.

The garden's been open since the early 1990s. Prior to this, the land was derelict. A team of gardeners is hard at work today, stopping long enough to be complimented by a visitor on their efforts so far.

Despite the constant arrival of trains at the station opposite, and the rumble of traffic on Kingsland Road, you could do a lot worse than spending a summer's afternoon among the herbs, bees and squirrels of the Geffrye Museum's garden.

The Geffrye Museum's herb and period gardens are open April-October, Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm. Entry is free. It's worth visiting the museum itself while you're there — entry is also free, but donations are encouraged.

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Last Updated 25 May 2017