This Botanical Garden Is Home To The Bits Of London That No-One Else Wanted

Last Updated 09 April 2024

This Botanical Garden Is Home To The Bits Of London That No-One Else Wanted

Parts of old London Bridge sit above rubble from the construction of the Victoria line, the old Enfield Market Cross towering over them.

Myddelton House Gardens in Enfield is a dumping ground... but by no means is it a dump. Its founder and subsequent caretakers have had a delightful knack of salvaging London's architectural cast-offs, creating something of an open air museum of the city's decaying treasures.

The eight acre gardens were the life's work of Edward Augustus Bowles, a horticulturist who lived at Myddelton House all his life. Plants were his passion, and he spent his days caring for and growing his impressive collection until his death in 1954.

Bowles was the great uncle of Andrew Parker Bowles, ex-husband of Camilla Parker Bowles. The Bowles family still maintain contact with goings-on at Myddelton House Gardens today — senior gardener Bryan Hewitt proudly points out a framed pair of gardening gloves in the potting shed, worn by Camilla herself when she popped by for a spot of publicity-courting digging a couple of years ago.

Charlie Smith, from whom Bryan Hewitt learnt about the history of Myddelton House Gardens, pictured with the cannabis plants - more on those below.

We're lucky enough to be given a tour by senior gardener Bryan Hewitt. He's a fountain of knowledge, both from his own time working at Myddelton House Gardens, and from stories passed down from his friend Charlie Smith, who sadly died in 2017 after dedicating his life to the estate, working there as far back as when Bowles himself was alive.

Expecting little more than a pleasant day out at one of London's little-known public gardens, it soon becomes clear that we've completely underestimated this place. The fascinating history and excellent collections of objects on show make this so much more than a garden. Here are some of the highlights to look out for if you visit (you absolutely should — entry is free):

1. The former New River

A bridge to nowhere

The inritguingly-curved lawn which runs down the middle of the garden is bookended by two bridges over grass, neither of them leading anywhere useful... but it wasn't always so. That curve belies a former watery resident of the gardens — the New River.

Imagine all that grass as water

The man-made water course connected London and Hertfordshire (parts of it can still be followed today), and Sir Hugh Myddelton, an early owner of Myddelton House, was the governor of the New River Company — so when he wanted a branch of it running through his land to fill up his pond, they obliged.

The banks of the river can just about be seen in the left of this photo (date unknown)

The New River flowed through the gardens from 1613 until 1968, when a decision was made to fill it in. A large-scale construction project was in progress in central London at the time, and rubble from that was taken to fill in the river. The project? A little thing called the Victoria line. Something to think about when you're trampling over that manicured lawn.

2. Part of the old London Bridge

Those stone pillars were once part of London Bridge

The medieval London Bridge, which spanned the River Thames between the 13th and 19th centuries is, to be blunt, a hot mess. Its remains can be found from Richmond to Kent and — you guessed it — in Myddelton House Gardens.

An ageing wooden bench looks out over the lawn covering the former river course, its back to a former opioid den (more on that later). It's flanked on each side by stone pedestals, a groove a third of the way up each one demonstrating how they were once affixed to the old London Bridge.

Parts of London Bridge have been in the gardens for some time. Image: Myddelton House Gardens

Their arrival in Enfield is something of a mystery, but other stone blocks from the same bridge are casually dotted around the gardens.

Another part of old London Bridge, casual as you like

3. The Enfield Market Cross

If you'd visited nearby Enfield town centre between 1826 and 1904, you'd have seen the above monument. It sat in the market square, close to where Enfield Market still takes place today, until its removal. It had begun to crumble, so was taken to a scrapyard ready to be destroyed, until E A Bowles himself rescued it for his garden (are you seeing a theme yet?), where it's been ever since, roses wistfully crawling up it.

Comparing historic images to the modern-day image, you may notice that the structure is shorter these days. A middle section of the neck was removed, presumably when it was taken to the scrapyard — but fear not, Bowles rescued that too (of course he did). You'll find it at the bottom of the stone stairs leading down to the kitchen garden. The detail at the very top of the main structure is a reproduction of the original, which was damaged.

That missing section of the Enfield Cross makes an appearance later on

4. The horticultural 'lunatic asylum'

E A Bowles was a huge fan of plants, the madder and more unusual, the better. So much so that he designated one corner of the gardens as his 'lunatic asylum' (his term, though no longer politically correct today), where he gathered his 'demented' specimens.

Many of these can still be seen today, including an unusually warped pine tree above, extra spiky 'hedgehog holly', and a contorted hazel, and an upright ivy bush. Once word spread, other gardeners sent Bowles cuttings of their own 'demented' plants for his collection.

5. A former (legal) cannabis garden

After Bowles' death in 1954, Myddelton House and Gardens passed into the hands of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and Royal Free Medical School, who used it for scientific purposes. They transformed some of the potting sheds into labs, and took over the kitchen garden, swapping carrots for cannabis and onions for opium, among other medicinal plants.

Hewitt chuckles as he tells us of his friend Charlie Smith's bewilderment as to why all the students were so keen to be involved in this cannabis-growing project. Smith himself was responsible for driving the plants to the local station, where they were conveyed via special delivery to Euston, to be used in research by central London scientists.

Surprisingly, cannabis was still legally grown in this patch on Enfield suburbia until the 1990s, when the scientific institutions moved on from Myddelton House.

Poppies still grow in the gardens today, but for aesthetic rather that opioid purposes.

6. Clerkenwell paving stones

Close to the Enfield Market Cross is an enclosed area of garden laid with paving stones. They look like regular paving stones, and they are — except, as with most objects in this garden, they originated from elsewhere.

Clerkenwell was their original home, before they were brought to Enfield. It's thought that their removal is once again connected to the New River — as the waterway originally terminated in Clerkenwell (close to the modern-day Sadler's Wells), it's likely that they were pulled up during construction of the New River, and given the estate's clout over the New River Company, they were claimed for Myddelton House.

7. An architectural optical illusion

In the corner of the garden known as the 'Irishman's shirt', a stone ball sits on a pedestal, a few feet above head-level of any passer by. Nothing unusual about that, except whichever way you look at it, it appears that the ball is about to roll off. It's an unintentional optical illusion, not easily captured on camera.

About that 'Irishman's shirt'; the name comes from the tale of a cheeky Irishman said to have asked someone if they'd kindly sew a shirt to his button. This whole area of the garden was built around this sphere-topped column, which came from Gough Park in Forty Hill. The rest of the wall was then attached, followed by a small shelter.

8. A mysterious royal monument

Camilla's not the only royal association to grace the gardens. The above monument, located next to the 'Irishman's shirt', is dedicated to two royal events that took place exactly a century and a day apart (transcription below). How and when the monument got here, who commissioned or made it, why it was made, and why these events were commemorated together is a mystery — and will remain so forever laments Hewitt, as anyone who may have been able to shed some light on it has long since passed.

9. Medieval shots

We can't help wonder how many children have climbed on the balls like the one above, how many photographers have stood on them to get a better angle, without realising that they are in fact medieval shots, used in catapult-style weapons. Shouldn't they be in a museum? Perhaps, but then isn't this garden a museum of sorts?  

They were acquired by E A Bowles when they were discovered by a friend of his, after being uncovered by coastal erosion in Sandgate in Kent. Naturally, he 'rescued' them.

10. A Papal pine tree

One of the resident gardeners — and we'll keep him anonymous, to prevent any form of divine retribution — visited the Vatican in 1996, and spotted a seed on the floor. He pocketed it, and brought it back to the gardens out of curiosity. More than 20 years later, the towering 'papal pine' greets visitors as they come down the driveway.

11. George Hyde's brick

George Hyde, it's thought, was a head gardener at Myddelton House Gardens. His exact dates and details are unknown, but he made sure he didn't disappear from the history books by carving his initials and the date, 1859, into a brick at leg level between the potting shed and glasshouses. We'd have missed it entirely had Hewitt not pointed it out.

12. The stone garden

If you've been to the nearby Whitewebbs Museum, and your visit was anything like ours, you'll be familiar with the well. They're very proud of their well, but not proud enough to have held onto the accoutrements used to construct it apparently — the object in the centre is the bore used to tunnel the well in 1897.

It's just one of the curiosities on display in the 'stone garden', a haphazard gathering of items in the shadow of that papal pine, which look to all the world like they've been rounded up and left to rot there.

The item on the left is Myddelton's oldest tree — the fossilised specimen is 360 million years old, and was uncovered during construction of the King George Reservoir in Chingford. Naturally, it ended up at Myddelton (next time our glasses or keys go missing, Myddelton's the first place we're looking...). A further fossilised tree can be seen inside the Victorian glasshouse, along with a fossilised clam shell, part of Bowles's private collection.

The final stone object, on the right of the picture, is a mounting block from the former village blacksmith in Forty Hill. It's thought the collection was gathered by the 'Bowles Boys', original employees of Bowles, of which Charlie Smith was one.

Also look out for:

  • The Tudor yew hedge: Just four trees survive of a yew hedge thought to be 500 years old. They line the edge of the now-defunct river.
  • The wisteria: The second of those two bridges-to-nowhere was covered in a beautiful 110 year old wisteria... until it died in 2018. A few wisps of it remain, but during #WisteriaHysteria season, head to the pergola alongside the Enfield Cross to see a pale pink variety (pictured, top).
  • The plant pots: Inside the glasshouses where the succulent plants are grown, many of the terracotta pots have an identical engraving: E A Bowles. They don't date from the Bowles' days, but the modern gardening team have them made especially because, as Hewitt says, "I'd like to think the man himself would approve".
  • The ostriches: A pair of life-sized wire ostriches stand tall on one of the bridges. They replace the real lead ones, which used to stand on the bridge (although originally came from the roof of nearby Gough House in Forty Hill). Due to attempts at theft, the real ones can now be seen inside the on-site Bowles Museum (oh yeah, there's a museum here too...).
  • The gardens were also once home to King Edward VII's pew from the chapel at Sandringham, but sadly it was stolen overnight some time during the pharmaceutical years. Given the interesting and valuable specimens grown here at this time, it's surprising that the gardens were rarely closed at night, leading to several thefts.

Myddelton House Garden, Bulls Cross, Enfield, EN2 9HG. Entry is free (there's a car parking charge). The house is not open to the public, except for Open House Weekend. Also nearby are Whitewebbs Museum and Forty Hall, should you wish to make a day of it.

With thanks to Bryan Hewitt, senior gardener at Myddelton House Gardens, and author of The Crocus King, a biography of E.A. Bowles's life and gardens.