A tiny physic garden nestles within the remains of a medieval tower known as bastion 13 in London Wall. It was laid out on the inhospitable soil of a derelict WWII bomb site and today flourishes with all manner of medicinal plants as Margaret King discovers.
Although the garden as we know it today began life after WWII, its story began much earlier, in Elizabethan times. John Gerard, a surgeon's apprentice, urged the Barber-Surgeons' Company to establish a garden for the study of medicinal plants. Nothing came of the scheme, and the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of London left the Barber-Surgeons without any garden for four hundred years. Then, following yet more devastation, this time from the Blitz, the idea behind 'Mr Gerard's garden' was re-awakened. The Barbers' physic garden is now one of ten livery hall gardens in the City and is one of the few open to the public.
As a youth in 1562, Gerard must have done well in his apprenticeship as seven years later he became a freeman of the Barber-Surgeons' Company — an uneasy and short-lived union between two trades, both of which wielded sharp blades. Gerard could now practice surgery, however his passion proved to be gardening and collecting plants. He won the patronage of the Elizabethan statesman, William Cecil, and looked after Cecil's elaborate gardens on the Strand and at Theobolds.
Gerard's fame rests firmly on The Herball, a botany book published in 1597. Although flawed, it became an immensely popular guide to the 'virtues' of plants, full of tales of where the plants were found and herbal lore. It gave no practical gardening advice, despite the fact that Gerard was a very practical gardener with a garden plot of his own. He collected 'all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, flowers and other such rare things', thriving on the lively exchange of plants, seeds and bulbs between merchants, the city gardens of apothecaries and other enthusiasts, and the 'extraordinary' gardens of the aristocracy.
Gerard's garden, containing more than a thousand plants which he proudly listed in a catalogue, became well-known and much visited.
Little is known about the company's 'own fair garden' in Monkwell Street, hemmed in between their hall and the city wall. It survived extensions to the medieval hall c1604, when a court room was built into the bastion and a hedge was renewed, perhaps forming the boundary with the next-door garden which ran toward a corner bastion by St James in the Wall Cripplegate, where hermits once dwelt. At the other end of the street Shakespeare lodged on `Sylver' Street.
Plants mentioned in 1630 included a hundred sweet briars (the eglantine rose), almost certainly for hedging, along with rosemary, violets and strawberries, classic ingredients of knot beds and borders. No doubt the company's garden was a delightful escape from the squalor, dirt and clamour of the cramped City streets. But it was not a physic garden.
By the late sixteenth century, the dream of establishing a garden 'For the furtherance of learning' to rival the botanic gardens in Padua, Montpellier and Vienna, was surely on the minds of the Apothecaries, Physicians, Barber-Surgeons and Universities. It was certainly on Gerard's mind. His reputation was strong enough in 1587 for him to be asked to look after a garden for the College of Physicians, and he also tried to commend himself as curator of a botanic garden for the University of Cambridge. However, the Physicians' garden didn't materialise and Cambridge proved exceptionally slow to establish their garden more than a hundred years later.
As Gerard rose through the hierarchy of the Barber-Surgeons, he made repeated efforts to get the company to found a garden to study and practice 'the nature and skill of herbes'. A committee for 'Mr Gerard's garden' was formed, money subscribed to purchase a site, and the scheme discussed for some years, but still nothing came of it. Gerard died a few years later in 1612 without any garden other than his own. However his garden has good claim to be a forerunner of the English physic gardens that were soon to be established — first by Oxford University in 1621, then by the Apothecaries in Chelsea in 1683.
The transformation of bombed heritage sites into garden precincts was an idea born out of the post-war reconstruction plans for the City, partly fuelled by the need to give City workers somewhere to lunch. When intense bombing in 1940 devastated the Cripplegate area, it also revealed the remains of Bastion 13 and bits of the city wall hidden from view for a hundred years. They were swiftly excavated and listed as scheduled monuments.
After their new hall was built, the Barbers' company (the Surgeons having split off long ago) decided to create a herb garden within the semi-circular walls of the bastion sitting in a larger green space owned and managed by the Corporation of London. The Barbers' physic garden was finally laid out in the 1990s, curated by physician and past-master Sir Francis Avery Jones, who nurtured his own herb garden at home and had an excellent knowledge of medicinal herbs. With the help of Dr Arthur Hollman, who had been in charge of the Royal College of Physicians' medicinal garden in the 1970-80s, forty-five plants with a history of either medicinal, aromatic or culinary use were chosen for the garden, many having especial mention in Gerard's Herball. This tiny garden is now a celebration of Gerard's passion for healing herbs.