“Fresh Air & Fun”: Ada Salter and the Beautification of Bermondsey

Ada Salter

London is a city of great surprises and has many hidden corners and almost unknown treasures. I thought I knew it fairly well but there are always surprises and I’ve just found two of them in the same patch.  Did you know, because I certainly didn’t,  that  the remains of one of Edward III’s favourite country houses still survive on the banks of the Thames?   Perhaps the reason I didn’t know it is because it’s in a district which long had a reputation for slums and poverty, and being more than a bit rough around the edges.

The remains of Edward III’s Manor House on Bermondsey Wall, David Marsh May 2017

Of course over recent years nowhere in London is safe from gentrification and this area is no exception.  A new tube station and proximity to central London – that’s an understatement since its within a few minutes walk of Tower Bridge – have led to massive amounts of redevelopment.  So I finally corrected my ignorance of Bermondsey  by going on a guided London walk with Sue McCarthy of Capital Walks. [Highly recommended – and no she’s not paying me to say that!]  You can read a short photo report of what the walk covers here.

The view from Ada’s statue which stands just across the road from Edward III’s manor house.

It focussed on the life and work of Ada Salter, a pioneer of ethical Socialism  who was elected the first woman mayor in London, and first Labour woman mayor in Britain.  Read on to find out more about her radical – and successful – campaign to improve health and housing, provide gardens and beautify Bermondsey.

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Boys Toys and Shanks’s Ponies

What on earth is this? And what’s it got to do with cutting the grass?

Sitting on the terrace overlooking my garden a few weeks back in the heat wave I was watching the lawn go yellow and then brown, except of course for all the pesky weeds which continued to grow cheerfully and provided a bit of height and colour. Now autumn has arrived it’s all change and I’m sitting at my desk  watching the rain pour down for the third day running and watching the lawn turn green again, with all the pesky weeds looking even happier. So as soon as it stops it will be time to cut the grass again…

Trust John Claudius Loudon to be the first to notice  the solution that will save me having to get out the scythe…

from The Gardener’s Magazine 1831, p.611


So today’s post is an as-little-technical-jargon-as-possible look  at one of the first “boys toys”: Edwin Budding’s  lawn mower  and some of  its descendants… Continue reading

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Coleton Fishacre: The Garden by the Sea

detail from A Bird’s-Eye Map View of the Kingswear Peninsula by by George Spencer Hoffman.  © National Trust Images

Imagine sailing gently along the coast of Britain and spotting a nice little steep-sided valley running down to the sea…no buildings in sight, just a few sheep and wizened wind-battered trees… deciding that would make a good place for a house… buying the land and building a mansion.  These days it would be impossible, even the idea would be laughable.

fom Country Life, May 31st 1930

If I told you it had happened you might think  it must have been in the dim and distant past – perhaps when some marauding baron was looking for a defensive site after the Norman Conquest.  In fact it happened less than a hundred years ago in Devon and it wasn’t a marauding baron but the son of a London theatre impresario and hotelier. The result was the wonderfully romantic Coleton Fishacre.

A Bird's-Eye Map View of the Kingswear Peninsula with a Wind Dial by George Spencer Hoffman © National Trust Images

A Bird’s-Eye Map View of the Kingswear Peninsula with a working Wind Dial, which is over a fireplace in the house. by George Spencer Hoffman.  © National Trust Images

Coleton Fishacre, said Christopher Hussey in Country Life in May 1930, “belongs to the sea… here is a retreat from land-sickness, a spot where hurries and worries and work do not come.”

Read on to find out about one of the great houses and gardens of the age [now listed Grade 2], and the people who built it…. Continue reading

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An unlikely Michaelanglo: John Buonarotti Papworth

Sketch for a vase  for the pedestals of the gate piers, Oxford Lodge, Basildon Park, RIBA

The wonderfully named John Buonarrotti Papworth, was an architect , interior and garden designer and a near contemporary of John Claudius Loudon, Humphry Repton and Frederick Crace.  You may not have heard of him, or if you had, maybe like me you hadn’t realised how ubiquitous and influential he was. He spans the difference  in taste and fashion between the late Georgian and the  early Victorian periods  and  I hope this post will help raise awareness of his importance.

John Buonarotti Papworth
by William Brockedon, NPG






Papworth’s clients were, like Repton’s largely “new” men – bankers, industrialists, and businessmen— who wanted designs for  their estates, villas, and business premises. He was successful,  able to combine architecture with  internal furnishing and decorations and crucially, as far as we are concerned,   gardens.

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John Weeks: Horticultural Architect

Advert from Lodge’s The Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire as at present existing.. 1861

I’m always amazed by the way that some now fashionable upmarket residential areas have a different, more working class past  often with horticultural connections. Belgravia, for example, is built on the site of the Neat Houses, once London’s largest concentration of market gardens. Chelsea too was once home to market gardens but also to a large number of commercial nurseries for ornamental plants.

I’ve already written about Joseph Knight’s Exotic Nursery on the King’s Road and today’s post was intended to be about another of these once great, but now largely forgotten, establishments, John Weeks and Co. However, as usual, the research proved diverting… and so, as usual, I allowed myself to be diverted Continue reading

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Cardiff Castle

John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900),         Bute Museum

I hardly ever watch television but my eye was caught recently by a programme on John Patrick Creighton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, who was one of the wealthiest men of his day, but one with a social conscience and a sense of humour  as well as an eye for beautiful things. He was responsible for commissioning William Burgess the eccentric architect and designer to help him create or redesign some of the most wonderful – and bizarre –  buildings in Britain including Cardiff Castle.

I’d visited a couple of years back with the Garden History Society but, as so often happens on organized trips, there just wasn’t enough time to explore it and neighbouring Bute Park  properly so the programme made me think its time to go back to Wales and take another look.

Read on to find out why…

screenshot from Bute: The Scot Who Spent a Welsh Fortune, BBC2 8th July 2017

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Vertumnus and Pomona

Pomona (From Flora and Pomona), Figure design by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and a background design by John Henry Dearle
Merton Abbey Tapestry Works, 1906,      Chicago Institute of Art

It’s a sign of how seriously classical imagery and culture underlines western civilization that many of the characters  associated with gardens and gardening are derived directly from it.  A few like Flora and Ceres, who were major deities, are  widely  known but have you heard of Pomona? If you have  you’ll probably know she’s associated with orchards and fruit. She was actually a nymph,  famously beautiful and, because of that,  was pursued by many of the gods. However she was devoted to her orchard and spurned all their advances.

And what do you know of Vertumnus? I’d guess not much and if I tell you he was a minor Etruscan deity adopted, like so many others, by the Romans you’ll probably be none the wiser. In fact he was in charge of seasonal change, and generally associated with the growth of plants, gardens and orchards. He had one great advantage over most other gods:  he could change his shape and appearance whenever he wished.

So why am I writing about them? Why are they linked together? and who is the old lady in the picture below? Read on to find out…

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Owen Thomas 2: from Chatsworth to Windsor.

Owen Thomas, from The Garden, 6th Oct 1900

This is the second part of the story of Owen Thomas, the son of an Anglesey labourer who rose to the peak of the horticultural profession and became Queen Victoria’s gardener at Windsor and Frogmore.  Last week’s post finished with his time at Drayton Manor, the home of Sir Robert Peel and his family.  Read on to see how Owen  became everything a Victorian head gardener was expected to be, with the highest professional standards in all his work. He took a wide ranging interest in every aspect of gardening, hybridizing and selecting new strains of fruit and vegetables, training young gardeners, serving on RHS committees and being involved in charitable work and finally after his retirement,  writing  and judging. Continue reading

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Owen Thomas: 1: Anglesey and beyond…

Owen Thomas, from The Garden, 6th Oct 1900

Last year I wrote a post about Harry Higgott Thomas the garden writer and journalist who was awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour. Whilst doing the research I discovered that his father, Owen Thomas, also gained one of the first VMHs towards the end of a pretty meteoric career in which he rose from being  a garden boy on Anglesey to being  Head Gardener at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria, taking in spells as head gardener at 3 other grand estates, including Chatsworth, on the way.   So I thought Owen deserved a post too.

But having started researching and writing, as usual I got sidetracked. However, as the sidetracking gave useful insights into some of the gardens where Owen Thomas worked  I’m making two posts rather than just a single one, so to begin with  read on  to find out about the great Anglesey estate of Bodorgan and its glass walls, as well as some idea of the early career path of an outstanding Victorian horticulturist…

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Who gives a Fig…especially in Sussex?

We had a bit of a fight on our hands yesterday. Sophia, Dorothy, Blanche and Rose were arguing  in our courtyard.  Then they started to argue with us too.  It was a row about figs. We have a beautiful small fig tree against a south facing wall and this year for the first time it is covered with pale green ‘White Marseilles’ figs.

The girls have developed a taste for them and have been eating those which have fallen or which they can reach but I was determined they weren’t going to have any more and I’m bigger than them I won in the end. I should explain that I’m not a sexist bully and that they are chickens who are already extremely well fed.  The fig tree is in their run and they’ve made a den underneath it and were clearly enjoying the windfalls before I turned up to harvest the rest… there was a lot of squawking when they realised I was taking them away rather than picking the fruit for them!

So what is it about figs that makes them so desirable – even to chickens? And what’s their history in our gardens? And what’s it all got to do with Sussex? Continue reading

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