An oasis of calm in the city
Not just another place to visit in my Cool Gardens series, The Garden Museum in Lambeth holds surprising delights for all. Pictures by Sue Welford.
I’d visited the Garden Museum before an 18-month revamp closed it from 2015-17. It’s vastly improved, with a much larger permanent collection area. New are two learning spaces, a café and two gardens.
It’s one of those curiosities that London abounds with, founded by Rosemary Nicholson in 1977 in order to rescue the abandoned church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth from demolition.
The history of St-Mary-at-Lambeth and the museum
The former churchyard is the burial place of John Tradescant (circa 1570-1638), the first great gardener and British plant-hunter and his family – and Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty infamy.
The Tradescant Trust was created to save the tomb, erected in 1662 and sculpted with images of the gardener’s travels and collecting and the church itself. A new museum required a collection, and objects began to be donated.
In 1980, a knot garden was created, designed by museum president Lady Salisbury. By 1990, the museum expanded into a mezzanine level so artefacts could be put in a modern display area.
The 2015-17 redevelopment
The revamped museum is a perfect marriage of old and new – modern galleries and gardens fit inside the historic church and churchyard.
Now you can visit every chapel and tomb, as offices and stores have been relocated. The interior structure has been built using a prefabricated timber technology which is self-supporting, so hasn’t damaged the floors, walls or ancient burials.
You can see the collection of garden history, exhibitions and a gallery of Tradescant’s Ark.
The medieval tower is open – if you can brave the 131 steps, you can take in a fabulous view across the Thames to Westminster.
The Archbishops’ tomb
During the construction of the Tradescant’s Ark gallery, contractors discovered a flight of steps to a crypt, containing lead coffins and an Archbishop’s mitre.
It is thought up to five Archbishops of Canterbury, including Archbishop Bancroft, who died in 1610, were buried there and there may be up to 30 coffins in the crypt. An archaeological investigation is to take place later this year.
The Sackler Garden
The extension has been designed around the former knot garden/churchyard area by Dan Pearson, with the centrepiece around the Tradescant tomb. It is clad with bronze, which over time will echo the bark of the surrounding plane trees.
Dan wanted to emulate the Wardian Case, so visitors looking through the glass windows on three sides get a feeling of packed, exotic planting.
It is inspired by Tradescant’s journeys but using plant introductions by living collectors such as Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones of Crug Farm in North Wales.
It’s a garden to relax and linger in, with lush green planting contrasting against the bronze facing and old stonework of the church and gravestones embedded in the paving. A pergola is planted with climbers, including passion flower and jasmine.
Leaf shape and form is the key concept, with a stunning specimen rice-paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer Rex) with huge, tropical leaves dominating one corner.
Its shape is echoed by a Fatsia polycarpa, while more exotic foliage catches the eye from Canna x chemanii.
As a complete contrast, barred horsetail (Equisetum) is planted in a bold chunk and there is ground cover en masse from Geranium White Ness, Viola hederacea and Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens.
As accents, several Meyer’s lemon trees are placed in huge pots around the perimeter.
These are the plants that caught my eye – there’s a full planting list on the museum’s website.
The Front Garden
The previous ‘front garden’ was a churchyard in deep shadow, so Christopher Bradley-Hole created a new forecourt formed by yew hedges, preserving the old gravestones with a view into St Mary’s Gardens, which are maintained by the museum’s volunteers on public land.
The gravel surface is temporary but you’ll find espalier fruit trees on the walls and both white and regular Acanthus spinosa used to stunning effect.
- Until July 22: Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman and Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall
- Until July 22: Lucy Augé: Moving into Abstraction
- July 26-September 2: Katie Spragg: Glasshouses
- August 8-September 30: Flower Fairies
Eating and essential information
- Food: The café, which used to be in an aisle of the church, now opens onto the road. It’s open for coffee and cake (still as good as before) but also for lunch – bookings are advisable.
- Where: 5 Lambeth Palace Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 7LB (next door to Lambeth Palace, on the south bank of the Thames), phone 020 7401 8865.
- Opening hours: Sunday–Friday, 10.30am–5pm; Saturday 10.30am–4pm. Closed first Monday each month. Open on bank holidays excluding Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
- Getting there: I travelled to Westminster tube, crossed Westminster Bridge and it’s a 10-minute walk west along the embankment. (Also a 10-minute walk from Vauxhall, Waterloo and Victoria stations).
- Price (including tower access): adult, £10, OAP £8.50, student/unemployed/art pass £5, family (1 adult, 1 child) £12.50, family (2 adults, 2 children) £25, children under 6 free
- Tower only ticket: £3 (Under 18s free)
- Accessibility: accessible to wheelchair users, with a lift to see the permanent collection on the first floor. For easy wheelchair entry, use the café entrance to avoid the gravel. Free entry for carers.
- Website: https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/