30 May 2018

An unexpected historic herb garden in Southwark

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden on chapel foundations

At the end of last week I visited Borough Market near London Bridge to hear a talk on planting for urban bees as part of the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Southwark Cathedral is next to the world famous market and I'd read on the London Open Squares website that there's a herb garden in the churchyard. It's sited on the 14th century foundations of the original Priory chapel and planted with herbs that the Augustinian Canons would have used for cooking, strewing and brewing, or medicinally in the nearby 12th Century St. Thomas' hospital (named for Thomas Beckett, now the Herb Garrett Museum).

My paternal grandmother and generations of her family before her lived in this area on the south bank of the river Thames, and my cousin married in this cathedral, all of which makes these streets very special to me, especially the buildings and areas that modern life hasn't yet touched.  I like to imagine that I'm seeing what they saw in their daily lives and reconnecting with my genetic past. So, after the talk, I headed straight for the herb garden, a dose of local history, and a wander along memory lane.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden , Box, Thyme, Lungwort

To my way of thinking, a garden without herbs is not complete. Whether as part of an edible garden, or a few pots on a windowsill or door step, to have herbs to pick is a joy.  I started with a packet of curly parsley seeds (still the most used herb in my kitchen); then, like most people, added a few more familiar culinary herbs to the garden. But fate wasn't going to let me off the hook there - a chance purchase of some Monarda from a plant sale prompted further research and I started to realise there was a wide world of medicinal and edible plants out there waiting for me to discover.

I'm fascinated by the folklore of herbs, their alternate names often indicating the historical use of the plant.  Monarda, also known as Bee Balm, has the most fabulous and exotic looking flowers as well as being useful as a tea, an antiseptic and attracting bees. The plant is occasionally known as Bergamot but, confusingly, it's not the same as bergamot found in Earl Grey tea - that's oil from the Bergamot Orange! I planted it next to fennel, mint and golden oregano, an uplifting sight in the summer garden. My love affair with herbs had begun, together with what I suspect will be a lifelong journey of learning.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden Ruta graveolens
~ Rubbing the leaves of Rue, also known as Witchbane or Herb of Grace, may cause skin to burn when exposed to sunlight.
Properly used, it's an effective balm for fibrous ligament injuries such as Tennis Elbow. ~

But, back in the churchyard, the herb garden beckoned. I was curious to see what was growing as the small garden is primarily an educational resource used to teach local children about the role of herbs in the development of medicine, chemistry and pharmacology. (Lucky children!)  Impressively, for a children's educational garden, poisonous herbs such as Foxglove (Digitalis), Columbine (Aquilegia) and Rue (Ruta graveolens) are growing there - perhaps as part of the Shakespeare botanical trail. (William Shakespeare lived in this parish - to be near the Globe Theatre perhaps? - and his brother Edmund's gravestone is in the church.) Most herbs are labelled with the common names they would have been known by so visitors see Lungwort, Madder and Woad rather than the Latin names. There are no information boards so you have the pleasure of finding out for yourself just what these herbs are for - or try and guess their use!

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden

Sweet Woodruff, also known as Master of the Woods, (Galium odoratum) is labelled just 'Strewing herb'; it smells of hay when picked and dried so historically was used to sweeten a room by spreading (strewing) across the floor. I grow it as a vigorous ground cover under the fruit trees but recently learned that this herb is traditionally used in Germany to make May Wine and is also good in vodka jelly.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, foundations, pillar bird bath

As far as I can tell, the garden was created in 2015 with advice from the Herb Garrett Museum. The design gives a nod to medieval knot style gardens with most of the herbs planted inside four large box (Buxus) edged beds, a couple of which were further subdivided. Sadly, a few of the box plants had succumbed to blight and should, I think, be pulled out, for aesthetics if nothing else. Germander (Teucrium) would be a good substitute; on a trip to Jekka McVicar's herb farm some years ago I was told she used this herb instead of box edging in some of her designs.  At the time of St. Thomas' Hospital, an infusion of the flowers was believed to cure gout.

To be honest, it's not a "pretty" garden - the planting is too haphazard to see the original layout - but that same jumble has produced some lovely eye-catching combinations - a deep red rose with feverfew on one side and calendula on the other, breadseed/opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) just appearing between Woad, Madder and Dyer's Chamomile; Sweet Cicely separates bronze and green fennel; sage, nigella and lavender co-exist in a half bed.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden,roses, feverfew, calendula

The woad flowers (Isatis tinctoria) were almost over, leaving the plants dripping with unripe seeds (below, right) but Madder flowers were covered in bees busy harvesting pollen. Providing forage for bees would have been an important consideration for any priory keeping hives for honey.  A lot of the plants have the ability to self-seed so close planting possibly helps to reduce the amount of weeding needed but must make for some interesting changes each year - especially as the beds are loosely defined as 'Edible' or 'Medicinal'. 

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, bee on Madder flowers, Woad seeds

There was so much to look at, excite, identify (and puzzle over!) in this little garden that time stood still for me and I was there a lot longer than intended! As you can tell, I absolutely loved it. I felt like I'd stumbled into a secret garden, with the pedestrians and traffic on nearby London Bridge fading into the distance.

I'd say the garden is well worth visiting, especially if you love churches and local history. While there, take inspiration from the shade borders outside in the churchyard, and linger inside the church as well. (Lovely and cool on a hot summer's day!) I was fascinated to discover quite how ancient this site is - excavations for the annexe built in 2001 uncovered 12th century foundations from the Priory, a 13th century stone coffin, 17th century Delft kilns, and a Roman road - all left where they were found for the public to see. There was even, once, a roman villa here; some of the paving is now incorporated into the floor in the choir. I was still there when Choral Evensong started and spent a few moments in quiet contemplation listening to the music - the acoustics in the church are superb as is the architecture. Definitely, if you're in the area, go.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, White foxglove in flower

Southwark Cathedral is very close to London Bridge tube station, Borough Market, and Guy's Hospital. The Tate Modern, Millenium Bridge, Globe Theatre and the Golden Hind ship are a short walk away.  The herb garden is at the eastern end of the cathedral courtyard.


  1. I did enjoy this, how lovely to have the herb garden to yourself. I've been obsessed for years with herbs and their medicinal properties, a couple of centuries ago you and I would have been drown/burnt as witches....I also love their non-latin names!I also love gardens that aren't too pretty!xxx

    1. Brilliant, thanks Dina! So glad you enjoyed this post. I wonder how much old wisdom was lost because of demonising herbal women as witches? Thank goodness for the monks and apothecaries carrying on the trade. I love exploring herb gardens and discovering new herbs that I haven't come across before - amazing how many of the plants in our gardens are actually herbs but grown as ornamentals! xxx

  2. A most enjoyable, and interesting, post and lovely pictures. It's surprising that such places are to found in city areas, and this one certainly looks and sounds like it's well worth visiting. xx

    1. Thank you, Flighty. Southwark and Bermondsey still have pockets of history to be found. There is a wall next to the Borough local library which is unmarked but is the remaining wall of the old Marshalsea debtors' prison. I particularly liked the combination of plants and architecture on this occasion. xx

  3. Oh I enjoyed this post Caro. What a special place and how wonderful that you may have followed in your ancestor's footsteps. I'm fascinated by herbs, their uses and the folklore surrounding them too :)


Thank you to everyone who leaves a comment, it helps to know that my scribblings are being read! If you have a question, I'll answer it here or contact me via the 'Contact Me' form at the top.

Comment moderation is on to avoid spam nonsense getting published. No offence to genuine commenters who are very welcome!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...