Vic Keegan’s Lost London 22: the garden of Westminster Abbey

by Victor Keegan

If this doesn’t count as hidden I don’t know what does. Only yards from Parliament Square, it is surrounded by a high wall that no one can see over and has no obvious entry point. Welcome to the garden of Westminster Abbey, claimed to be the oldest in the country. It has been in continuous cultivation since the Middle Ages. And it is open to the public…

Fashioned by the monks of the Abbey, the Infirmary Garden as it is known is not only old but is the same size as it was in the 11th century, apart from a parcel of land at the north-eastern end which was confiscated by Edward III in 1365 to build the Jewel Tower (which is also still there). We know this because the medieval walls along the eastern and southern sides are still intact, as is the boundary wall on the other side.

The garden is an oasis of calm at the heart of a busy city just over the road from the cacophony of the Houses of Parliament. It remains calm partly because so few people know about it. Even those who do have to find out how to get in (from the north-eastern end of Dean’s Yard) and then negotiate their way past a red-robed official who is there to stop tourists gaining a back door entrance to the main part of the Abbey, thereby avoiding the entrance fee which is now a staggering £22 at the door.

The justification for charging so much for entry into the house of the Lord is that the Abbey is self-supporting with no government funds, and as 95% of the visitors are from overseas maybe it doesn’t matter. Local residents can get in free with the appropriate card.  The garden itself is free to all and also gives access to the cloisters and Chapter House, though only on three days a week (usually Tuesday to Thursday).

Once inside the garden, it is easy to go back in time to conjure up what it once contained: an orchard, a herbarium dating to 1306 (the main reason for the garden’s creation), a dovecote, a cider mill, ponds, fruit and vegetables and even a vineyard. There was also a channel leading to a mill at the southern edge of the garden, from which the word Millbank is derived. If you were to dig in the garden you would soon come to some of the deposits which formed Thorney Island, the eyot between the Thames and the River Tyburn on which the Abbey was built.

Today’s garden has a fig tree, plane trees that were planted in 1850, and two handsome mulberry trees (one black, one white) at each end of the garden. Either side of the stone gateway leading to Little Dean’s Yard (part of Westminster School) there are two stone angels, reputably made by Grinling Gibbons and Arnold Quellin, which once graced the Queen’s Chapel at the other end of Whitehall Palace where the Ministry of Defence building now is.

More pieces of Lost London found by Vic Keegan are here. His latest book of poetry can be bought here.

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