Ernest Wilson – keeping one eye open

There’s a little gate off the main street in Chipping Camden. You might not even notice it, but step inside, and you’re … not in Wonderland, but almost in China!

It’s a memorial garden to the plant hunter, Ernest Wilson who was born in the town in 1876. Here’s his house, just further up the street…

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It’s hard to imagine how different this stone and brick must have been to the paradises – and horrors – he found himself in during his time as a plant hunter around the world, but so famously in China that he became known as Chinese Wilson.

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The garden is a cabinet of curiosities of some of the plants he brought back, some so common now that it feels odd to imagine how exciting it would have been to have seen them flower for the first time. Ernest Wilson is certainly one of the great collectors, he’s thought to have been responsible for introducing about 2000 Asian plant species to Britain.

And of course the names give a clue…

My personal passion for garden history follows my heart more than my mind. Back when I used to hang around my mother’s garden library, it was always the books about plant collectors I’d choose. (And Ernest Wilson was one of my favourites. Perhaps I knew I’d have a much loved Chinese sister-in-law and nephew one day?)

And indeed, this garden is rather like a book you can read, although instead of illustrations we have samples of the plants he brought back, 60 of which were named after him.

His adventures weren’t without trouble. In 1910, his leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders. Apparently he set it himself with the tripod of his camera, but walked afterwards with what he called his ‘lily limp’. However, he was responsible for introducing the regal lily to the west.

He ended his life in the US, where he was keeper of the Arnold Arboretum, and died with his wife in a car accident in 1930.

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In the garden there’s a tree planted by his granddaughter. This poem came from one of the information boards, which says that in later trips to Japan when staying with headhunters, ‘it is a good idea to sleep with one eye open.’

Sleeping with one eye open

So as not to miss a moment
of the world’s beauty –
bark peeling like sunbaked skin,
petals as fresh as parchment,
the uptwist of a lily,
and a lion’s tongue of an iris,
and at night to dream of birdsong
like the skylark from home,
daisies in the churchyard,
a glimmer of silver on the river,
the honey-stoned Silk Street,
before waking to a fresh morning
on the silk route, searching
every day for one more miracle.

Poor Susan and the sounds of the city

This week I was lucky enough to go on a guided walk around the city of London with Rosie from Dotmaker Tours. She was concentrating particularly on the sounds of the city – we walked without talking, just listening (almost too intense, was the verdict), we talked how the city would sound in the future and how it sounded in the past. I wrote a poem for Rosie after, you can find it here.

The walk was wonderful, and one thing that stood out for me is the little park Rosie took us too, between Cheapside and Wood Street. It’s just a park with a tree you’d just pass by normally. I wasn’t even sure why we’d stopped there to be honest, although it was interesting to find out that it had been the site of the church, St Peter Cheap, which was burnt down during the Great Fire of London, (interesting to find out that Cheap was the medieval word for market). And also to see these benches. I’d never heard of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, and looking at their website after I see loads of useful information about London’s green spaces.

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So it was particularly lovely to find out from Rosie that it was this very plane tree (below) in the park that had inspired William Wordsworth to write his Reverie of Poor Susan. And here it is – proof that even in the city, nature can be the real time-traveller. To the past, as well as the future. Amazing to think of Wordsworth walking down these streets, looking up at the tree and him, in turn, thinking of poor Susan walking the same steps… and so on!

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The Reverie of Poor Susan
by WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

‘Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove’s,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes!

Not just a tree – John Evelyn’s Mulberry in Deptford

We spent the day in Deptford recently, taking photographs of various street names for a family project, but I also wanted to explore a little of John Evelyn’s history, and his lost garden, Sayes Court. We didn’t find the garden exactly but…

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I love street names for the quirky glimpses of history they give into a place. Here’s Czar’s Street, named to commemorate a famous visit by Peter the Great to Deptford in 1698 to learn about shipbuilding. (Ps, don’t I have lovely models?!)

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By all accounts it was a memorable visit. Peter the Great joined in Deptford living with verve – not least carrying out important ‘research’ into ALL the pubs. One report I read even suggested that St Petersburg was based on the layout of Deptford. Wonderful.  I didn’t investigate that much further because I so don’t want it to be wrong. And then there’s this tree we stumbled on…

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This is known as John Evelyn’s Mulberry because it stands on the original plot of Sayes Court and it is known that John Evelyn had mulberry trees – both black and white.  So it’s not just an ordinary tree. It is also under consideration for the title of Tree of the Year. There are many rumours surrounding this tree – and some tremendous research carried out here  as part of Morus Londinium (Mulberries in London).

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this particular rumour that Peter the Great planted it for John Evelyn to make up for the damage he caused to the Sayes Court garden one night after a drunken rampage in a wheelbarrow was true?

After all, here’s a contemporary account of Peter’s stay at Sayes Court (taken from Sarah J Young’s facinating website on Russians in London) :

No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered with grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts, and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride was ruined. (Grey, p. 229)

In some ways though, it doesn’t matter how it got there because this tree is one of the most beautiful reminders I’ve seen of what London would have been like when all its glorious parks and gardens were blooming. There’s something poignant about this tree still (almost) standing proud in the middle of Deptford’s industrial and housing estates. It feels so friendly and it’s clear that it’s rightly very much loved by locals.

John Evelyn’s tree is shortlisted for the award organised by the Woodlands Trust – you can read about the other notable trees here.