London: The Garden Museum

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Did you ever write a post on something, and then it just let it sit around for months without getting used because you end up blogging about things that are more pressing/interesting?  That’s exactly what happened with this one on the Garden Museum, based inside the former St-Mary-at-Lambeth (vaguely between Waterloo and Vauxhall).  The Garden Museum is another one of those places that’s been on my radar for a while, but much like publishing this post on it, visiting it was something I kept postponing, because frankly, I couldn’t give less of a crap about gardening.

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However, flying back home from America after Christmas, and completely unable to sleep on the plane, as usual, I read Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty and learned that William Bligh was buried in the churchyard of the former St. Mary’s.  As my interest in Georgian seafaring is a hell of a lot greater than my interest in gardening, this was enough to convince me to check the place out.  (Technically, I’m pretty sure I could have just visited the cafe and had a poke around the Knot Garden/churchyard, but I thought the fiver might be better spent on a museum visit than a piece of vegetable cake (ick) and a cuppa, especially as I was alone and dislike drinking a pot of tea without someone to share it with (because I’m not British).)

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I’m still not entirely sure how the admission prices to the Garden Museum are determined, because on their website, it says it is £7.50 when they have a temporary exhibition, and £5 otherwise, yet they appeared to have two temporary exhibits when I visited, and it was only £5.  Maybe because they weren’t quite full-scale exhibitions? (Even the staff seemed unconvinced by the merit of one of them.)  Most of the ground floor space is taken up by a cafe and shop, and there was a temporary exhibit thrown in almost as an afterthought in one corner.  Seriously, there were bits of tape and discarded sheets of paper all over the floor, as though people were in the middle of working on a craft project and then never cleaned up after themselves, and there was a door open to one side so you could see the unfinished space behind the exhibit.  It seemed quite odd, and I felt that it showed a lack of pride in the museum.  That said, the photographs in question, “Faded Glory” by Rachel Warne, were really lovely.  They were black and white shots of gardens that had fallen into disrepair over the years, but the way she photographed them made them look appealingly creepy and mysterious, better than most of them had in their prime (there were also photographs of the gardens in their prime for comparison); it’s a shame the museum couldn’t tidy up and show more respect for this collection (the rubbish remained there for the entirety of my visit, and there were plenty of staff about.  In fact, I had to wait for a couple minutes whilst the women behind the admissions desk finished their conversation before I could even buy a ticket, so it’s not like they were busy doing anything other than talking amongst themselves).

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I also had a look at the other temporary exhibition, entitled “Connect and Grow,” and sponsored/created(?) by a dance company.  As I said, the women at the desk didn’t really seem to care for it when they described it to me, and it was underwhelming, to be fair.  I guess they were going for a multi-sensory experience of some sort; basically you walked into a dark room that had some leaves projected on the walls, and then a video of a car driving past a garden with sound effects.  I mean, it wasn’t the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen, but if that’s the reason why they weren’t charging people the full admission fee, it was probably a good call (if you visit, bear in mind that this post is old, and neither of these temporary exhibits are there anymore).

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And thus, onward to the permanent museum space.  As you can probably tell from the photographs, the museum building/former church is absolutely lovely, and whoever converted it into a museum did a really nice job of combining the old and modern.  The permanent gallery is located upstairs, up a long, lone staircase, which gives a good view of the whole interior, and allows you to get close to some of the old stained glass.  The gallery is only one small room, but I had the place to myself, and could wander around at leisure.  It opened with a tribute to the garden gnome (see also the Gnome Reserve in Devon), and had a large display of various gardening tools.  As I’ve said, I have zero interest in gardening (and just managed to kill my poor houseplants, RIP Coleridge and Edgar), so I initially found it hard to get excited about this stuff.

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But then I laid eyes on the scare-cat and cucumber straightener.  I mean, how awesome and hilarious are those things?!  An actual cucumber straightener, and the eyes on that scare-cat!  Classic.

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I also fell in love with this book about the Potato Man (you can see him lurking sinisterly in the far right corner of the illustration) and feel like I’m probably going to have to try to hunt this one down on Amazon.  (I have a weird obsession with potatoes.  Besides the obvious (they’re delicious!) I had to submit a portfolio at the end of a creative writing class I took in high school, and I wrote every single piece about potatoes.  I’m not even sure why, I just thought it would be funny probably.)

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Don’t get me wrong, this was by no means a large space, and I still don’t care about gardening, but damned if I didn’t get a kick out of many of the quirkier objects I found there.  And yes, I might have learned a thing or two about gardens, but certainly not enough for me to go out and attempt it myself.

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And now I’ve come to the whole reason I was newly inspired to visit the Garden Museum; Bligh’s grave.  I was at first a little confused, because there was a sign at the back of the cafe pointing to the garden, but the door to access it went through an area that was kind of forbidding and seemed like it might be staff only, so I went back out the front of the museum, thinking I could access it by walking around the building.  It turns out you can’t, so don’t make my mistake and have to walk back in and through the museum and have the staff look at you like you’re an idiot.  Anyway, Bligh is buried in the Knot Garden, along with John Tradescant, who is apparently some kind of famous gardener and the whole reason the museum exists in the first place (looking now at his Wikipedia entry, there is apparently an elder and a younger John Tradescant, but they were both gardeners and I’m not sure which was the inspiration for the museum.  No matter, as they’re both buried there).

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I have to admit that John Tradescant’s tomb was pretty awesome, covered in a carving of some sort of fantastical garden (I think I can spot a crocodile in there), but Bligh’s was what I was really excited for.  I loved that it specifically mentioned that he transported breadfruit trees to the West Indies (which was the whole original mission of the Bounty before Fletcher Christian took over, and poor Bligh had to complete the mission on a subsequent voyage, both voyages being sponsored by none other than the foxy Joseph Banks), and that it referred to “Otaheite,” which was the old spelling/pronunciation of Tahiti (say it out loud, it works, kind of).  Bligh is much-maligned, but no matter what the truth of the mutiny was (and seriously, if you’re interested in this at all, read that Caroline Alexander book, it is extremely comprehensive, though I think she dwelt too much on the trials of the mutineers, and not enough on what happened to Bligh and his comrades in the boat they were sent adrift in), no one can deny that he was an incredible navigator, and it was nice to finally be able to see his tomb.

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I think my mixed feelings for the Garden Museum have probably come across.  On one hand, the church is beautiful, and I’m happy that it, and the churchyard, have been preserved (there’s quite a few other graves out there and in the building itself; I had to really watch where I was walking to avoid stepping on someone’s grave).  On the other hand, I think the building has a lot of potential that is simply not being utilised.  The museum was small and not particularly impressive (save for the odd amusing object), and the rubbish lying on the floor really annoyed me, especially because it was sitting right over someone’s grave marker.  I’m going to have to give it a mere 2/5.  At least I can cross it off the old list at last, and move onto other things.

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  1. Sacrilege! That’s not a book about the Potato Man, he’s just a bit player in a Bill and Ben book. Bill and Ben (Flowerpot Men) were one strand in the TV series Watch with Mother when I was a child (so ancient history then), some others being The Woodentops, Andy Pandy and Tales of the Riverbank. I think that book would have been a highlight of my visit too, but for nostalgic reasons!

  2. Mixed feelings or not, Jessica, you produced a very interesting post. Visiting the tombs of both Bligh and Tradescant in one place is a big deal. And for the first time, I realize that those gorgeous white-fleshed, red apples we ate in Jamaica must have come from Tahiti. “Otaheite apples” — or “eeti-otie apples”, we called them as children.

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