Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Temples by the Thames

In a week when judges seized the headlines not far away from this Temple hall, I contemplated the gardens lawyers can relax in on the banks of the Thames. The Temple Gardens at  Middle Temple Inn were my focus, just a stone's throw away from the north bank of the Thames and here they are in all their summer splendour.  Trainee barristers eat their dinners here and study to become fully fledged lawyers, in majestic, historic surroundings which date back to the twelfth century, when the site was owned by the Knights Templar.   

The main lawn of the gardens used to be much closer to the river in times gone by; but the vista down to the Thames has retained its beauty today as a landscape to be enjoyed by people through the hard work and vision of its gardener, Kate Jenrick, and her assistant who, between them work an eight-day week planting, weeding and maintaining the lawns.  Two ‘Master Gardeners’ from the inns of court help them plant bulbs and open the gardens for Open Garden Squares Weekend.  Underneath the lawn there is a ginormous tank with 20,000 litres of water collected from the buildings, which is used to keep the lawns green and lush all summer long in a sustainable way. 

As well as the expanse of lawn, most of the gardens comprise a series of courtyards.  This one is Fountain Court, one of the oldest gardens in the whole of London, with three very impressive trees, a plane, horse chestnut and mulberry and a water fountain - one of the earliest public fountains in London. There used to be another plane tree, which died, and its demise has let in more light for new fuchsias and camellias, whilst retaining the feeling of green under the tree canopies.   Charles Dickens had lodgings here at the time he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit.

Gas lamps still light the way around the courtyards in keeping with the cloister and ancient university feel of the architecture.  But Kate has sought to ring the changes during her eight years of stewardship of the gardens, bringing in new planting schemes with more perennials for year-round colour. Currants and gooseberries, a styrax tree as well as rosemary, cosmos, livinias, marigolds and a variety of perennials have been introduced.  Kate is one of three custodians that look after gardens of London Inns of Court, (Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn) who all bring their  common experience of studying at Kew Gardens to their roles and so are known as the Kew Ladies. 

Here is an Agastache with its green candles, planted in front of old roses, of which there is a historic tale.  Shakespeare's play Henry VI Part 1 talks of the plucking of red and white roses in Temple Garden.  People wonder if it refers to Middle Temple or Inner Temple, but the idea certainly came from hereabouts.

Roses float above the courtyard plantings. They are pruned to half their height in December or January, but, alas, some are suffering from honey fungus and will benefit from new plantings shortly. In other areas the traditional combination of rose and lavender has successfully been replaced with Gaura, hibiscus and Agastache rather than summer bedding plants, with spring bulbs, violas and primroses providing spring colour. 

The changes in plantings to the courtyards have been noticed in Elm Court and Church Court, for instance, and recognised in recent years with City in Bloom awards. Plumbago flowers well in the shelter of Elm Court, where the rubble from war bombings has meant lots of compost has had to be imported and dug in. Now there are lilies of the valley in the shady areas, dogwood for winter colour along one side and a carefully designed successional planting scheme has been established.

Middle Temple's emblem is a Paschal Lamb, adorned with a halo and staff, and it reflects the Inn's links with the Knights Templar.   You can see it adorning many of the buildings as you walk around the streets of the Inn. 

I visited the gardens with other Open Garden Squares Coordinators and  had the privilege of a private tour by the Gardener.  We are all volunteers and look after the different areas of London, helping gardens as they get ready for opening for Open Garden Squares Weekend. It's a very rewarding and fascinating role, but one of the drawbacks is that we don't get a lot of chance to visit gardens outside our area over the weekend,  so we came up with the idea of meeting occasionally at different gardens, which has proved very popular.  Just as we started to walk around the gardens, we met a procession of people in full regalia walking the cobbled streets.  It turned out this was in honour of the Middle Temple Treasurer meeting Sheriffs of the City of London for the ‘Quit Rents’ annual ceremony.

In the middle of the Temple we came across this intriguing gate and steps - which invite you to peek through the railings and discover the secrets of the garden inside.  This is part of the charm of  many of the London gardens  which open over Open Garden Squares Weekend - discovering the garden behind the gate, door or fence.    

And here is what we found - the Master's Garden. Just lovely.

Wandering around Middle Temple is a fascinating combination of history and horticulture.  As you turn a corner into a new alleyway, there is a sense sometimes of déjà vu.  Not surprising when you realise that the streets and courtyards have been the setting for Downton Abbey and more recently, the new series, Taboo.  It's a garden well worth discovering.