The College Garden at Westminster
In April of 1999, during my visit to London, I had the extraordinary opportunity exploring The College Garden at Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey itself is rather spectacular; founded in 1065 by Saint Edward the Confessor. I could not spend time under its roof without feeling the dignity and awe of past kings, queens, knights, ladies, statesmen, and poets who are not only buried there, but also honored by exquisite monuments to their memory. Following the path of millions through this maze of tombs, I realized that each step is placed on tombs of those found worthy of everlasting resting places among their famous and historical companions in the hereafter.
After overwhelming awe, I escaped to the cool, restful monastery; open colonnades that surround the ancient cloister where Benedictine monks once sought holiness through work in a spirit of prayer. A glance down the lengthily colonnade and you can almost see the fleeting ghost of a robed and hooded monk, head bowed in prayer. Sit on a stone bench; God knows how old the bench itself is, and you can almost hear chanting from within carried on the soft breeze.
At the end of the colonnade, duck into the darkened hallway with sunlight bright at the end. What have we here? Oh my, a little gated, cloister garden surrounded by rosemary for remembrance and lavender for devotion with a delightful fountain of water sparkling in the sun. How the monks must have loved this little hide-away.
Finally, slip through the hidden alcove and you are in The College Garden with its expansive grassy carpet, surrounded by elements of the Abbey. What a delightful surprise, this garden has been open to the public for only a short period during its 900 years existence. It started out as the Abbey’s infirmary garden in the eleventh century. Herbs such as fennel (worthy of all praise) and hyssop (cleanliness and sacrifice), vegetables and fruit were grown here for the monks’ use and supporting the infirmary. A herbarium was completed on this site in 1306 and is currently the location of a small knot garden; its spaces filled with various shades of lavender. The garden’s name, I presume, came from the 18th Century Westminster School whose dormitory still stands at one end of the garden.
A corner of the garden is wild with deep blue iris (compliments) in contrast with the order of the knot garden but a few yards away. Five tall, dignified Plane trees, Platamus x bispanicus, planted in 1850, are the oldest living plants in the garden. Off of private doorways are small areas paved with brick and cobble; some with low walls, decorated with urns and pots filled with colorful, trailing herbs. Some of the urns must be from medieval times. Gone are the ponds that must have been beautiful in this tranquil setting and used for cultivation of water plants such as edible lilies (majesty and splendor).
The garden has been and continues to be a medicinal herb garden, probably because of its origins supporting the infirmary and a desire to maintain its historical significance. Many of the old herbs are grown in the garden today. However, because of the high lead content of the soil, they are useless for consumption or medicinal purposes. In the spirit of maintaining the garden for the Monastic Infirmarer’s desire to promote health and welfare for the people of London, the garden is mainly used for charity fund-raising events. If you are interested in more information regarding this beautiful hidden garden.