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‘Will our churches, then, become bingo halls?’ Some have become gardens

I have just visited the City of London for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It was much pleasanter than the previous time. The sun shone; I had more than enough to drink and the FT index went up instead of down between my arrival and departure. The best bonus was unexpected: gardens.

They came in three shapes and sizes. Just off King Edward Street, across from St Paul’s Tube stop, I hit on the well-planted garden on the site of that historic City church, Christ Church Greyfriars. Bombing destroyed the church in the 1940s, but since 1989 the City of London gardens department has made an excellent job of enlivening the site.

I looked at it in ignorance, approving the harmonious planting in the long box-edged beds. Up supports, big plants of white-flowered scented trachelospermum were smothered in flower, attesting to this evergreen climber’s value on a sunny city wall. Groups of good blue agapanthus break up the looser lines of the borders’ planting, just as they do in any August garden, even in this cool wet year.

I remember discussing them with my senior FT colleague, the great Arthur Hellyer, on a visit to FT headquarters on the other side of St Paul’s 40 years ago. He grew them very well in Jersey, he told me, but was wary of many of them, except for the hardy Headbourne hybrids, as they were unsafe in British winters. Winters have warmed and newly selected agapanthus such as Timaru, Jack’s Blue and Snow Cloud have proved him, for once, too cautious.

Contrasting with their shape, some excellent white hydrangeas punctuated the Greyfriars planting. They are another good tip for London gardeners as their range, too, has multiplied in recent years. Look for ones with panicles of flower, Japanese names and, especially, Hydrangea quercifolia Snow Queen: it may be the very one, about 4ft high, used in the Greyfriars garden.

As I admired it, I had no idea that this garden was laid out to follow the main inner lines of the former church’s plan. The trachelospermums are growing on supports that evoke the old church pillars and walls.

In the turbulent 1960s I remember a notable sermon by one of Oxford’s eminent college chaplains, in which he posed a rhetorical question from the pulpit to the new age of unchristian flower power, members of whom were dozing as the evening light filtered through the chapel’s stained glass windows. “Will our churches, then, become bingo halls?” Maybe those that the Church of England cannot maintain will become gardens, flower power in action.

I had no idea that this garden was laid out to follow the main inner lines of the former church’s plan. The trachelospermums are growing on supports that evoke the old church pillars and walls

“Lunch”, that vile Gordon Gekko says in Oliver Stone’s masterly Wall Street, “is for wimps.” From Christ Church Greyfriars I walked on to join fellow wimps for their first big City lunch since lockdown number one. The Company of Barbers merged with the Fellowship of Surgeons in 1540. In its hall in Monkwell Square, off Wood Street, 80 of us were to gather for one of the year’s big lunches, starting with gravlax, on through rump of lamb to a finale of apricot and redcurrant purée, misnamed, as many desserts now are, Eton Mess. The true Eton Mess cost 2/6d in 1964 and combined strawberries, cream and vanilla ice cream. “Passion fruit sorbet pearls” have nothing to do with it.

On the wall behind the lunch table hangs the Company’s great treasure, Holbein’s huge painting “King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons”. The king is shown on a carpet of Turkish patterns, three surgeons on his left and, originally, a single line of nine barbers on his right. He wears a garter of honour, but his right leg is covered to hide the leg ulcer that one of the barbers had treated. This painting marked the barbers’ merger with the surgeons, but more portrait figures were added later and its paint is now rather flat after wartime fires forced a restoration.

In her new book on Holbein, his fan Franny Moyle gives two pages to the painting but, like previous art historians, says nothing about the many flowers in its upper half. In the top left, roses shower down a support and above the centre left some white flowers show five petals, possibly anemones. They need re-examination in close-up and their presence may then be explicable. Do they allude to the Company’s garden in the 1540s or later?

‘King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons’ by Hans Holbein (begun 1543) © Alamy

The Company, like others in the City, certainly had a garden. It also had a herbalist, who remains extremely famous. In 1607 John Gerard, author of the big, still fascinating Herball, became Master of the Company. Already in summer 1597, the year of its first edition, the Company minuted that it intended to buy ground for herbal plants, such as “Mr Gerard, being a skilled herbalist, should think meet for the worship of this society”. Before long it had a garden enclosed by 100 sweet briar roses.

Just down the steps from its hall’s frontage, the Company has recreated a small physic garden befitting its medical connections. The garden’s mastermind, Tim Cutler, gave me a personal tour, enhanced by pre-lunch champagne. Below some old bits of City wall, ultimately Roman, its beds display plants with chemical properties, including calamintha, which was used historically for inducing abortions, and Eryngium variifolium, whose roots, when candied with sugar, have been esteemed as an aphrodisiac.

The physic garden at Barber-Surgeons’ Hall
The physic garden at Barber-Surgeons’ Hall © Timothy Cutler

Is herbal medicine still valid? Cutler gave me an expert tour of plants with active chemical ingredients that are still relevant in modern treatments. Snowdrops contain galantamine, a chemical now synthesised and tested for possible use against Alzheimer’s disease. Hypericum, or St John’s Wort, was valued by Gerard for treating deep wounds: it turns out to contain hyperforin in its leaves, now found to have strong antibacterial properties.

The root of mandrake contains hyoscine, which is still used in injections before surgery. Metformin, the world’s most widely used drug against diabetes, was originally derived from that pretty but widely running border plant, Galega officinalis.

Long before the genome was unravelled, attentive country people recognised some remarkable properties in plants. Yellow sweet clover, or melilotus, contains an important anticoagulant, which led to the invention of the blood-thinning drug warfarin.

As we inspected the Company’s plants of it, Cutler told me how a vet in Ontario first worked out its powers after seeing how local cattle were bleeding internally to death; they had eaten hay in which sweet clover had been enhanced by fungus. Imagine all the false turnings that our distant ancestors ate or tried in error before discovering, say, that pennyroyal might promote abortions.

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As physic gardens show, the plant world teems with chemicals, many still valuable in modern hospitals. However, strictly herbal medicine cannot calibrate the dosage or balance it accurately. Hence medical companies analyse the chemicals in, say, foxgloves and then produce synthesised versions to an exact formula. Plants start us off, but can finish us off if used amateurishly.

I left my Company lunch, buoyed up by another plant wonder, fermented grape juice with and without bubbles. The Company keeps it in bottles, not on vines in their garden. It puts such a shine on a twice-jabbed consumer’s day. In my personal herbal, it is the best City treatment for pro-lunch wimps.

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