Missionary botanists Posted on April 11, 2014

Wisteria, knot, vinery and Tudor gate at Fulham Palace

When I recently listed some of the old country houses that still dot the course of the Thames to the west of London I forgot Fulham Palace. Locals know it well, down on the riverside by Putney Bridge and a good place to watch the start of the Boat Race. Garden historians are aware of it as the seat of the 17th century Bishop of London, Henry Compton, who steered his missionary priests in the New World towards unknown plants and introduced them into cultivation in his palace garden. All British colonies were under the spiritual oversight of the bishop; he benignly extended it to the vegetable world, too, with such memorable results as the first magnolia to be grown here, M. virginiana, the black walnut and Robinia pseudoacacia.

The manor of Fulham has an ecclesiastical history going back at least 1,300 years. I remember my mother talking about the palace and the then bishop, Winnington Ingram, without enthusiasm. Her parents used to take her as a child from Hampstead where they lived to tea with the bishop. The stuffy swaying carriage smelling of leather (grandpa still kept horses) had a predictable result. The bishop’s influence in Hampstead is still visible in the names of Winnington Road, Ingram Avenue, and indeed Bishop’s Avenue.

Sadly the grandeur of a palace and its gardens was too much for the shrinking Church of England. In 1973 the last bishop left and the estate was allowed to slip into decline. Thirty years of dithering seem to have followed: hence the obscurity. But now a renaissance is under way. The Fulham Palace Trust has secured the essential lottery grant and the plan is beginning to form. The palace is open to the public, and delightfully welcoming. At present there is a little exhibition about its history, and particularly that of its garden (the immediate spur for my visit).

It is not very clear what if any of the gardens survives from Bishop Compton’s time: sadly none of his original trees. Most of it is clearly 18th or19th century, including the garden walls and the splendid row of planes along the river walk. (It is hard to believe they were only planted in 1895: they are some of London sturdiest. They would support – and indeed deserve – some splendid tree-houses. A competition?) The moat (apparently England’s longest, once enclosing 36 acres) and the early Tudor garden gateway are the oldest things to be seen.

There is an excellent tearoom in the old drawing room, with French windows onto the lawn, and the walled garden is in active restoration with a fine knot, a restored vinery and – in a competitive field – one of London’s finest wisterias. Promising beds of vegetables manned by volunteers indicate a bright future, too.

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