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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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It is hard to imagine today's contained, urban Thames as the sprawling giant it once was, but it was possible, some thousand years ago, to ford the Thames at this point and in 1088 Lambeth was called Lamhytha, the `landing place for lambs'.

Within the Church of St Mary at Lambeth is a fine modern (Francis Stevens, 1950s) stained-glass window depicting five saints with special relevance to the church. One is St Christopher who is traditionally shown carrying a traveller on his back across a river. Perhaps even this one. Another of the saints is Edward the Confessor, and his connection with St Mary's is a personal one. While Edward was building his great abbey across the way on the Isle of Thorney, his younger sister Goda, Countess of Boulogne, was building a church here. I like to imagine them rowing across to compare building notes. Well, it was possible.

St Mary at Lambeth is now home to the Tradescant Museum of Garden History, the churchyard containing a delightful walled `knot' garden where many of the plants collected by John Tradescant, father and son, thrive. The museum is one of the most rewarding in the capital - small and friendly with attractive shop and cafe. Mozart's first `Susannah', Nancy Storace was buried here, as were Captain and Mrs Bligh and the Tradescants. Nancy has a plaque inside, funded by her mother, and the Blighs and Tradescants have impressive tombs in the garden.

It was largely thanks to the two Tradescants that English gardens became more than the traditional repositories for herbs with medicinal and culinary uses or for cosmetics and dyes. When the Wars of the Roses came to an end with the death of Richard III on Bosworth Field, the era of the Tudor peace began, when gracious living became the norm and the traditional castles gave way to country houses. It was then that gardeners like the Tradescants came into their own, bringing in from France and the Netherlands, and later from Constantinople, exotic plants such as tulips, anemones, lilies, cyclamen and hyacinths. They also experimented with cross-breeding from seeds, giving rise to new species such as carnations.

John Tradescant the elder, employed by Robert Cecil, was sent abroad by his employer to buy plants for his house, Hatfield. From the low countries he sent back such exotic varieties as vines, cherries, quinces, medlars, mulberries, pears and currants - sensibly keeping aside duplicate specimens for his own use. He then travelled on to Russia, from whence he almost brought back such novelties as hellebores, muscovy rose and dwarf dogwood, but on such a long journey his luck ran out. The plants were watered by the crew with salt water and the berries, a natural remedy for scurvy, were eaten. He did, however, keep a detailed diary of his journey and discoveries, held now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. From Virginia the younger John brought back numerous varieties of plants, including the now hugely popular Virginia creeper.

The Tradescants were men of many parts. The elder John undertook a voyage to Algiers to confront the notorious Barbary pirates and he was part of the Duke of Buckingham's entourage which travelled to fetch the French princess Henrietta Maria as a bride for Charles I. Perhaps it was John Tradescant who first named her `the Rose and Lilly Queen', amalgamating the English rose with the Fleur de Lys.

The Tradescants had their own museum in Lambeth, which they called the `Ark of Novelties', but by fair means or foul (the latter is the most popular theory) their collection was commandeered by Elias Ashmole after the death of John Tradescant the younger, to form the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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