15th May 2016
After leaving Myatt’s Fields Park yesterday lunchtime, with some regret at not sampling the delicious-looking food at The Little Cat community-run café, I headed back towards Loughborough Junction station. I looped under the railway bridge spanning a rather hairy double bend on Coldharbour Lane and crossed into Shakespeare Road – a fitting approach to Brockwell Park, I thought, in this 400th anniversary year of the Bard’s death. After an initial dog’s-leg, the road runs straight as a die to the park, with little new-build housing developments budding off on either side, with names evoking more recent writers, including Pablo Neruda, Derek Walcott and James Joyce.
Crossing Railton Road onto Dulwich Road, the best way into the park is to go left and then up the steps to the Lido, an Art Deco Grade II listed building, opened in 1937. It has its own café, where you have to wait to be seated, so I gave that a miss, even though my stomach was beginning to rumble. I knew from our research at the Conservation Foundation, that the old mulberry is in a walled garden, but couldn’t see it signposted. I asked a friendly-looking family but, as is often the case, they were visitors just like me and didn’t know. So I started to explore on my own. It’s a big park – 125 acres (50.8 hectares) – on a hill, with the late Georgian manor house, Brockwell Hall, at the summit. The best way seemed up.
I was struck by how ‘countrified’ the park is, despite the usual expanses of green lawn dotted with mature trees, the tennis courts and tarmac paths. Walking up past a row of lime trees, there was a heavy smell of hawthorn blossom from the hedgerows (yes, hedgerows), which took me right back to my childhood in the Chiltern Hills, where I often used to nibble hawthorn leaves (known as bread-and-cheese) on my rambles around the fields and beechwoods near our house. At the top I spied a gardener from Lambeth Council, who set me on the right path over the crest of the hill, past the tennis courts and community greenhouses, to a curious white building called The Temple. This was built by architect, D.R. Roper in 1812, at roughly the same time as Brockwell Hall. Originally created as a folly, it was used as a bothy by gardeners for a while, and has recently been restored after being vandalized.
If you’ve found the Temple, you’ve found the way in to the Walled Garden, through a little gate tucked around one side (flanked by a rather special model Tudor village – more of this another time). Passing through the gate is a bit like entering an open-air, organic library. There is an atmosphere of peace and tranquility, with people reading on benches and talking quietly. My inner mulberry-scanner now switched on, I spotted it almost instantly, diagonally off to the right. It’s a tall, black mulberry, about 20 feet or more, leaning over at quite a steep angle, in a triangular herbaceous flowerbed, edged by crazy paving paths and a yew hedge shaped into an arch. The formal garden, extends into the background with a pergola and shelter. The mulberry leaves are still small, with no sign of fruit. It’s a beautiful time to see the tree though, as the garden is so full of colour, with a backdrop of wisteria in the distance.
As with all mulberries, it’s hard to estimate its age – 100 year-old trees very often look a lot older, hence the frequent assumption that everyone’s local mulberry is a James I planting from the early 1600s. So some research is usually needed. In this case, it’s fairly easy to date the tree (plus or minus a decade or two). A wealthy Ludgate Hill glass merchant called John Blades bought the land in 1807 and developed it as his private estate. The walled garden was originally the kitchen garden of Brockwell Hall (it is shown on an 1880 map) and probably dates from about 1812, when the present house was built, replacing a Tudor building closer to Norwood Road, roughly opposite Rosendale Road. This Tudor connection inevitably raises hopes that the tree could have a much older pedigree, especially as there was once a medieval monastery (owned by St Thomas’s Hospital) on the original estate, which was about twice the size of the present park. But having seen a few trees from the 16th century, there is virtually no chance that the present tree dates from then.
Blades died in 1829, passing the estate to his wife, and on her death in 1860, to his grandson, Joshua Blackburn Jr. He planned to turn the estate into a park, but died in a lunatic asylum before he could see this happen. His son wanted to sell the estate for development, but the Norwood MP, Thomas Bristowe, took up the cause and raised the money (about £12 000), with support from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA), to enable the London County Council (LCC) to buy the park. It opened on 6 June 1892, with Bristowe tragically collapsing from a heart attack during the ceremony. When more land was purchased from the remaining Blackburn estate, between 1895 and 1901, LCC’s Head of Parks, Lt Col J J Sexby was able to lay out the walled garden as an Old English Garden, with rose beds and topiary around a central pool. This is essentially the design of the garden today, restored and reopened in 2012.
That would probably put a lower limit to the date of the garden’s mulberry as between 1892 and 1901 (i.e. about 120 years old) and an upper limit date of about 1812 (i.e. 200 years old), if it was part of the original kitchen garden. If the garden was part of the Tudor Brockwell Hall (there are references around 1563 to Brockalle or Brockholds), it is quite possible there was a mulberry there then though not this one.
Climbing up to Brockwell Hall gives lovely views of south London. I used to see this park on my twice annual visits to my accountant in Herne Hill back in the 1980s, but I never came in. I stopped for an ice cream, coffee and a bottle of water (my lunch), before walking down to Herne Hill station and directly back to West Hampstead via Thameslink. I love these south London parks I am discovering and, unusually for a north Londoner, expect I’ll be back often.
To view a map of the park and find out more visit: