31st May 2016
The Morus londinium project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, officially kicked off on 31st May, with a walk to several heritage sites with mulberry trees, in a short radius around St. Paul’s cathedral. Led by Peter Coles, Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, Centre for Urban and Community Research, the walk aimed to show a less well-known side to London’s mulberry heritage, linked not to the silk industry, but to medieval monasteries and the Church. Despite the threat (and later reality) of rain, Londoners turned up after work, meeting at Blackfriars station, once the site of the Dominican Black Friars’ monastery.
The black mulberry (Morus nigra) probably came to Britain with the Romans, and we know that it was planted in medieval gardens and in the Infirmary gardens of some monasteries. Its fruit is highly nutritious and has medicinal properties, as do its leaves when made into a tisanes. The Augustinian Priory of St. Bartholomew-the-Great just a short walk from St. Paul’s – past what used to be the Grey Friars Franciscan abbey on Little Britain – had a mulberry garden on the site of what is now Bartholomew Close. Although the original mulberries have long gone an old stump was grubbed out in the 19th century there is a 20th century black mulberry behind railings near the Lady Chapel of the Priory church.
Just a short walk from St Bartholomew-the-Great is the former 14th century Carthusian monastery, Charterhouse, now an alms house. Charterhouse can only be visited by appointment, but three black mulberries can be seen peeping over the wall. Inside, in Preacher’s Court, are two older, gnarled black mulberries, said to be grown from cuttings taken from Milton’s (17th century) mulberry at Christs College, Cambridge. Although the trees look very old, they were planted around 1840. Every year, in July, the Brothers of Charterhouse make a gift of black mulberries to the Lord Mayor.
St. Paul’s has its own modest mulberry, a weeping white mulberry (Morus alba pendula) planted in 2000 in the Festival Garden. White mulberries are not common in Britain and there are only a handful of mature trees in London. Near to the cathedral, though, hidden in Amen Court (a private residential street), is a fine black mulberry, though not particularly old. Amen Court leads into Amen Corner, so-called because it is the point at which clergy reached the final ‘amen’ as they chanted the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, starting at Paternoster Row. From Amen Corner they would turn back towards St Paul’s, chanting Ave Maria (Hail Mary) hence Ave Maria Lane. This area was at the heart of the bookbinding and book trade for many years. The young Benjamin Franklin lived here and worked as a printer in St Bartholomew-the-Great down the road.
Our walk crossed Farringdon Road, where the Fleet River runs underground, down one bank from Smithfield Market and up the other to Shoe Lane. Here we wound our way through Gough Court, home of Dr Johnson, and onto Fleet Street, by the Cheshire Cheese pub, rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire.
The walk officially ended at Fountain Court, in the Middle Temple, hidden away off Fleet Street and the Strand. Here two black mulberries, planted for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 lean sleepily over the fountain that inspired Charles Dickens and poets like Arthur Symons and Verlaine. Munching on Tottenham Cakes and a delicious mulberry cake brought along by James Coleman of the Conservation Foundation, we walked towards the Inner Temple Garden to see our final black mulberry, in the shade of the Paper Building. As the garden was closed, we glimpsed the tree, decked out with red peonies hanging in bottles from its branches, through the winding wisteria along the railings of King’s Bench Walk.
The Kings Bench mulberry tree (Picture: Peter Coles)