14th May 2016

I’ve been wanting to visit Myatt’s Fields and Brockwell Parks for a long time, but have been waiting for the first flush of leaves on London’s mulberry trees. They’re among the last trees to come into leaf, even though this year the mild winter has meant that many trees are blossoming earlier than usual. The buds finally burst open in the first week of May, having had little leaf-tongues sticking out for quite a while, as if testing the temperature.

I decided to go to Myatt’s Fields Park first, having abandoned my plan of walking there from Vauxhall Park a couple of weeks earlier. As it happens, both Vauxhall Park and Myatt’s Fields were laid out in the late 1880s by Fanny Rollo Wilkinson, Britain’s first professional female landscape gardener and friend of Octavia Hill. In 1885, she had become landscape gardener for the Metropolitan Public Garden Association (MPGA), which was commissioned to create Myatt’s Fields Park.

Getting to Loughborough Junction from Northwest London, where I live, was a lot easier than I thought – a direct connection on Thameslink from West Hampstead station. I was there in 20 minutes. It was a bright, sunny day, after a week of intermittent showers and low cloud. Rather than go north out of the station via busy Coldharbour Lane, I decided to take Minet Road, which led into Knatchbull Road, past pretty Victorian terraces, some draped in Wysteria.

Photo of the mulberry tree at Myatts Field Photo of the mulberry tree's trunk

I entered the park through the Knatchbull Road gate and turned left towards the “Little Cat Café”, looking around for tell-tale signs of a mature black mulberry. I stopped for a coffee and, rather than scour the park for the mulberry, asked a local resident sitting at one of the tables if she knew where it was. “There are two”, she said, giving me very precise directions ­ basically to walk straight down the central path with the café behind me, and with the bandstand on my left and sunken garden on my right. As I headed off, kids from the local schools were playing rounders in the sun. Far off on the edge of the park I could make out the Mulberry Play Centre for under 5’s, opened in 2010.

Once pointed in the right direction, the mulberry soon became obvious, standing at the east end of the sunken garden, next to the path that runs parallel to Knatchbull Road. It is about 20 feet tall, with the characteristic gnarled, red-brown trunk and spreading branches distinctly leaning over, with wide, spreading branches. The leaves were out, but only just. The late morning sun was in my eyes, silhouetting the tree, so I had to spend some time finding a good angle to shoot from. As I was finishing off, the lady who had given me directions walked up with her little Pug, named Bobby. “You found it then?” she asked. We got into conversation. I explained my interest in mulberries. “I’ve got one in my garden,” she said, offering to show me. “It’s a bit of a mess, but I wasn’t expecting visitors.”

As Jennifer (as she was called) led me out of the park, she pointed out another, very young, black mulberry sapling on the opposite end of the sunken garden. This one was already covered in hard green fruit. We left by the north gate, crossed over Calais Street into Halsmere Road, and came to a row of 1970’s town houses. “I’ve been here since 1977,” said Jennifer, “and the mulberry was already there.” And, indeed, in her little back garden there was a 15-foot high mulberry, neatly pollarded by her neighbour and, as a result, looking very unlike its spreading cousin in the park. “It has delicious fruit. I make crumbles with it.” After chatting for five or ten minutes about mulberries – and affordable digital cameras – I took my leave of Jennifer and Bobby and made my way back to the park for a last look and to read up some of its history in the hope of getting a rough age for the older mulberry in the park.

Photo of the mulberry bud
Photo of a second, smaller mulberry tree

As is often the case, the local street names turned out to offer valuable clues. The area around the park, now the Minet Conservation area, was originally part of a large estate inherited by Sir Edward Knatchbull from his nephew in 1745 (hence Knatchbull Road). Twenty-five years later, in 1770, the 109-acre estate was sold to Hughes Minet. a third-generation descendant of Isaac Minet. He was a Huguenot refugee from Calais, where his parents owned a pharmacy, fleeing religious persecution in France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Isaac had arrived in England as a young man in 1685, joining his brothers.

Over the generations, the family did well in business and became philanthropists. James Lewis Minet built the nearby church of St James in 1870 and, in 1889, his son, William Minet, officially gifted 14 ½ acres of land from the estate to the newly created London County Council to create a new public park, which opened the same year. He also built the Minet Free Library (very recently saved from closure) on Knatchbull Road, which now houses the Lambeth archives, and planned out the mix of terraced and town houses, schools and mansion flats that still surround the park. The Minet family still owns much of the land in the area and the French connections can be found in the street names (Calais Street), and in the stone cats to be found at Calais Gate – minet (or minou) is an affectionate name for pussycat in French.

So, if Knatchbull and Minet owned the land, why Myatt’s Fields? Joseph Myatt was a market gardener who, from 1818 to 1869, had leased the land that later became the park, where he became famous for his rhubarb, strawberries and cabbages.

The go-ahead for the park must have been given in 1888, which is when Fanny Wilkinson began her layout designs. The park opened in April 1889, at a cost of £10 000. Much of her original layout and many features, including the paths, flowerbeds and summerhouse can still be found in the present park. It is likely, then, that the venerable mulberry was part of Fanny Wilkinson’s original plantings, making it about 130 years old. As for Jennifer’s mulberry, that’s anybody’s guess, though it was conceivably preserved by the developers from a previous garden, which would make it at least 50 years old.

After a last coffee at The Little Cat, I left by the Knatchbull Gate again and headed south for Loughborough Junction… and on to Brockwell Park. But that’s for the next blog.

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Article and pictures by Peter Coles

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