I was looking for a place called the Charterhouse. Getting in, even finding it made me feel like a Minpin trying to crack a walnut. Lurking behind a big brick wall in the Clerkenwall Road – the one door in was firmly locked. How was I to arrive? Wasted time pacing up and down in the rush of traffic, taking stock of the solitary edifice of the Hat and Feathers and the eating beating hearts of the breakfasters, the cyclists and the closed-face office people on their way to work.
I flipped on the map in my phone but that didn’t help. It walked me round and round in circles with no end destination but plenty of side shows: Tinseltown, The Smithfield serviced and virtual offices, Smithfield Polpo (Venetian style small plates and meatballs. Then the bulwark of mighty Smithfield market rose up in front of me. Meat market (of course) and The London School of Beauty and Makeup. I had blundered into Charterhouse Lane and no longer needed electronic help or ancient AtoZ. Instinct kicked in and past the deep building shade some metal gates beckoned me to Charterhouse Square.
Drawn in over the cobbles, under the mature plane trees to a place of ornate flint wall patterns, cupola, sash windows, old buildings, tantalising mulberry branches, newly red painted letter box: a haven of breathing green holding back the hi-rise uppityness of the City.
The light spring shadows of the monster London Planes with mottled trunks and feint foliage were best enjoyed on some new wooden benches with curly whirly snake legs – part of a recent makeover by Tod Longstaff Gowan. As I sat and waited for the book launch (more of that later) I watched a motley crew of millennials – (all male and all shapes) stride at some speed towards a black-clad cameraman inciting them, as he ran nimbly backwards, to show life and laughter “Jason walk faster” – no doubt some new piece of artiness to update their can-do website.
In the square there is a gracious Queen Anne house that gives onto the Suttons Hospital in Charterhouse, controlled by a porter’s lodge. We give our credentials and I was in along with my new Instagram friend IrishboyinLondon. We step through to a separate but parallel universe of Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials or Gormenghast.
This is the Charterhouse and seat of a charity that was set up by Sr Thomas Sutton in 1611 to educate boys and provide a home for 80 poor men – “the Brothers” It is their home still and Charterhouse school (now in Surrey) continues to be a beneficiary of the estate. A little lazy looking up of Sir T revealed that he had been an astute investor. Daniel Defoe called his legacy “the greatest gift that was ever given for charity, by any one man, public or private, in this nation.” Shrewd in spadefuls.
The site is a glorious sprawl of over 7 acres of cobbled courtyards and maze of ancient buildings threaded together with gardens. The place takes in the tucks and turns of history – a rather bloodthirsty Reformation, the opulence of the courtier in the Tudor Rich List then tempered by the industry and piety of the protestant work ethic. These changes in fortune hang around the place like moths in a wardrobe. There are cloisters, chapel, wooden screens, splendid apartments with tooled leather fire surrounds. Time dulls what must have been truly opulent.
But we are here for the gardens for this very week Head gardener Claire Davies is launching her book “Behind Walls. Enchanting hidden gardens of The Charterhouse”. It is a record both by season and by locations of the different gardens (of which there are 8 or 9). The photos are taken when the light is kind and make a little virtual tablleau of a very secret bit of London.
We were told that the gardens had been run down before Claire and her team set to to restore, reinvigorate and make beautiful. They look pretty jolly perfect now thanks to her and Rhod and Ludovic. It proves to me what I suspected all along, a scholarly and painterly approach to a garden is what any self respecting plant hopes for.
Someone told me that the Brothers give occasional tours round this magic space served up with a dollop of charm and idiosyncrasy. That sounds like the husband’s next birthday present along with a copy of Claire’s book.