Myddleton House - Enfield's hidden gem

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By helenochyra | Monday, August 09, 2010, 10:49

It is 30 times the size of Hyde Park, 26 miles long and could swallow New York’s Central Park whole, and yet it has managed to remain hidden in Europe’s largest metropolis. The Lee Valley Regional Park runs from the Thames to Ware in Hertfordshire and is made up of a varied selection of natural attractions, one of which, it turns out, is quite literally on our doorstep.

Having lived in Enfield for years, I assumed I knew of and had visited all of its sights, but somehow it turns out I had missed one: the home of one of Britain’s best gardens, Myddleton House.

Senior gardener Bryan Hewitt has been tending this verdant treasure since 1982 and now runs regular tours which showcase the garden’s plants and tell the fascinating story of one of Britain’s most famous gardeners, Edward Augustus Bowles. Although entirely self-taught, Bowles achieved great success, holding the post of vice president of the Royal Horticultural Society for 28 years and writing three bestselling gardening books. Myddleton House was Bowles’ family home and over his lifetime he turned its surrounding uninspiring parkland into a magnificent and highly original garden.

Our tour of it begins from the house itself, where Bryan points out two balustrades, one each side of the front door, which Bowles “acquired” from the original London Bridge. Bryan tells me that Bowles was a great collector of artefacts and that the garden is home to everything from pieces of the original St Pauls Cathedral to a collection of six original stone cannon shots.

From here we head across Bowling Green Lawn (so named, allegedly, because it was previously the bowling green of nearby royal home Elsyng Palace) to the pond. Hundreds of extremely lively carp make their home here and visitors can feed them, getting an almost too-up-close-and-personal look at their gapping mouths and silky, iridescent skin. They are darting around in front of a rather nondescript-looking plant which Bryan tells me is the garden’s oldest, an osmunda regalis (regal fern) which Bowles purchased from a tramp on Fleet Street in 1860. That a plant could have been growing on the same spot for almost 150 years is staggering and brings home just how historic a garden can be.

Our next stop is the Rose Garden, a more man-made-feeling space which has as its centrepiece a large limestone market cross which Bowles “rescued” from a builder’s yard after it was removed from Enfield town square in 1904. It’s an impressive monument, and one which reflects the garden’s close ties with the local area.

Despite the garden’s abundance of artefacts and collection of centenarian plants, Bryan is keen to stress that this is not a museum garden. He tells me: “we believe Bowles would have been progressive so we aren’t obsessive about growing exactly what he did where he did,” a fortunate attitude given that the New River, which ran through the gardens throughout Bowles’ lifetime, and was arguably its main feature, was diverted away in 1965.

What is perhaps now the garden’s main feature is arranged neatly along the bank of this ex-river. The national collection of award-winning bearded irises is the only collection of its kind in the UK, with almost all of the Dykes Medal winners since 1916 on display. Further along the route of the old river is another of the garden’s more famous residents, an enormous 107-year-old wisteria that Bowles trained to wend its way through a Tudor yew tree, turning it a brilliant blue when it flowers in late May. Underneath its canopy is another of Bowles’ projects, a collection of weird and wonderful plants he called his “lunatic asylum”. Its first inmate was a contorted hazel, a manically twisted tree with branches spiralling in all directions like thin corkscrews – it is totally unlike anything I have seen before and is instantly my favourite.

Our tour finishes at the Rock Garden, as did Bowles himself, his ashes having been scattered here. This was his favourite part of the garden and the location he choose to plant a pine seed he collected during a visit to the Vatican. The seed has long since developed into a mature pine tree which now stands testament to the work of this remarkable botanist, representing as it does something which Bowles started, and that continues to grow. Thanks to recently awarded lottery funding, the garden is getting the investment it needs (along with a brand new visitor centre) to ensure that it too can continue to grow – and that the Lee Valley can continue to provide a leafy refuge from the hectic city that surrounds it.

      

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