diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 26, 2013

You'd expect the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority to be based in the Lee Valley. Somewhere near one of their major venues, like the Ice Centre, the Athletics Centre or the Olympic white water course. But no, instead they're based beside a river that doesn't have a valley, a couple of miles to the west. That river is the New River, an artificial channel which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. And their HQ is at Myddelton House, which I'm now going to try to persuade you to visit.

If I tell you Myddelton House is in Bulls Cross, that may not help. If I say the nearest station is Turkey Street, that may not help either. Instead think a couple of miles north of Enfield, almost but not quite at the M25. One of Henry VIII's royal palaces used to be nearby, on the other side of the Turkey Brook, and Myddelton House is built on the site of his bowling green. Appropriate, then, that the name of its first owner was Henry Bowles. He was a map maker from the City of London, and moved out to the edge of Middlesex 200 years ago. The house was named Myddelton House in honour of Sir Hugh Myddelton, chief engineer of the New River, which originally ran around the edge of the property. A few generations later, in 1865, a child was born who was to transform Myddelton House into something special. His name was Edward Bowles, a self-taught horticulturist who spent most of his waking hours planting and grafting in the garden. He wrote books on the subject, he had numerous plants named after him, he rose high in the RHS, and even he became known as The Crocus King.

The gardens have had a less dignified history since Edward's death, but the decline was arrested when the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority moved in. In particular a half million pound Heritage lottery grant has been used to great effect to restore the site, and there was a grand reopening a couple of years back. The Duchess of Cornwall turned up, as did her former husband Andrew Parker Bowles - he's Edward's great nephew, and the chairman of the E. A. Bowles Society. Now you can take a look round for free, and you should, because it's lovely.

What you can't do is look round the house, that's full of LVRPA types and their desks and filing cabinets. Thankfully they've opened a Visitors Centre in an old building with a clocktower, with an extension that conveniently blocks out sight of the car park behind. Part of the carriage shed has been turned into a museum, very small but sufficient to tell the tale with clarity. See Edward's spade, and his books, and the two lead ostriches which used to stand guard beside the Wisteria Bridge. Alongside is the tea room, with a particularly good selection of cakes and pastries I thought. If you pick up a Lea Valley Regional Park map from the display by the shop there's a voucher inside which allows you 2 hot drinks for the price of one (but only if used before 11am on a Monday or Tuesday morning, so that's virtually useless).

It's the gardens you should be here for, and they're glorious at the moment. It may not have been the warmest of Mays, but late blossom now mixes with spring flowers and lush foliage. The bluebells are out, adding depth to the undergrowth, while verdant leaves unfurl from every bed. I loved the rock garden, which was EA's first creation, where some flower I can't name rises tall on vertical stalks sheathed in gossamer fibre. Elsewhere there's a sharp box hedge, and a bank of hostas, and a pergola garden containing Enfield's Market Cross. Edward rescued this from the town centre as it was about to be discarded, and now it has pride of place amid a sea of blooms. Another monument nearby commemorates William of Orange and George III, the latter inexplicably dated 29th February 1789 (seriously, eighty-nine?!?).

One of the main foci is EA's pond, stocked with big fish who gape up to the surface if you hurl a cupful of food onto the surface. There are various benches around the perimeter, ideal for a sit down, as many of the expected age group of visitors will want to do. The other water feature Edward would have recognised - the New River - no longer flows past the Tulip Terrace. His segment was an abandoned meander, and a decision was made in the 1960s to fill it in using spoil from the newly-tunnelled Victoria line. Now a curving lawn follows the original path, with only the two footbridges at either end retained as garden features. One of these is the aforementioned Wisteria Bridge, which ought to be festooned with blue flowers at the moment, except that Myddelton House seems to have the only wisteria in Enfield not currently in bloom.

There are some lovely paths to follow, nothing too rigid, nothing too formal. The kitchen garden contains bright white glasshouses and six chickens. In the alpine meadow on the edge of the site you may spot a cluster of beehives. Each area of the garden is labelled and explained in excellent detail on boards around the site so that even a horticultural inadequate can follow. But you'll probably get more out of the visit if you're the sort of person who likes to point at borders and say "Oh, I've got one of those" or "Ooh, that would look lovely next to my pelargoniums". That's Myddelton House Gardens, open daily from 9.30am on the far northern edge of the capital.

(Before you come rushing, be aware that there are two other house/garden attractions within half a mile, and you should probably think of adding at least one of these to your itinerary. I added both. More tomorrow)

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