Heather Stevens, Head Gardener
This is Heather Stevens, Head Gardener at the Geffrye Museum, seeking the green shade of the rose arbor in the magnificent garden she has created over the past fifteen years in partnership with Christine Lalumia, Deputy Directory of the Museum, telling the story of town gardens in London over four centuries through a series of outdoor rooms.
“I remember coming here as a schoolchild,” Heather confessed to me, “I am a Hackney girl.” Working originally as a florist, Heather was once responsible for all the pot plants at the Royal Festival Hall, and began gardening whilst working for the GLC parks department before joining the Geffrye Museum in 1996. At the job interview, Christine Lalumia led Heather out into the backyard of the museum, a semi-derelict, unloved space of random shrubs, tarmac and feral cats then. Standing in the same location today, Heather’s eyes shine with excitement when she recalls Christine saying to her, “Something I would like to do is create period gardens here…”
Fifteen years later, that dream has been realised and with such success that seems unimaginable that these gardens were not always here. “It was a big old job and I couldn’t have done it without Heather.” Christine admitted to me later,”We opened in 1999 and the wisteria is coming into its own now and this year the climbing hydrangea flowered for the first time. It’s not been instant, but it’s beginning to look as we hoped it would be.”
The herb garden – organised in sections by aromatic, culinary, medicinal and cosmetic usage, and salads – was where Heather and I began our conversation, by squeezing the leaves in our fingers to enjoy the scent of lemon verbena, a shared favourite. Nearby the traffic hurtled down the Kingsland Rd, but you would not know it, standing there among the hundreds of varieties of herbs flourishing between the tall brick walls that enclose the garden and trap the sunshine. From here a door leads to a brick path connecting five garden rooms, an ingenious arrangement taking visitors on a horticultural journey through time. Stepping through that door, we came first to the Elizabethan knot garden, accompanied by raised beds planted to illustrate the functional nature of gardens in the sixteenth century.
Then, simply by walking through a gap in the hedge we advanced into the eighteenth century. For the Georgians, gardens were appreciated as an extension of the house, a place of recreation where prized blooms were arranged with expanses of earth between them, or in pots – as in the splendid auricula theatre, used for the display of prime specimens of tulips, auriculas and then carnations through the Spring months.
Through another hedge and we found ourselves in the Victorian garden, where Heather was hard at work contriving a pyramid of pelargoniums as an epic central feature, typical of the ambition of the gardeners of this period who delighted in formal arrangements of bedding. And then, in the twentieth century “room,” I found myself strangely at home, recognising the plant combinations recommended by Gertrude Jekyll that I grew up with – irises and oriental poppies and blue geraniums and columbine and love-in-the-mist and lambs’ ears, to name just a few.
Heather and I sat on a bench, and she explained how the garden came into being. Once Christine did the historical research to discover what plants would be appropriate and how they should be combined, Heather was charged with tracking down specimens from nurseries, while an architect supervised the brick paths before Heather made sure the structural planting was in place for the opening in October 1999. “It was so nice to get the opportunity to work with so many varieties of plants – in the parks department, I never got the chance.” enthused Heather, gazing around in pleasure at the lush spectacle of this wonderful garden that is the result of so many years’ devoted work and will occupy her for years to come. “How it has changed and developed!” she said, as if seeing it anew.
This is a garden to visit and revisit over coming years as it settles down snugly in this unusual space bounded by the tall back wall of the old almshouses on one side and the new East London Line on the other. In an urban area once renowned for its gardens, it offers a beautifully tended enclave of green where you can enjoy the Spring bulbs and the Summer roses in a leafy refuge from the dusty streets.
Yet if you think this sounds a romantic existence – inhabiting Eden in the East End – remember Heather works outside all year round from seven thirty until four thirty. “We put on our waterproofs and we garden in the rain,” she says simply with characteristic resolve, “Each year, we’ve got to rake up all the leaves – that takes about three months – every single day.”
Doorway to the herb garden.
Looking from the herb garden towards the museum.
Looking through the series of outdoor rooms that tell the story of the London town garden.
In the last sixteenth/early seventeenth century garden.
The auricula theatre nestles against the tall back wall of the old almshouses.
In the Victorian garden.