Given that it is one of the oldest buildings in Lambeth, with monuments going back centuries, it seems astonishing now that the Church Commissioners were all set in the 1970’s to demolish the church of St Mary at Lambeth, tucked in behind the entrance to Lambeth Palace, even though by then there was no congregation to support it.
Fortunately, Rosemary Nicholson visited the boarded-up, derelict church, stripped of its furniture and bells, and decided to save it and the Garden Museum was founded in 1977, inspired by the tomb of John Tradescent, born in 1570 and said to be the first great British gardener and plant-collector.
Now, following two phases of refurbishment and extension by Dow Jones Architects, the church has a new lease of life as the Museum of Garden History, with new galleries, lift and staircases carefully fitted inside the historic structure so that it is worth visiting both for the museum and to see the lovingly-restored church itself. As much natural light as possible has been allowed into the space and, in addition to the fascinating permanent collection, there are new initiatives such as Virginia Tuck’s “Hydra Reimagined” and “The Curiosity Project” organised jointly between the Museum and nearby Morley College and taking inspiration from Tradescent’s collections.
The carefully-detailed new extension houses a café, which has already become a popular place for lunch, and other learning/activity spaces facing onto the garden. In addition, visitors can climb the 12th century tower with its views across Lambeth Palace and to the Palace of Westminster. Thank goodness for the vision of Rosemary Nicholson.