Bugwoman on Location – A Trip to Smithfield

Animal trough in West Smithfield

Dear Readers, I used to work in the Smithfield area but hadn’t been back for ages, so I decided that the area was ripe for a re-visit. As I stepped off the number 17 bus, the smell of the place drifted back to me; Smithfield is London’s wholesale meat market, and I remember the distinctive smell of blood from the carcasses that are processed here.  Smithfield Meat Market was the site of slaughter of over 74,000 cattle and a million and a half sheep per year , right up to the 1850’s. Animals were driven via Highgate and Islington from all over the country: animals too weak to walk the past few miles were often killed in Highgate, which used to have a preponderance of butcher’s shops (and pubs for the drovers to ‘wet their whistle’).The raised pavements in these areas were to prevent the smart ladies and gentlemen from getting their clothing soiled by all the dung from these benighted creatures.

Smithfield was second only to Tyburn as  the site of many executions, including the Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler and the Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, of Braveheart fame. Swindlers and forgers were boiled to death in oil here in the 15th Century. In short, the amount of human and animal misery that these stones have witnessed should surely have left their mark. Peter Ackroyd, that august chronicler of the Capital, believes that certain places in the city retain their character in spite of attempts at modernisation. It will be interesting to see if this plays out in the Smithfield area.

There is an extraordinary amount of building going on. I spend a lot of time trying to get my bearings, and on every corner there seems to be a chap in a high-vis jacket and a hard hat, shouting about deliveries into a mobile phone.  Many of the old buildings remain, after a fight to retain them, and the Museum of London is due to be relocated here at 2021. There is lots of modernisation but I also read recently that it is planned that the meat market, along with Billingsgate fish market (currently in Poplar) and Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market (in Leyton) will all be relocated to Barking. What will happen to the remaining Smithfield buildings remains to be seen.

The entrance to the Grand Avenue at Smithfield

A Smithfield Dragon – symbol of The City of London

However, this is all very well, but I am really here to investigate an interesting new project in the little park in West Smithfield. Wayward Plants is an organisation that, among other things, has been organising the ‘adoption’ of unwanted house plants from events such as the Hampton Court Flower Show, which can only be a good thing. In Smithfield, they have put up a ‘greenhouse’ called ‘The House of Wayward Plants’. This is a pun on the ‘Wardian Case’, which was very popular as a way of displaying and growing ferns during the Victorian era: you might remember that I have written about ‘fern mania’ or ‘pteridomania’ during this time, when whole areas were denuded of (sometimes rare) ferns by eager collectors. My first sight of the ‘House’ was from behind a human drinking fountain,

And when I got a proper view of it, I realised that two chaps were sitting on the table inside having their lunch. They agreed that it was a most excellent spot for sandwich munching, especially when it was raining.

As you might expect, the planters are full of ferns – maidenhair and male fern and our old friend hart’s tongue fern.

There is a programme of events being held in the House of Wayward Plants, including botanical drawing, gardening and music. I suspect that our diners may sometimes have to find an alternative spot for their sarnies.

The Smithfield gardens hold another surprise, however. They are very proud of their Caucasian Wingnut trees, who are in full flower at the moment. In spite of sounding like something that the Monty Python team would invent, these are magnificent trees, competing very well with the huge London plane trees that would normally dominate the space. I would have said that I had never seen one before, but in ‘Street Trees of London’, Paul Wood points out that there is a heavily pruned example in Islington, where I lived for eight years. It all goes to show how easy it is to just walk past things rather than paying them any attention.

Flowers of the Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia)

The tree comes originally from the Black Sea, and is native to the Caucasus (as you might expect) – the notice on the railings says that they come from Iran. The notice also mentions that you shouldn’t try to grow a Caucasian Wingnut in your garden, because it can grow to over 30 metres tall and has a dense, spreading canopy. I also rather like the fissured bark.

Onwards! I decide to have a wander through the grounds of St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Looking down the road, I can see the figure of Justice from the roof of the Old Bailey.

There is also a truly awful example of what The Gentle Author has dubbed ‘ghastly Facadism’ – developers seem to think that they’re doing their duty by preserving the front wall of a building whilst knocking up a dreadful generic glass office block (or some ‘luxury flats’) behind it. I have no idea what was here before, but I suspect that what replaces it will not be as interesting as what was there originally. It sometimes feels as if we are losing this part of London faster than we can fight the applications.

There is a restful courtyard in the middle of the hospital complex, with some sympathetic pollinator plantings and a fine fountain.

This is one of the oldest parts of London, still full of winding medieval streets. There are two churches which are associated with the hospital and the parish, St Bartholemew the Less (which is actually in the church grounds) and dates back to the 12th century, and St Bartholemew the Great, which was founded as an Augustinian friary in 1123.

St Bartholemew the Great

This hasn’t stopped the building of one or two strangely unsympathetic buildings, however.

And as I wend my way through, I can’t resist finishing my walk with a visit to the planting at the Barbican, just to see how it’s settling in. As usual, I’m  not disappointed. I’m especially pleased with how the waterside planting is going, Even on this dull day, there are plenty of bees and hoverflies about.

And so, it’s time for my sandwich and a flat white. I am a little underwhelmed by the Wayward Plants greenhouse (though the idea is fascinating, and I am pleased with the ‘recycled plants’ idea). However, I have seen my first Caucasian wingnuts, and am pleased to have reminded myself of the byways of Smithfield. London is endlessly fascinating, and you can find interesting plants in the most unlikely places.

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “Bugwoman on Location – A Trip to Smithfield

  1. Sarah

    I enjoyed reading your interesting piece on the history of Smithfield and how the area is rapidly changing. Looking forward to the next one. Sarah

    Reply
  2. Sarah

    I enjoyed reading about the history of Smithfield, London is a very interesting city as there are so many layers of history. I look forward to reading more. Sarah

    Reply
  3. thehospicegardener

    Really interesting. Thank you. You should look up a book by a friend of mine. It’s called “Ghost Trees” by Bob Gilbert and it looks at trees through the history of London. Bob is an ecologist and social historian and a great writer. I’ll forward your blog to him as I’m sure he’ll be intersted.

    Reply
  4. Daisy

    I knew that the A1 (which is the Holloway Rd in my part of town) was the route from the Highlands to Smithfield’s, but had not realised the role of Highgate and Upper Street. The meat industry is deep in our culture in so many ways.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      It’s hard to subtract what I already know about Smithfield from how I experience it, if you know what I mean….with all the building work it can seem very chaotic and a bit desolate, but strangely enough all that death doesn’t seem to have seeped into the stones in the way that you might expect.

      Reply
  5. tonytomeo

    The so-called ‘English’ walnut, which is related to the wingnut, and also from Persia, used to be a very common street tree in Sunnyvale, not because it was planned to be as such, but because the town grew out into the old walnut orchards, and trees that happened to be in the right situations remained as houses were built around them. They survived development remarkably well, but were mostly cut down since them because of the messy walnuts. (Yeah, ‘messy’ walnuts, in a region that was once famous for orchard production.)

    Reply

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