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Book review: The Thousand Year Old Garden by Nick Stewart Smith

25 August 2023

Pat Ashworth learns it from the gardener

GARDENS are always speaking to anyone who cares to pay attention, suggests Nick Stewart Smith, head gardener for six years at Lambeth Palace. His book is like the contented conversation between two people sharing a bench: ruminative, tangential, full of wisdom.

There are echoes of Ronald Blythe, both in the detail of what he observes and the joy that he finds in it — a squirrel “coughing politely” from a high branch up in the Tulip tree; the lavender whose fresh, clean smell makes him think of freshly washed cotton sheets; the gulls imitating the rhythmic thrumming of rain to trick unwary earthworms to the surface.

This is so much more than an account of what grows in the ten-acre walled garden, founded in 1197 and with Benedictine history older than that. It is as much about its 21st-century context — something beautifully illustrated in a September moment when the peace of the morning is broken by the sound of helicopters: the Metropolitan Police observing the Extinction Rebellion protest on the other side of the river:

“I’m trying not to focus too much on the helicopter blades whirring up in the sky above my head as I move away from the Long Walk and begin to cross to the other side of the garden. The labyrinth in the grass remains in enigmatic silence to my right and I’m watching how the light changes as tall trees stir in the breeze.”

Figures from history flit in and out: the diarist, John Evelyn, watching the construction of a new greenhouse in 1691; the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, placing a solid gold replica of an olive branch on the moon’s surface in 1969. Olive and fig trees speak to him of the Islamic paradise gardens of Spain; long grass and butterflies lead him to reflect on Van Gogh.”

There is the down-to-earthiness of it all: secrets of the potting shed; secateurs carried in a holster on the hip; barrows wheeled between avenues of olives; the delicate examination of potato tubers — all captured in pen-and-ink drawings of tools, topiary, and tiger moths.

And, of course, there are the eternal truths. There are more living organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are stars in the night sky.


The Thousand Year Old Garden
Nick Stewart Smith
The History Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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