I’m still perfecting my planting plan and hoping to get my seed orders off today. But before I got down to leafing through all that minuscule type, I decided to take my husband Mike and Rosa, the Mini Schnauzer, on a longer than normal morning walk. For the first time this week the early morning sky was blue and what clouds I could see, were puffy and white.
I had historical research in mind. I wanted to measure just how close we are to Oxford Street and thus how close our house is to old Roman London. I can report that we live exactly 600 Wendy-steps away. My guess is that’s approximately 1,500 Roman feet.
Oxford Street is one of the most ancient of the streets of London. In those days it was called the Via Trinobantina. It linked the West Gates of the Roman fort of Londoninium(situated in the modern day City of London) with the west country. So phalanxes of legions, Saxon traders, Roman dignitaries and commoners would all have trudged by. Perhaps even one of the emperors passed this way, with pomp and ceremony pulled in a chariot by nimble Italian horses? Several of them came to Britain to inspect their damp northern territory, though few of them remained here long.
The shops don’t open early on a Sunday morning, so for once we had almost the whole street to ourselves. It was possible to imagine what it must have been like, setting out for the West Country or South Wales along this route. I wondered if, in Roman times, it would have been this quiet.
Excavations at the nearby Crossrail site at Tottenham Court Road Station have provided new evidence of Roman settlement along Via Trinobantina. Even though we are a mile or two from Londinium’s Roman wall, it would not have been completely rural round here. I like to fancy that there were farms built close to the road, selling produce grown on the very plot we occupy and where I grow today. There is still a tradition of producing round here and selling on Oxford Street. Today it is the fashion shops that sell clothes made in our local rag-trade factories.
On these rare occasions when I find myself almost alone on Oxford Street, it is not so hard to imagine that local farmers might have set up stalls along the street, offering travellers vittles for their journey. This part of London might well have had market gardens. We are just south of Regent’s Park that even then was boggy and clayey ground. The park would have been useless for agriculture. It remained heavily forested until much later and because people left it alone it became a good hunting ground. But round where we live the London clay is lighter and mixed with river gravels and silt. Our lands would have been sheltered by the hills of Hampstead above us and the forest of Regents Park close by.
Springs, issuing from the escarpments of modern day Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill, criss-crossed our fertile land with streams that still exist in mysterious culverts beneath our streets. The eccentrically laid out Marylebone Lane twists and turns in order to follow the route of the Tyburn river. Fleet Street is said to have the River Fleet still coursing beneath its paving slabs. These rivers ran with some force as they raced down from the chalk and sandstone hills that surround the Thames Valley. Westminster is renowned for its artesian wells. Eros in Piccadilly Circus used to be fed by a naturally turbulent artesian fountain. When we excavated our own basement, a few years ago, we found an old well beneath the slab. Peering down into the brick chasm, we could see murky, muddy water only a few feet below the level of our basement floor.
The Romans, who themselves imported the idea of the garden from Persia, are generally credited with bringing garden design to the British Isles. Excavations of Roman villas in Britain have revealed that the central courtyard or peristyle was planted with herbs, vegetables and sweet smelling flowers as abundant as any found in Rome. Italians still garden like this today, mixing edibles with flowers, making the most of any sheltered space they have.
In Rome the gardens of Lucullus were renowned. His villa, built just outside Rome, was legendary for the beauty of its extensive gardens and planted courtyards. Lucullus even has a strain of Swiss chard named after him, implying to me that his garden was as productive as it was decorative.
The Romans certainly had a refined taste in vegetables and many of the things we grow today were imported by them. For example, grapes and figs would have been commonly grown in Britain in those days, even as far north as Hadrian’s Wall. And many of our perennial herbs like rosemary would have been imported by Romans, as an indispensable garnish for meat dishes. The climate might have been a little bit more hospitable then. Where we live, the confluence of fertile alluvial soils, a ready water supply and sheltered fields, would have given a Roman market gardener just the right conditions in which to raise Mediterranean varieties that would tempt even the most homesick Roman Legionary.
And I’ve discovered that you can still get Lucullus’ chard. It is so vigorous that it has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Now that has to be a definite for next summer. It is available from Thompson and Morgan. Lucullus chard is larger than the normal Swiss chard. It has a more elongated white stem that is cooked separately to the more delicate leaf parts.
I have been trying to concentrate on rather mundane seeds, like chards, kales, carrots and peas. These are all vegetables that Romans would have cultivated. But my mind keeps straying towards the more exotic grape vines, pomegranates and figs. If I were a Roman citizen of London it might takes weeks or months for precious seeds to be sent to me from south of the Alps. Today I can order anything and it will be with me in a few days’ time. I hope my walk, tripping back into history, will at least ensure that I value the extraordinary variety available to me today.