Little Saint Mary’s Church, Cambridge

LSM's Wild Garden

As the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations — Isaiah 61.11


General view of the garden

LSM's garden is loved equally by worshippers, local residents and visitors from afar. All are welcome to enjoy this quiet space, an oasis of seclusion in the heart of the busy city. The garden is a listed City Wildlife Site and a sanctuary for butterflies and other insects, birds — and even bats! To contain the vegetation and maintain the paths, to nurture all this wild loveliness, but never to destroy it by officious over-tidying — that is our aim.

The churchyard is divided into two contrasting sections. To the north and east, facing Trumpington Street, the ground has been levelled and grassed over and is kept in trim by the City Council. Here, until the year 2000, cremated remains were interred within a memorial area. Alongside the church path, a row of trees commemorates particular persons and events. The Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus 'Brilliantissimum') near the north porch was planted by Archbishop Michael Ramsey to mark his lifelong association with the church. In 2017 an elderly conifer here had to be felled as it had developed a dangerous list, and another great tree was brought down by a storm in January 2018. In the course of restoration following these events, three brick vaults were discovered beneath the path, probably dating from the 19th century and of the sort used for burials, but apparently empty.

Another gate in the iron railings marks the transition to the south and west of the church, usually designated "the garden", although it too is part of the ancient churchyard. Since 1925 this section has been developed in a distinctive way and managed co-operatively by volunteers, parishioners and local residents.

The transformation into a semi-wild garden, romantic and informal, was the inspiration of Robert Lachlan, churchwarden of LSM, Fellow of Trinity and distinguished mathematician. Before the changes wrought by his visionary genius, the churchyard, already closed to burials for some eighty years, had become almost derelict, with many of the tombstones broken. Most of the ground had reverted to rough grassland, held in check by occasional scything, and it is from that unsprayed ancient meadow that the present garden has inherited some of its more interesting wild species such as the Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and the Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).

Centre of garden
Dr Lachlan left stable standing headstones intact, but fragmented or flat ones — and even table-top tombs — were subjected to drastic rearrangement, some being employed as paving slabs for the network of paths that he laid out, others as retaining walls to line those paths. About three dozen of the original stones remain in situ, mostly those from the early 19th century, which stand in the far corners of the garden or along its southern margin next to the wall of Peterhouse. Graves that are no longer marked include those of the German artist Valentine Ritz (c. 1695-1745) — who painted the Royal Arms in LSM and whose portraits of such worthies as Newton, Bacon and Barrow hang in several Cambridge colleges — and the exiled Dutch composer Pieter Hellendaal (1721-1799), sometime organist of Pembroke College and LSM.

The small winding paths, which entice the visitor to explore the garden, fan out from the main paved track that skirts the western end of the building. Though seemingly haphazard, they are ingeniously contrived so as to intersect with a dividing herbaceous screen on a subtly-contrived alignment, presenting the visitor with a constantly-evolving kaleidoscopic sequence of diminutive vistas, transverse and diagonal, through the flowering shrubs towards the backdrop of Peterhouse's north range or the old cottages in the lane. Thus, even in the sunnier and lighter areas, the effect of seclusion is effectively and wondrously maintained.

RosesRobert Lachlan originally planted the garden with hardy shrubs, species roses and perennials, and many of these survive. The traditional churchyard Yew (Taxus baccata) was already present — there is another by the gate from Trumpington Street —  and it is now a large and spreading tree, possibly 200 years old. At about the time of the rearrangement an Ailanthus altissima was planted; as its common name is "Tree of Heaven", it is often found in churchyards. A vigorous tree native to northern China, easily growing to 70 feet (21 metres) and with pretty striated bark, it is to be found on the mound in the centre of the garden, which has been claimed as of Roman origin; according to the 1973 Archaeological Gazetteer of the City of Cambridge, the area between Trumpington Street and the river was a site of both prehistoric and Roman settlement. In November 2006 a large, diseased and probably self-seeded Sycamore had to be felled, and in its place an English Oak (Quercus robur) was planted by the Mayor of Cambridge, assisted by his mayoral colleague from our Hungarian twin city of Szeged, in celebration of 800 years of the Mayoralty. Three mature False Acacia trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) once lined the railings opposite Peterhouse's Ward Library (the former Museum of Classical Archaeology), but only one remains, after its companions succumbed to Bracket Fungus in 2010. The first onset of spring is heralded by Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), (Aconitum sp.) and Lesser Celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), followed by yellow Forsythia and the pale Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and eventually progressing to the scented Viburnum.

Berberis darwinii

On the raised bank overlooking the Parish Centre there is a vibrant orange Berberis darwinii (dis-covered in Chile by our sometime parishioner, Charles Darwin) and a charming but tender Fuchsia magellanica alba which, despite its name, bears pink flowers. High summer brings the scent of Philadelphus from the rather overgrown shrubbery that forms a giant umbrella around the Parish Centre, while Species Roses cascade enchantingly through and over other plants.

The area between the gate and the railings fronting the lane is the only part of the garden to enjoy perennial sunlight. A strategically-placed Magnolia x soulangeana dominates the entry, a breathtaking sight in spring with its enormous pink blooms. Gas lamp In among its branches is one of a pair of old lamps in the garden; this one is still lit by gas mantles, though its companion near the corner of the Parish Centre has been converted to electricity. Nearby are some of the most admired roses in the garden: the abundant and fragrant pink "Constance Spry", the rare hybrid Rosa x cantabrigiensis and another hybrid, the great white rose (Rosa x alba maxima) which was adopted as the emblem of the House of York and later of the hapless Stuart pretenders.

Native species still found throughout the garden include the Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), Sweet Violet (Viola odorata), Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare, now reassigned to the genus Chrysanthemum) and Purple Bellflower (Campanula trachelium). As always in nature, it is the strongest that survive and prosper. Each year there is an imbalance of invasive plants such as the Green Alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), once cultivated by cottagers as a source of dyestuffs, Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) — whose large leaves were used to wrap butter — and Winter Heliotrope (P. fragrans). Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis) — once the indispensible stock-in-trade of midwives, but recently shown to contain a deadly cumulative poison — is also in evidence, as is White Comfrey (Symphytum orientale), a Turkish native identified in the 1860 Flora of Cambridgeshire by Charles Cardale Babington (Darwin's friend and mentor, and curate of LSM) and now naturalised throughout the city. A less invasive but still tenuous survivor is Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) with its pretty pale pink flowers; if its leaves are rubbed with a little water, a soapy lather forms, whence the name.

One very unusual plant that has found a home in the churchyard is the Asiatic Teasel (Dipsacus strigosus), identified by the late Philip Hall, editor of Nature in Cambridgeshire and for many years a server and cantor at LSM. Much taller and rarer than the common Fuller's Teasel (D. fullonum), it is indigenous to eastern Turkey, Ukraine and Iran. It germinates each year from self-sown seed in different locations, favouring disturbed ground with poor soil. It is unknown how this rare species found its way to LSM, whether by accident or design; romantic theories link it to returning Crusaders, but a more plausible conjecture associates it with John Stevens Henslow, the Professor of Botany who, like his colleague Babington, had served a year's curacy at LSM in his younger days. Henslow was the first to develop the technique of dendrochronology (dating of timbers from the concentric rings seen in section, which correspond to successive growing seasons), and his ideas on evolution influenced his pupil and friend Darwin, who once had lodgings within the parish at Fitzwilliam Street.

To mark the Millennium, a Chamomile Lawn was established in the south-west corner of the churchyard as the new locus for the burying of ashes. Here, at the corner of the Lady Chapel, is Azara microphylla, an evergreen tree native to Chile, with minute shiny leaves and equally tiny vanilla-scented yellow flowers in early spring.

Scratch sundial
On the south-west face of the diagonal buttress just before the south porch is an ancient scratch sundial or Mass Dial, and to its left, reset in the south wall of the Parish Centre there are two interesting relics: a Celto-Saxon stone with interlaced carving from the first, pre-Conquest church on this site, and a fragment of a tombstone of 1659.

BluebellsIn 2003 a new wrought iron gate was erected at the rear entrance to the church, surrounded mainly by plants introduced to Britain by the Romans, or having Biblical or monastic associations. After considerable clearance in 2004, a number of new trees and shrubs were planted:

Wild Cherry or Gean (Prunus avium)
Flowering Crab Apple (Malus tschonoskii)
Pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Chanticleer')
Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
Prunus x hillieri 'Spire'
Oleaster (Elæagnus angustifolia)
Cotoneaster sp.
Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)
Silk Tassel Bush (Garrya elliptica)
Myrtle (Myrtus communis)
Red-barked Dogwood (Cornus alba elegantissima)
Bridal Wreath (Spiræa arguta)
Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria)
and the perennial ivy-leaved Cyclamen hederifolium.

War is still being waged upon Ivy (Hedera helix) and Ground Elder (Ægopodium podagraria) which tend to stifle some of the less robust plants, though they do serve an ecological purpose by providing cover for ground-nesting birds and other small fauna. Following the removal of Ivy there has been a revival of Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), Columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris), Primroses (Primula vulgaris) and various Geranium species, notably Gg. molle, lucidum, macrorrhizum, phæum and the aforementioned pratense.

Colchicum autumnaleIn autumn two similar plants, confusingly both known as Autumn Crocus but belonging to different families, may be seen in bloom: Crocus nudiflorus is a naturalised species formerly cultivated in monastic gardens, while the so-called Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale), seen here, is indigenous to Cambridgeshire. In both species the delicate mauve blooms arise directly from underground corms after the leaves have been shed. The true crocuses can be distinguished by having only three yellow stamens; Colchicum has six stamens and all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous, as they contain colchicine which is extracted by pharmacists to treat gout.

This account is based on notes by Sally Head †, Scilla Hall † and Tessa Hobbs.

If you would be willing to assist with occasional garden working parties, please contact
Malcolm Munro (01223 880730).