Little Saint Mary’s Church, Cambridge

LSM's 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

The churchyard garden at LSM 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! We aim to contain the vegetation and maintain accessible paths, to nurture all this wild loveliness, but never to spoil it by over-zealous tidying.

Painting of the church and garden by Mathilda Brown (2021)

There must already have been a church (and hence a churchyard) on this site on Anglo-Saxon times, for at the Norman conquest in 1066 a priest named Langline is recorded as ministering here. This would have been an unassuming structure, possibly of timber like the surviving wooden church at Greensted in Essex, but the Normans soon rebuilt it in stone. The original dedication was to Saint Peter (one of a pair at the northern and southern extremities of the city commemorating the keeper of the Apostolic keys), and it would have been the first substantial building to greet travellers arriving from London as it stood just outside the Trumpington Gate guarding the highway from the south. Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge, grew up around this church and took its name. Although founded in 1284, the college did not build a chapel of its own until 1632, but used the parish church (later rededicated to Our Lady of Grace) as a college chapel and its churchyard for burials, where many Masters and Fellows lie alongside the townsfolk of the parish. With the passage of time and after the major 20th-century rearrangement of the churchyard, most of these graves are no longer marked, but we do know many of the names. The extant historic memorials in church and churchyard may be searched via Find a Grave.

The churchyard is divided into two contrasting sections. To the east, facing Trumpington Street, the ground has been levelled and laid to grass, and is kept in trim by the City Council. Here cremated remains have been interred, some marked by memorial stones laid flush with the turf. One of particular interest was placed in 1965 by Marie Battle Singer to commemorate her husband James Burns Singer. They lived in Little St Mary's Lane for some years. When Marie died in 1985 her name was added to the stone by her sister, who came over for that purpose from the United States.

Memorial to James Burns & Marie Battle Singer


To the memory of
James Burns Singer
Poet and Marine Biologist

and his wife
Marie Battle Singer




Marie, an African-American originally from Mississippi, graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts and was a psychiatric social worker in New York city, before moving first to Germany and then to England after the Second World War. She worked initially in London for the International Refugee Organization, at Anna Freud's clinic in Hampstead, at the Middlesex Hospital and in Harley Street, where she set up her own practice. Having moved to Cambridge with her husband she was at first not well received here, and continued to work in London until eventual recognition brought her a lectureship in the Moral Sciences Tripos and a Fellowship at Clare Hall. For a time she was the only child psychotherapist practising at Addenbrooke's. A full biography of this remarkable woman is in preparation. Her husband James was born in New York but moved to Scotland in childhood and assumed the middle name of Burns in homage to the literature of his adopted country.

Constance Babington Smith

Marie's next-door neighbour in the lane, Constance Babington Smith (1912-2000), helped to maintain the garden — sometimes virtually single-handedly — until 1990. As a result of her wartime work on the interpretation of aerial reconnaissance photographs at RAF Medmenham she was credited with the discovery of the German V-1 flying bomb while it was under development at Peenemünde.

Another stone marks the remains of Tom Chalmers (1913-1995), the senior member of BBC staff who in April 1945 announced to the world the death of Adolf Hitler. Three years later he become Controller of the Light Programme, which had started broadcasting shortly after the end of the war in Europe.

The potter Jan Ellison (1902-1984) is also commemorated in this area. With his wife Zoë, who died in 1987 (not to be confused with the children's author of the same name) he set up the Cross Keys pottery in Cambridge, and both artists' work can be admired in the gallery at Kettle's Yard.

The Norway Maple (Acer platanoides 'Drummondii') near the north porch was planted in 1975 by Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, to mark his lifelong association with LSM. This was shortly after his retirement from the Primacy.

Brick vault



In 2017 an elderly conifer beside the church path had to be felled as it had developed a dangerous list, and another large tree was brought down by Storm David in January 2018. In the course of restoration of the paving 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.

Sketch of the churchyard by F.L. Griggs


The much larger wildflower garden lies to the west of the church. For nearly a century it has been developed in a distinctive way and managed co-operatively by volunteers, parishioners and local residents. The transformation of the burial ground into a semi-wild garden, romantic and informal, was begun in 1925 by Robert Lachlan (1861-1945), sometime churchwarden of LSM, mathematician and Fellow of Trinity College. Before the changes wrought by his visionary genius, the churchyard had already been closed to burials for some eighty years and 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 (as recorded in a sketch by F.L. Griggs), and it is from that unsprayed ancient meadow that the present garden has inherited some of its more interesting wild species such as Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).

Centre of garden
Dr Lachlan left stable standing headstones intact, but rearranged fragmented or flat ones — and even table-top tombs — 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 place, mostly those from the early 19th century in the far corners of the garden or along its southern margin next to the wall of Peterhouse. Although it is now impossible to read most of the inscriptions we know that those buried in the churchyard include the German artist Valentine Ritz (c. 1695-1745) — who painted the Royal Arms in LSM and whose portraits of celebrities such as  Bacon, Barrow and Newton hang in various 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 paved terrace that skirts the western end of the church 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.


Robert Lachlan originally planted the garden with hardy shrubs, species roses and perennials, and many of these survive alongside later additions. The traditional churchyard Yew (Taxus baccata) was already present in this western section of the churchyard — there is another by the front gate from Trumpington Street — and it is now a large and spreading tree, possibly 200 years old. At about the time of the rearrangement a so-called Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was planted. A vigorous native of northern China, easily growing to 70 feet (21 metres) 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 2006 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 Cambridge Mayoralty. A False Acacia tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) stands against the railings opposite Peterhouse's Ward Library, the former Museum of Classical Archaeology. The first onset of spring is heralded by Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Aconites (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 a Berberis darwinii (of the species discovered in Chile by our sometime parishioner, Charles Darwin, though it was not the actual specimen he brought back) used to thrill us with its vibrant orange blossom in the spring. Sadly it is no more — though we hope to replace it — but there is still a charming and 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.

MagnoliaThe area between the gate and the railings fronting the lane is the only part of the garden to enjoy perennial sunlight. A strategically-placed Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) dominates the entry, a breathtaking sight in spring and late summer with its enormous pink blooms. Gas lampNestled among its branches is one of two old lamps in the garden; this one, restored in recent years by the local authority, is still lit by gas mantles like its neighbour on the other side of the lane, though the other near the corner of the Parish Centre (from the collection of Dr Arthur Peck, Fellow of Christ's College and a generous benefactor to the church) has been converted to electricity.

Near at hand 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.

photo of Evergreen Alkanet by Chessie Nour

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 Evergreen Alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) once cultivated by cottagers as a source of dyestuffs. The common name derives through Spanish alcaneta, from Arabic al-ḥinnā’ حِنَّاء‎ "henna"; the genus name is Greek, meaning "five-tongued", and the species name is Latin, meaning "always green". Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) — whose large leaves were used to wrap butter — and its close relative Winter Heliotrope (P. fragrans) are also in evidence, as is Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis) — once the indispensible stock-in-trade of midwives, but recently shown to contain a deadly cumulative poison — along with White Comfrey (Symphytum orientale), a Turkish native identified in the 1860 Flora of Cambridgeshire by Charles Cardale Babington (1808-1895), Professor of Botany, Darwin's friend and mentor and curate of LSM; this plant is 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.

John Stevens Henslow


One 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. Taller 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. Romantic theories have suggested that Crusaders may have brought the seeds home in their clothing, though a later conjecture associates it with John Stevens Henslow (left), who preceded Charles Babington in the chair of Botany and who like him had served a curacy at LSM. It now seems that both species of teasel are quite widespread in Cambridgeshire, but nevertheless our links with Henslow are of interest, as he 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 22 Fitzwilliam Street.Plaque at Darwin's lodging 

A quiet area in the southwest corner of the churchyard, between the nave and the north range of Peterhouse, has been dedicated for the burial of ashes. To safeguard these memorials, access is through a locked gate but may be arranged by contacting the church office or by speaking to the clergy or churchwardens after a service. 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 southwest 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 stone fragment measuring 2'9" x 6" (840 x 150mm) with interlaced carving in the Celto-Saxon style from the first, pre-Conquest church on this site, and part of a tombstone from the late Commonwealth period, bearing the date 1659, the year of Richard Cromwell's Protectorship. These pieces were set into the wall when the first extension was added in 1892.


In 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:

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

Church gate

Ground Elder (Ægopodium podagraria) and Ivy (Hedera helix) are among the more aggressive wild plants that tend to dominate the garden. Keeping them in check is an ongoing task for our volunteer gardeners, 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 the traditional English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, formerly Endymion non-scriptum), Columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris), Primroses (Primula vulgaris) and various Geranium species, notably molle, lucidum, macrorrhizum, phæum and the aforementioned pratense.

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum on a 34p stamp

In 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 the alkaloid colchicine, a medicine described in ancient Egyptian papyri and used to treat gout and other inflammatory conditions for over 3,000 years. It has recently been experimentally trialled as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat patients with long Covid.

This article incorporates contributions by Scilla Hall†, Sally Head†, Tessa Hobbs, Christine Tipple, Jeremy Musson and others. Regular updates and news from the garden appear in our monthly Newsletter.

Garden Working Parties – Care for God's Half Acre
Regular monthly gardening mornings take place after the 10am Mass,, usually on the third Saturday of each month, with coffee and cake, careful weeding, path-sweeping and some new planting. Contact Jeremy Musson or Christine Tipple for further information.

Dates for 2024 are: 16th March, 20th April, 18th May, 22nd June, 20th July, 24th August, 21st September, 19th October, 23rd November & 14th December (note these last two are the fourth and second Saturdays respectively).