The Secret Garden

Back in 1992, when I was at university, there was an innocuous door in an anonymous wall on the road outside my campus.

I had a sneaking suspicion that, behind it, all was not what it seemed.

Occasional glimpses of what looked like a tomb could be spied over the top of the wall, and the door was always locked – although curious snatches of exotic architecture teased me whenever I pressed my eye to the keyhole. It was a mystery that was only answered years later when I found myself watching Lucinda Lambton’s One Foot In The Past on BBC2 and saw her enthusing about the “Kilmorey Mausoleum” – an enormous Egyptian tomb, right in the heart of a busy London suburb, hidden away and left to rot.

I left college, moved away and forgot about the secret tomb… until now. These days I live in the same street (hey, if you like a place once, you might as well go back!) and just last week I spotted a sign on the mysterious door announcing it was unlocked between 12-2pm every Monday. It was too good a chance to pass up. Today I finally went through the door.

This is what I saw:

Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s much larger than it looks in these pictures: probably 10-12ft high. It’s made from gorgeous pink marble and was designed by the architect HE Kendall, who was also responsible for sections of Knebworth House. Although it looks Masonic, it really isn’t: the design came from the illustrations Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned when he visited Egypt.

I didn’t know this until later, of course. As I was wandering around, taking in the carvings and the strange peace and quiet of the wild garden sealed off from the main road, I realised I wasn’t alone. There was a lady sitting on a bench in one corner who turned out to be the gardener, Claire, and I know this because I ended up sitting with her for an hour, drinking lemon and ginger tea and discussing how the Earl of Kilmorey built the tomb in 1850 for his mistress, Priscilla, and how apparently there are secret tunnels leading to and from the mausoleum which have been lost over the years. Then we started talking about the garden, which has been seeded with flowers from ancient meadows, and when I told her I had a wasp’s nest outside my bedroom window she pulled out a book and tried very hard to identify exactly which species they were for me.

(At which point I should note that I’m happy to have the wasps living with me because hey, they need to live somewhere, but I do wish they didn’t make such eerie tapping noises in the wall all through the night.)

At one point four suited-and-tied businessmen stumbled through the door into the secret garden and stared at the mausoleum in awe before coming over to speak to us.

“I was just telling these guys there was an Egyptian tomb here and they didn’t believe me,” said one. “I couldn’t believe it when we walked past and the door was open! I used to climb over the wall and play here when I was a kid…”

I get the feeling Claire hears that a lot. She was full of stories about the tomb and its inhabitants, not to mention her hopes for the future, because after years of neglect the mausoleum is being renovated. It’s an absolute joy: a stunning example of a Victorian folly in a place you’d never suspect. When I finally left, Claire told me to make sure I shut the door behind me so that the fox cubs living in the garden wouldn’t get out onto the road; when I did so, it was like shutting the door on the past.

It’s a bona fide secret garden. It’s open for two hours a week. It’s the resting place of the Earl of Kilmorey and his mistress and it’s the perfect spot to drink lemon and ginger tea with a complete stranger and talk about flowers. I think I may go there again someday.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Secret Garden

  1. Talia

    How simply lovely. There are loads of places like that in Bristol that I always think I should visit and never do.

    Just another place to add to my list of Victorian oddities to visit.

  2. Lília Visser

    Just another place to add to my list, period. I hope we will manage to see it when in London, in October. Maybe see you as well?

  3. Badger Madge

    What a lovely story. Would be even better if the gardener lady was actually a ghost. Wooooooo!

  4. Jayne Nelson

    Maybe she was a ghost? I didn’t see her set foot outside the door and into the real world… she could’ve been haunting the place!

    Although her lemon and ginger tea was thoroughly refreshing.

  5. GoldAnne

    hey jayne!!!!
    that was really interesting,
    hope your back less painful,
    gold anne

  6. Ruud Visser

    Gardner Claire being a ghost? Did you ask her if she sometimes wanders around the neighbourhood at night, while snoring?
    It would explain certain things, eh?
    The tomb looks interesting. Lília suggest that we visit it when we do a weekend London later this year…

  7. Lerxst

    What an amazing looking place! I don’t often venture into South London these days – not since I escaped the shithole that is Lewisham, my first home after moving to the Big Smoke. However, I may have to make an effort to explore the South West bit of the capital more if it hides buildings like that. Indeed I note there are a couple of organised open days coming up later in the year.

    http://www.environmenttrust.co.uk/events.html

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