St Johns Jerusalem
There are a lot of apple trees claiming to have been grown from the seed of the fruit that may or may not have fallen on Sir Isaac Newton’s head. And this may or may not be one of them. I never did manage to pin anyone down as to exactly which gnarled old tree in the delightfully overgrown orchard at St John’s Jerusalem is ‘the one,’ but that’s sort of beside the point with this incredible, secret place just inside the M25.
I know. It’s hardly Greenwich – but it’s a great afternoon out, and this is the time of year to go. Go, that is, if you can manage to get there for the four hours it’s open each week in summer (two hours in winter.) It took me years to get round to seeing it, as the National Trust in its wisdom chooses to open this utterly gorgeous garden on Wednesday afternoons, no exceptions.
It’s at Sutton-at-Hone, which is a cough and a spit from Dartford, or a hop over the fence if you’re on the M25, and it’s about as perfect an English garden as you’ll get. The house itself is what’s left of a 13th century commandry of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, who set up shop there in 1199. You can only admire it from the outside, sadly as it’s privately rented (how do you get those NT-tenant gigs?) but you can have a poke around the chapel, which takes about five minutes if you go slowly.
It’s the garden that’s the real star, and there is an advantage to the place being virtually unknown and only open on Wednesday afternoons. When I finally made it there, I had the place to myself – formal borders, cottage planting, a moat (fed from the river Darent), orchards, lawns, wild-gardens and a rather fabulous dovecote – all for me.
What’s so great about going this time of year (and why I’m telling you about it today in case any of you can make it down to Dartford for tomorrow) is the wonderful blossom as the fruit trees are in full bloom, happily buzzed-round by fat, fuzzy bumblebees.
It was, I understand, the first place to grow Kentish Pippin apples, one that you don’t see too often these days (the ones on Blackheath farmers market every week just seem to be mishapen versions of supermarket varieties, which is a shame. )
There is an extremely tenuous link with Greenwich here. Edward Hasted, who wrote the seminal History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, from which most Greenwich history seems to be taken these days (and I raise a guilty paw myself here) lived here in the mid 18th Century and wrote said History there.
Although the formal gardens will have changed since then, I’m willing to bet that the orchard’s much the same as when Hasted lived there – and, presumably, entertained Sit Isaac Newton at some point, who, presumably ate an apple there. and was, presumably, a bit careless with the core. The volunteer was keen to tell me the story, but it never quite sank in.
If you do manage to go tomorrow, be careful how you go. You can only realistically get there by road, and you’ll probably end up driving straight past the entrance, even though you know it’s coming up. There’s a map here but you’ll need a bigger one as it’s a bit of a fiddly drive. I came off the A2 near Hall Place and carried on down the same road but then had to do a bit of jiggery-pokery. Despite the fact that the way I originally discovered the place was by accidentally driving past it, finding it again was a challenge.
Being National Trust, it’s free if you’re a member,£2 if you’re not. But with weather like this, the peace and beauty of St John’s is hard to beat. If you can get a Wednesday off, that is…