May – September 2019
By appointment firstname.lastname@example.org
Overground Train – Bethnal Green (Stop D)
The Phytology medicinal field is situated within the north west corner of the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. The area’s rural past is now invisible through most of the borough. The Bethnal Green Nature Reserve is a rare example of a place where it is still possible to have a sense of continued history.
Records and old maps show that fields, market gardens and nursery gardens persisted here from mediaeval. In 1717 records describe the area as ’47 acres of meadow and pasture’. When industrialisation arrived in the 19th Century it brought urban poverty with it and an end to rural Bethnal Green.
In 1839 the Bishop of London called it ‘one of the most desolate parishes’. He undertook to build ten new churches and in 1842 the acreage was bought and work on St Jude’s began. The church took four years to build and finally opened its doors in 1846. It was a grand church, big enough to hold one thousand worshippers, and performed an active social functions with library, food kitchen, institute and school.
In 1940, during the Second World War, it was bombed and totally destroyed. The ruins of the complex remained untouched for years gradually becoming wilder and wilder.
Eventually a few local people – including a core group of mothers who were home-schooling their children – realised its value. Helped by the Environment Trust they started to clear the land.
In the 1970s the Tower Hamlets Council decided to fence the site in and lock it up to protect the area from fly-tipping. In the late 1990s the local Teesdale and Hollybush Tenants and Residents Association became the site custodians and, with the support of Tower Hamlets Council, took responsibility for St Jude’s as it was still called locally. They have been caring for it devotedly ever since.
Since St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes they changed its name to the more hopeful (and appropriate) Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Plants grown today in the Nature Reserve as part of Phytology have a similarly long history. Our planting scheme would have been recognised by the Old English Herbarium that was translated from a 5th century Latin text in around 1,000 AD. A widely used text, it detailed the medicinal use of plants and continued to be popular in Britain and across Europe for centuries. Its lessons have long been part of traditional knowledge.
The Phytology project can be visited on other days by pre-arranged appointment.