Planting the past at Fulham Palace

Press Release: January 2019

When Archaeology meets Gardening

Bringing Bishop Compton’s lost garden back to Fulham Palace

When you want to plant a tree in the garden you might have difficulty breaking into the firm ground or fighting with roots, but at Fulham Palace a much bigger project takes place when head gardener, Lucy Hart, wants to introduce new species. Before she can plant a tree she must consult with Historic England and organise an archaeological dig at the proposed planting site.

Why an archaeological dig for a flowerbed?

Fulham Palace’s garden is Grade II* listed and the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. This means that within the Walled Garden the gardeners are only allowed to dig for 30cms before it has to be excavated archaeologically. Outside the walled garden it is only 10cms!

Although problematic for the gardeners, this is great news for community archaeologist, Alexis Haslam: “It’s always exciting when we get the opportunity to excavate at the Palace as the site is so archaeologically rich. We invariably find something intriguing, be it struck flint from the prehistoric period, Roman coins, Tudor dress accessories or decorated clay tobacco pipes. All of this material helps us to understand the history of the site, from its earliest occupation some 6,000 years ago, right up until the departure of the last Bishop to live here, in the 1970s.”

The archaeology within the Palace grounds goes back to the Late Mesolithic / Early Neolithic period (some 6,000 years ago) and the site has been continually visited or settled from this point onwards. In AD 704 the site was purchased by the Bishop of London who lived there for 1,300 years, leaving in 1973. With new plants being introduced for the ‘Cultivating Compton’ bedding around the outside of the Walled Garden, there was an opportunity to undertake another community excavation in an area of the site which has been known to produce evidence for late Roman occupation (AD 200- 400). Alexis Haslam, the Palace’s community archaeologist even had dreams of finally finding the Roman villa.

The new planting

The reputation of the Compton’s garden at Fulham Palace lasted for centuries. Fulkner in 1813 described Compton’s legacy, to collect “a greater number of green-house rarities and to plant a greater variety of hardy exotic trees and shrubs, than had been seen in any garden in England.” However, Compton’s successors didn’t share his love for botanical horticulture and none of the original Compton plants still exist.

Forensic Botanist, Dr Mark Spencer began researching Compton’s garden at the Hans Sloane Herbarium in the Natural History Museum. He is cataloguing and digitising the Compton collections for the first time, putting together a list of plants grown at the Palace in the 17th century during Compton’s residency which has formed the basis for the new planting scheme.

The new beds will be opened in spring 2019 and visitors will be able to see Compton’s plants as part of a free visit to the botanic garden and new museum at Fulham Palace. Some of the finds from the dig will be included in the first temporary exhibition following the launch of the new museum in late spring 2019.

Cultivating Compton: A Community Dig at Fulham Palace
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