If you have the urge to spend a different kind of pleasant afternoon in London, you could do a lot worse than visit the site of my daughter’s once-a-week college classes at Enfield, on the Cambridge road north of the city. This is the 30-acre home of a medieval abbey that is no such thing, a score of typical English gardens, and even a family of South African animals that act like prairie dogs but would die on a vegetarian diet. It’s a fascinating place.
Capel Manor Gardens is a thoroughly up-to-date fusion of science, esthetics, and artisanry. But as we approached the entrance I was completely fooled by the ruins that I could just see through the newly sprouting trees. “Look,” I said, “that must be the abbey!” They looked like medieval remains, but when I got close to them they looked too real. Surreal in fact. When I tapped my knuckles on the ancient-looking brick I heard the hollow response of Styrofoam. You may be able buy your medieval palace in flat-packs, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
What looked like a prairie dog town was inhabited by meerkats, cute pointy-nosed, bright-eyed animals that unlike rodents are wholly carnivorous (they eat insects and small mammals). About the size of squirrels, these mongoose relatives call to each other in quiet, low-pitched grunts. When the sentry meerkat suddenly stands at attention and stares intently into the sky to check out an airplane in case it’s a hawk, all his relatives follow suit like furry statues.
This site, first occupied in the late 13th century, provides a colorful setting for a Georgian manor house and nearby Victorian stables. It includes Greater London’s only college specialized for students interested in plants, animals and the environment (my daughter is head gardner at Britain’s largest institutional hospice). It is also involved with the making of leather goods through its association with the Cordwainers Guild, first mentioned in 1272, when it imported “cordwain” goatskin from Cordova to make top-of-the-line goatskin shoes.
In a sense the cordwainers were Johnny-come-latelies, since they branched off from the Guild of Saddlers, which dates from about 1160. Saddle making too is a Capel Manor specialty.
What intrigued me most at the timel was the honor of standing next to a dinosaur tree, more properly known as the Wollemi Pine. In my younger days I cultivated an early interest in fossils, from tyrannosaurs to trilobites – and plants. I was captivated by images of the very, very ancient impressions left in rock 175 million years or so ago, by plants similar to some that I knew were still with us. When I saw the living Wollemi Pine it was though I had met the coelacanth of the forests. I could actually touch something I had first seen as a drawing of a fossil in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, something that miraculously had survived 17 million ice ages.
Living dinosaur trees were first discovered growing near Sydney, Australia, in 1994. Then to their surprise botanists learned that in the right conditions these “extinct” plants will grow to a height of 130 feet – at that time there were few if them and they had escaped attention.The initial discovery caused such a stir that the location was kept secret and when seedlings were sent to England the nursery was protected 24-7 by specially hired guards. Today, 20 years later, you can buy them on the internet.
I thought I might order a Wollemi pine to keep company with the modern dinosaurs – roadrunners – that prowl around my garden, but I doubt it would survive the high desert climate.
Capel Manor is a lot of fun, partly because various sponsors, have added a lot of diversity to the place, and the estate has been wise in its management of the largesse. It is not widely publicized as a tourist spot. And, refreshingly, you won’t see any advertisements for Scotts lawn care products, Husqvarna’s garden machinery, or the makers of make-believe battlements. Put it on your “places to visit” list!