Georgian gardens were for showing off. Gardening was an illustration of your taste and status, and merchants like Thomas Wright aimed to copy, in miniature form, the larger estates of the landed gentry.Read More
When Thomas Wright built Bell House in 1767, the garden was extremely important to him: it was a symbol of his wealth and status but it was also a refuge from his busy life as a City merchant.Read More
Gardens are wonderful for helping us all to feel happier and more relaxed. Simply being in a garden can alleviate stress and anxiety. Gardening as a physical activity releases endorphins, helping us to feel good about ourselves. From a pot-plant to a window-box, to the Bell House garden, being next to nature is good for us.Read More
To celebrate Edible Britain, this year’s theme for National Gardening Week, Bell House are thinking all things vegetable.
The winter cabbages and garlic planted in the winter will soon be ready to harvest, the broad beans are flowering ready to produce their pods. We’ve earthed up the early crop potatoes and have seen our first asparagus tips appear. Rhubarb was picked and used in Zita’s cookery course on Sunday and the banana plant has emerged from behind its winter fleece.
The lettuces and newly planted herbs are growing away and in the greenhouse, broccoli, coriander and sunflowers will wait until the last frosts are over. Our volunteers are growing cucumbers, courgettes, pumpkins, radish, beans, carrots, peppers, tomatoes and chillis on their window sills and these will come into the garden soon to grow on in the beds or spend the summer in the greenhouse.
In the summer we plan to finish our Wednesday morning sessions with lunch from the garden. We’ll use our produce for cooking courses held at Bell House, and provide the house team and volunteers with fresh herbs and seasonal veg, much like the original Georgian and Victorian gardens, three times the size.
We garden every Saturday and Wednesday from 9.30 to 11.30. New volunteers are always welcome, from beginners to experienced gardeners and every level in between. Some of us are there regularly, others come when then can. Our aim is to be sociable, garden, learn new skills and promote wellbeing, all in our beautiful walled garden.
Having repaired the beautiful Georgian wall that divides Bell House from College Road, Matt has returned to work on one of the last surviving ha-has in London. Built in 1767, it was designed to protect the garden from passing livestock (sheep and cattle were driven along College Road to market in London). The name ha-ha is thought to derive from the expression of surprise as people discovered what they thought was uninterrupted grass was actually a hidden wall. Unlike a fence it is invisible from Bell House, leaving views which would have stretched for miles in Georgian times.
Working outside in this hot weather brings its own issues. Matt must ensure that the traditional lime mortar he uses (its flexibility helps protect the brickwork from future damage) does not dry out too quickly. Lime mortar gains its strength, in part, from carbonation: the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Just because a mortar is dry does not mean that it has carbonated and if the pointing dries before enough carbonation has taken place, the mortar will crack and weaken. So Matt has been starting work very early, spraying the brickwork with water to slow down the process, and finishing before the heat of the day affects the mortar. Come past Bell House around 7am and he will already be at work. Luckily because he is a traditional craftsman, working only with his hands, there are no intrusive noises to disturb the neighbours. Once Matt has worked his way along the ha-ha he will work back again, replacing any missing bricks.
The retaining walls of the ha-ha, which stretch towards the road and support the pavement outside Bell House, are buckled and need complete replacement. Together with Nicholas Garner, Matt has devised a structure that will support the load placed on the walls but also be visually sympathetic to the location. A hidden metal and concrete structure will be faced with recycled Georgian bricks.
We hope that our commitment to repairing and maintaining Bell House in this sustainable and traditional manner will help preserve the house for the next 250 years of its history.
In the garden at Bell House is a magnificent old medlar tree, lending its shade to the gate leading to the walled garden. It’s certainly an ancient tree and may even have been planted by the Wrights, who built Bell House in 1767. Its gnarled branches extend out from the shelter of the garden wall and the trunk leans precariously, requiring a sturdy pole to prop it up.
By rights our medlar tree should be in the kitchen garden, from where it is planted, as its fruit is edible. Medlars need bletting (maturing and softening) before they can be eaten or cooked but once bletted, it has a flavour that’s been likened to both an apple-pear and a super-charged date and can be eaten raw or preserved. The Elizabethans valued its sweetness as a winter food in the days before the arrival of sugar and medlar jelly was popular with the Victorians and Edwardians as a Christmas conserve.
Put some medlars into an earthenware jar, stand it in a saucepan with boiling water nearly to the top and keep it boiling gently over a slow fire. When the medlars are quite soft, pass them through a fine hair sieve, and weigh the pulp, and for every pound allow one and a half breakfast cups of coarsely crushed loaf sugar and half a teaspoonful of allspice. Put all the ingredients together in the preserving pan and stir them over the fire with a wooden spoon until thickly reduced, skimming occasionally. Turn the cheese into moulds and keep them in a cold place.
When ready to serve, turn the cheeses out of themoulds on to a dish.
(The Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery by Theodore Garrett, 1891).
The Bell House medlar tree is very attractive particularly in winter when its intricate twisting stems are highly distinctive. Simple white flowers and glossy green leaves in spring give way to its unusual fruit in autumn. Medlar trees are self-fertile, so you only need one and it is fairly disease and pest resistant, certainly the Bell House medlar is a healthy specimen despite its age. In the autumn we hope to make medlar jelly from the Bell House tree, we’ll keep you posted.
If you are interested in Bell House's beautiful Georgian garden you might like to join our lovely garden volunteers. Just turn up on Saturday mornings from 9.30-11.30. Novices, experts and all ages welcome, coffee, croissants and friendly co-workers provided.
The Queen Bee's behaviour may seem the ultimate in promiscuous, as she can mate with large numbers of drones. Many of the drones in a hive don't even get the chance to mate but those that do have their genitalia torn off in the process and then die. Having taken the drone's sperm off him the queen bee stores it in a special pouch and uses it later for when she lays eggs. Life expectancies are different too - the queen lives for about 4 years, whereas drones live for a few months at best, and worker bees in the summer only last for about 6 weeks. I learnt all this in the introduction to bee-keeping at Bell House Dulwich where Philip Nicholson was leading the course.
At the course I met a mix of people - an allotment holder hoping to get bees installed on their allotment, a bee-keeper from India who is planning to set up an apiary in Forest Hill, and one young woman wanting to join the bee-keepers at Bell House as "apprentice bee-keeper number 3".
Philip used exhibits and slides to explain the life of the bee, the bee-keeping year, diseases of the hive and how to deal with swarming. Occasional swarms, by the way, are quite normal and are an inevitable aspect of bee-keeping as the bees try to set up new colonies. In looking at pests and diseases, Philip told us how to counter the Varroa mite, wax moth, chalk brood, wasps and bigger animals such as mice and woodpeckers.
Apart from being a terrific hobby, bee-keeping is a contribution to the environmental through pollination of flowers and trees. For most bee-keepers a major objective is to make honey: we were told how to take off "supers" laden with honey, remove the wax capping, centrifuge out the honey and put it into jars. Proving how productive bee-keeping is, Philip gave attendees a jar of honey which he (and his bees) have made in Kent, but next year I hope he may be able to supply honey made at Bell House in Dulwich.
If you want to know more, please email [email protected]
Everyone seems very happy about the opening up of the front of Bell House which has exposed the ha-ha. As Wikipedia explains, a ha-ha is a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. This is probably the only ha-ha in Dulwich and was originally intended to keep out animals while giving a view from the house across fields towards what is now College Gardens and, beyond that, to Belair Park. Clearing out the depression in front of the ha-ha has been a major task - we have found vast quantities of bottles, cans, old bits of cars and general litter but we have now removed all that rubbish, much of it half-buried, and strimmed down the brambles . Our plan for this outside area is to increase the number of bluebells and wild flowers.
This clearance at the front of Bell House has of course left a security gap between the gates so we have erected a long set of railings which have just been completed. We used a local welding company, run by Ian Cullingford, who put up railings that minimised any damage to the original wall. The railings may look as if they are drilled into the wall but in fact they are supported from behind the wall and just rest on the wall. Ian has also protected the limestone curves at each end by making a curved frame for the railings. Ian mostly specialises in fire escapes but we knew he would do our railings brilliantly as he has been taking on these engineering challenges for over 30 years - http://www.fireescape.co.uk
At either side of the railings there are gateways where we plan to install matching gates but before we can do that the leaning wall on the left will have to be rebuilt - that work is planned for later in the summer but certainly before the end of 2017 - the 250th anniversary of the wall and of Bell House itself.