In the Middle Ages, the City was dominated by ‘trades unions’. If you wanted to be a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, you had to belong to the relevant guild or livery company. One of these was the Worshipful Company of Barbers, founded in 1308. They eventually merged with the Surgeons, to become ‘the Barber Surgeons’.
In 1987 they had the wonderfully eccentric idea of reconstructing the ‘Herb Garden’, which the Barbers Company had originally created in 1597.
There are 49 herbs planted in a complicated concentric pattern. These are not herbs for eating; they are mediaeval remedies. The Barbers Company produce a book on it. The herbs grown in the garden include ‘Southernwood’, which ladies used to take to church to keep them awake during sermons, and ‘Mandrake’, which traditionally screams when pulled up by the roots, and which features in the Harry Potter books.
There is no physical boundary between the Herb Garden and the Barbican’s grassed area near Wallside and opposite the Girls’ School, so you can stroll round, past the circular bit of ancient wall, which is called ‘the Bastion’, and have a look at the herb garden. You will find it tucked behind another piece of ruined wall containing a hearth, so it must once have been the inside of someone’s home. Who knows – perhaps this was the Mountjoys’ house and Shakespeare once toasted crumpets at that hearth.
The Friends of City Gardens have volunteers who have planted a new flower meadow between Barber Surgeons Garden and the Museum of London. They are doing a lot of good work in the City in and beyond the Barbican Estate. Their website is friendsofcitygardens.org.uk.