Our last Moonwalk-themed post featured garlic, so today let’s have a look at another nearby seasoning-related street: Saffron Hill. In 1290, John Kirkby, who had been awarded the bishopric of Ely, bequeathed his estate to the see of Ely to be used as a palace. The gardens there were famous for, among other things, vines and strawberries – and herbs, including saffron, the main source of the spice for the City dwellers. Apart from its colour, it was, like garlic, useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.
Saffron was widely used in ancient times, as a dye, a spice, a deodorant, and a healing drug. Romans would put in on their beds on their wedding night, giving rise to the expression ‘having slept in a bed of saffron’ (dormivit in sacco croci), to be light of heart, or enlivened.
From light heart to light pockets: according to the Victorian London historian Walter Thornbury in his Old and New London, Saffron Hill “once formed a part of the pleasant gardens of Ely Place, and derived its name from the crops of saffron which it bore. But the saffron disappeared, and in time there grew up a squalid neighbourhood, swarming with poor people and thieves”.
Dickens wrote about many of the streets in this area, including the nearby Bleeding Heart Yard, and Little Saffron Hill, a herb garden attached to the palace of the Bishops of Ely. That features in Oliver Twist, when Bill Sikes is seem drinking in a sleazy dive there with the unfortunate Bulls-eye.
Little Saffron Hill was renamed Herbal Hill in the 1930s, in honour of the 16th-century herbalist John Gerard and his work.
Gerard, who lived in the area, carefully tended his garden and in 1596 published a list of all the plants that grew in it – a list of great interest, being the first catalogue of any one garden, public or private.
In 1597 a folio volume of this Herball was published and made Gerard’s name a household word. The book is charmingly written in a chatty tone. He describes sugar cane, which grows in warm climates: “my selfe did plant some shoots thereof in my garden, and some in Flanders did the like, but the coldness of our clymat made an end of mine, and I think the Flemish will have the like profit of their labour”.
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