Camomile Street to Herbal Hill: ghosts and serpents in London’s spicy streets

Following on from my earlier post about spicy streets, let’s continue that theme and start with Camomile Street, which leads off Bishopsgate and may take its name from one of the wild plants that grew abundantly near London Wall. In the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the wall to keep the defensive line clear and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Camomile (or Chamomile), the name of which comes from the Greek for ‘earth apple’, was used to treat ills such as hay fever, insomnia, and upset stomachs. It is a member of the daisy family, and its dried flowers contain many terpenoids and flavonoids contributing to its medicinal properties.

Wormwood Street, which leads out of Bishopsgate on the opposite side from Camomile Street, is similarly named, from the plant Artemisia, or wormwood. No debate there but what has now become unclear is which wormwood. My sources all appear to suggest that it was Artemisia absinthium, the herb used to flavour absinthe and vermouth. Let me pause here to hand over to a specialist website (vermouthpadro.com), which says that vermouth is not vermouth without wormwood. The world’s first vermouth was “commonly thought to have sprung from the creative skills of Hippocrates” and the drink takes its name from the herb, Wermut in German.

However, one sharp-eyed reader, evidently well-versed in botany, points out: “The wormwood of Wormwood Street is Artemisia vulgaris (common wormwood or mugwort) whereas the wormwood used to flavour absinthe is Artemisia absinthium (grande wormwood). It likes arid, rocky soil so wouldn’t grow well in London.” The RHS agrees, saying that, though once relatively common, it is becoming increasingly rare in the UK. But wouldn’t land that was allowed to grow wild be arid and rocky?

Oh, well. In any case, legend has it that wormwood grew up in the path of the serpent as it made its way out of the Garden of Eden and the plant is mentioned in the bible, in the Book of Revelation: “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water—the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.”

Garlick Hill in the City is another name with an obvious derivation, taking its name from garlic. Either the hythe, or wharf, where shipments of garlic were landed on the Thames, or from the hythe, or hill, at the foot of which garlic was sold in vast quantities. It is not unlikely that enough garlic would have been sold in medieval times to warrant an entire parish being called Garlickhythe.

Seasoning was important both for the rich, who ate lavishly of beef and venison, and for the poor, who had a rather less interesting diet in need of spicing up. Strong spices also played their part on the frequent occasions when meat had begun to spoil before it reached the consumer, a fact that had to be heavily disguised.

The parish church, St James Garlickhythe, stands on a site where there is thought to have been a church since Anglo-Saxon times. The current church was destroyed in the Great Fire and then rebuilt by Wren at a cost of £5,357 10s 10½d. After suffering some damage during the blitz of World War II, it was again restored.

Through all this, one of the church’s occupants remained virtually unscathed – an unidentified person known as Jimmy Garlick. Jimmy is an almost perfectly mummified corpse, discovered in 1839 when workmen were closing up the old vaults. It is possible that he is (or, rather, was) either Richard Rothing, who built the original church, or one of the six early Lord Mayors of London who were buried there.

In any case, Jimmy Garlick was somewhat unceremoniously relegated to a small closet until his coffin was jolted by a bomb and his spirit, allegedly, began to roam around, frightening the tourists. He was, for a time, rehoused in a glass-fronted coffin in the vestibule of the church and he then ceased his practice of appearing to unwary visitors.

In 2004, Jimmy featured in the Discovery Channel documentary series ‘Mummy Autopsy’, which used modern analytical techniques including carbon dating and x-ray analysis, to establish that he probably died between 1641 and 1801 and that he suffered from osteoarthritis, a disease that afflicts older people. Physical examination by the team also showed that the mummy appeared to be balding and suffered tooth decay at the time of death. He has now been removed from the public gaze and sits in the church’s tower in a specially made case.

Another resident ghost, rumour had it, was Dick Wittington’s cat, but why it would haunt this church is a mystery.

Moving slightly northwest, we come to Herbal Hill in the Holborn area of London, once extremely fertile and abounding with gardens and vineyards. The hill was once a herb garden (an herb garden if you’re American) attached to the palace of the Bishops of Ely and was where John Gerard, a skilled herbalist, lived and carefully tended his garden. In 1596 he 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. Later he published his Herball, considered to be largely a plagiarised English version of an earlier Dutch work. In any case, the hill, formerly known as Little Saffron Hill, was renamed Herbal Hill in the 1930s after Gerard’s work.

Further west we arrive at Hop Gardens in Covent Garden, off St Martin’s Lane. According to the Survey of London (as published by the London County Council, not the one written by John Stow), “Prior to 1649 it was known as Jenefer’s Alley from the occupant of a house at the western end, Roland Jenefer. The ratebooks from 1652 to 1655 give the alley as Fendalls Alley, but from 1656 onward it appears as The Flemish Hop Garden (later the Hop Gardens). It was probably named from an inn with that sign.”

Some sources suggest that the name may have come from Sir Hugh Plat (or Platt), an Elizabethan horticulturalist, who had a nursery in St Martin’s Lane. The Survey dismisses that theory somewhat sniffily in a footnote: “Several writers have suggested that the court was so-called from a hop garden on the site belonging to Sir Hugh Platt. In view of the change of name in 1655–56 this seems unlikely,” says the Survey. It goes on to state that the sole reference in Platt’s works to his garden in St. Martin’s Lane is: “If you cut down Beans as soon as they have done bearing, and that the year prove a dripping year you may have a second crop growing from the same stalk that will come late; this I have proved in my garden in St. Martin’s Lane.” Not a hop in sight. And, depressingly, that theory is espoused in one of my favourite and most-used sources. Just goes to show, eh?

More spice next time; just a few more streets to go.