27 MARCH 1942, Page 9


By PHYLLIS GILES IT is a year now since some of the worst scars appeared on the


face of England, an autumn for seeding, a spring for shooting, and a summer for growing. One day last July I passed a bomb- Well was I rewarded. Scarcely a herb among those that I had seen but had its healing virtues described by Gerard ; Marjoram " is a remedy against the bitings and stingings of venomous beasts " ; " I, Borage, gives alwaies courage," " it is used for the comfort of the heart, to drive away sorrow and increase the joy of the minde " ; pimpernel " cloth draw forth splinters and things fixed in the flesh " ; self-heal " doth joine together and make whole and sound all wounds both inward and outward." English earth had been wounded, and had promptly brought forth its own salves and remedies. Well, perhaps it was due to no miracle, unless to the eternal miracle of summer, that I had found such flowers in such a place. The land of Kent is full of fair flowers, and few of the plants described by Gerard are without some healing gift for man or beast. But now my eyes were opened to look for wonders. " Turn but a stone and start a wing," and as I walked in London streets I found that green leaves and small flowers were growing as never before on the sandbags, the gravel-heaps, and the cleared sites where city buildings had stood.

For the most part they were herbs of a quieter habit than their country neighbours, although the rosebay willow-herb was flaunting its gay pink spires at every corner where green things could find a foothold. The sand-heaps and barbed-wire entangle- ments outside one of our Ministries provided a plentiful crop of groundsel, and " the leaves of groundsel boiled in wine or Water, and drunke, heale the painiand ach of the stomacke that Proceeds of Choler." There was choler in plenty last winter When we were robbed of our sleep. And groundsel's cousin I 4.1w, too, St. James' wort or ragwort, which " is commended to bee good for greene woundes." There was camomile as well, the symbol of fortitude, for the more it is trodden underfoot the faster it grows. And perhaps best of all when 'buses were full, and queues were long, there was mugwort about which " Pliny said', that the traveller or wayfaring man that hath the herb Ped about him feeleth no wearisomenesse at all." But these Were in the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, whose gaps, though tragic and unsightly, were often veiled by green plane- trees ; the path of my true pilgrimage lay further to the East. For John Gerard himself was a Londoner. He owned a house in Holborn, and an orchard in Fetter Lane, but the exact site

is unknown of the little plot of his " owne especiall care and husbandry," the renowned garden where over a thousand different herbs were growing, including that exotic plant the potato of Virginia, roots of which had been sent to him from America, and which grew and prospered in his garden." as in theire owne native countrey." He, too, found his wild herbs in London byways, bugloss in Piccadilly, pennywort " upon Westminster Abbey, over the door that leadeth from Chaucer's tomb to the old palace," willowherb " upon the Thames bankes and not far from the place of execution," and yellow loosestrife " along the medowes as you goe from Lambeth to Battersey." He might even (dare we imagine it?) have Iliad the company of a yet more famous flower-lover on those walks through Thames water- meadows. Shakespeare was a neighbour of his for a few years when he lodged in Mugwell Street, and it is probable that he knew John Gerard, and walked in Gerard's garden, both famous in the London of that day.

But while my imagination was following the two in their pleasant strolls my body was seated in a trolley-bus on the way to Holborn Circus 'to visit the church of St. Andrew's, Holborn, where Gerard was buried. Past Herbal Hill, Vine Hill, and Saffron Hill we went, and on to Holborn Circus, and there my Elizabethan dream faded into the dusty reality of 1941. Bricks and mortar I was prepared for, brick-dust and tiles were what I found. I could see a lot more of the sky than I was used to seeing in London, a clear pale sky of early autumn, with no banks of cloud to conceal a stealthy bomber, and no smoke-trails to mark the scene of an air-duel. But " who would look dangerously up at planets that might safely looke downe at plants? " It was herbs that I had come to look for, though surely a more incongruous hunting-ground for the herbalist can scarcely be imagined It seemed at first a most foolish journey that I had taken, and a pointless pilgrimage. How could seeds germinate or leaves grow green among piles of broken glass, concrete rubble, charred black timbers and rusty girders? But by the church there would surely be a churchyard and soli of a sort where roots could search out a living. The church itself was a blind, roofless shell, a violated sanctuary full of dust and ashes, but the flower-beds in the churchyard were still brave with geraniums and lobelias. (Why, yes! Matthias L'Obel, "the reverend and learned herbarist" was Gerard's friend and master.) A dusty lilac-tree was growing by the wall. (" These trees grow not wild in England, but I have them growing in my garden in very great plenty." Sleep sound, my friend, they are still growing in our London gardens.) Other plants of less good omen were growing between the stones, nettles and thistles, but I knew that even these would be found to have their virtues and faculties for healing. There is comfort in grass and consolation in thistles, even though whole streets of one's native city have taken on the appearance of silent nightmare.

Which way should I go now? It was early on Sunday after- noon, and very lonely in those deserted streets, but through a ragged vista of masonry I saw the familiar outline of St. Paul's, and hastened towards it as to a friend. There was destruction all about it, but the tiny public gardens, where old men sat in the sun, were bright with flowers, and a mulberry-tree still dripped its ripe purple fruit on to the dusty pavement. As I wandered round the beds looking at the flowers, I suddenly came upon a message written in the grass at my feet, " Domine, dirige nos," Lead us, 0 Lord! It was the flower-bed under the shadow of the dome, where the arms of the City of London are portrayed in flowers, " Silver, a red cross, and in the first quarter a red sword erect, point upwards," the red cross of St. George the warrior, and the sword of the martyrdom of St. Paul, and the motto beneath was written in letters of golden fever-few, grow- ing amongst very green grass. It came as an apt reply to my questioning. I had looked to the herbs for comfort, and they had sent back a message not only of healing for physical wounds, but of recruitment for the spirit. Our enemies, no doubt, would make mock of the fact that grass was growing in the streets of London, but to us the green shoots are promises of healing, descendants from a great past, and symbols of resurrection.