Home » News » Sponsored Swim from Newlyn to Tresco, 8-14 October 2020

Sponsored Swim from Newlyn to Tresco, 8-14 October 2020

Garden Museum Director, Christopher Woodward:

We’re halfway to our target of £370,000 to save the Museum!

Christopher Woodward’s 2017 swim in the Arctic Circle, photo by Swimquest

We passed the halfway mark in the nicest way possible: Liz Cook, a volunteer in the Museum garden who has retired to Chesterfield, asked her friends on her allotment site to donate in lieu of presents for her 73rd birthday. That took donations past £185,000. At a time of crisis that, I think, is an astonishing reaction from our Friends. And the messages of support received light up the office. Thank you.

The pandemic will cost us more than £700,000 in lost income from admissions, retail, events, café, and venue hire. That loss has been halved by a combination of support from the government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, staff being furloughed or going part-time, by postponing projects, and by saving every penny. And on 4th July we were the first Museum in London to re-open. Our exhibition in celebration of Derek Jarman’s garden at Dungeness, sponsored by the Linbury Trust, has been a hit, with timed tickets beginning to sell out.

If we reach £370,000 for the Swim we shall be afloat, intact and at work in 2021.

On 8th October, I step in to the harbour at Newlyn to begin a fifty-mile swim to the Scilly Isles and the gardens of Tresco. This journey is inspired by Cedric Morris, one of our pantheon of horticultural heroes and heroines; he sailed from the artist’s colony of Newlyn to The Abbey Gardens on Tresco in 1950. When you do a swim of fifty miles, you need that, somehow, a path has been laid on the water by someone you admire.

Route from Newlyn to Tresco for the Sponsored Swim

October is later than I imagined, and will be dauntingly cold. But we have to wait for the next ‘neap tide’. I do not know what I neap tide is, but I certainly know what a nappy is: a baby arrived last month, which is why I missed August’s benign tide.

Swim-training was a challenge when pools were closed for lockdown. And the sea: when, in desperation, I drove to Dover a police car pulled up on the shore. Sea swimming was prohibited. In the Serpentine, the water as warm and murky as duck soup, I stuffed £80 in tenners into my trunks ready to be collared and fined by the Royal Parks Police.

Walking back from a visit to Cleve West’s allotment at Hampton Court I opened an email on my ‘phone from a Patron, with a donation so generous that it made me want to jump in to the River Thames to celebrate. There is a green mat of grass at the doorstep of the temple built by David Garrick in tribute to Shakespeare. There – and for the first time in hundreds of reedy river hours – I was attacked by a swan. This is a terrifying but also quite magnificent experience: as in the Yeats’ poem a great beating of wings around your shoulders, and a beak coiling high in to the sky. Back at the shore a woman with a gutsy voice suggested that as I was wearing a white cap, and swimming butterfly, he thought I was ‘A Mrs Swan’. ‘You’ve still got it’ she laughed before adding, not unkindly, ‘At least for swans’.

The first official swimming course to re-open in London was in The Royal Docks, an hour’s cycle ride to a stretch of brown, cold water below Boris’s cable car, shuttling as empty as in a scene from 28 Days Later. But such was the city’s thirst to swim, that every slot was taken. But ‘The Garden Museum? I love the Garden Museum’ said the attendant, and gave me a secret password to slip into the queue.

Last week, I felt like a change from swimming up down a pool. My favourite Instagram account of lockdown was @broughtoncastle: in the silent period before re-opening to the public Martin Fiennes shared the beauties of eight hundred years of architectural history of his home: plaster ceilings and doorknobs, tracery and inscriptions. In one, his father, the 21st Baron Saye and Sele, a hundred years old, sits at ease outside a chapel built in 1331.

And in another Martin shared his annual swim round the moat. And that was a cue to ask. On the third circuit I backstroked, for this must be the most Picturesque swim in England: gatehouse, chimneys, battlements and a squeeze through the arches of the medieval bridge

Christopher Woodward swimming at Broughton Castle, September 2020

‘My wonder at the place makes me foolish and I’m sure I gush’ said Alan Bennett of Broughton, inside and out, in ‘Writing Home’ (1996). It was Andrew Lawson, the photographer, who told me that the walled garden is one of his favourite gardens in England. The Ladies’ Garden, as this enclosure is called, was created by Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox when she rented the castle in the 1890s, with patterns of yew a deliciously scooped in shape as if cast from culinary moulds. In 1970 Lanning Roper advised on re-planting with roses, and with Rupert Golby as consultant, Lady Saye and Sele continues as ‘creative director’, as Martin puts it. The spirit, to her, is of planting ‘spilling and flowing’ over that pattern of stone and yew. You can see why it is a garden which Andrew returns to, for no garden photographer has ever caught better the dialogue between a firm structure of design, and lushness of expert planting.

Broughton Castle © Andrew Lawson, courtesy of Broughton Castle

But I was curious at another connection. The Hon. Oliver Fiennes (1926 – 2011), the younger brother of Lord Saye and Sele, was rector of St Mary’s, Lambeth in the 1960s. The Church Fiennes found did not fit with his vision of a church as a place of community and activity: it was blackened with pollution, very cold, and too embattled with Victorian pews and galleries to give space for children to dance and families to meet. So he took the decision to relocate the congregation to a modern building a few hundreds yard south on Lambeth Road and set in process the events by which the church was deconsecrated, and rescued from dereliction to become the Garden Museum.

St Mary’s at Lambeth, c.1955 (now the Garden Museum)

Who was Fiennes? In the excellent displays at Broughton we glimpse him at Eton on 4th June 1939; as an officer in the Green Howards, the experience of internment and concentration camps at the end of the Second World War affirmed his vocation for the church. He was exceptionally, almost provocatively, generous. His first job was Chaplain at Clifton College. One night, a boy came and confessed to stealing a car. Fiennes drove the car back, and the next day set up a car club for students.

Oliver Fiennes, Rector at St Mary’s, Lambeth 1963 – 1968. Courtesy of Martin Fiennes.

When, in 1963, he came to Lambeth the Bishop of Southwark was Mervyn Stockwood, who has come to personify the radical urban movement within the Church of England in the 1960s. At Woolwich, in the same Diocese, Nicholas Stacey (1927 – 2017) transformed St Mary Magdalene into a community centre, with counselling rooms in aisles, a coffee bar in the gallery, and a discotheque in the basement. Stacey would leave the church for roles in Oxfam and to become Director of Social Services for the County of Kent. He also represented Britain in the 200m sprint at the 1952 Olympics.

Oliver Fiennes was also a person of great prowess, being awarded the Sword of Honour for his year at Sandhurst. He brought that sense of community mission to Lambeth, describing in a BBC interview how he found ‘a lot of poverty, a lot of crime, all the great train robbers except one were in my parish’. Noticing children with latch keys on pieces of string around their neck, he pioneered adventure playgrounds; the Council offered ballet classes, he discovered, but the children had no ballet shoes – so Fiennes funded ballet shoes. We were, he laughed, ‘perceived as sort of rather dangerous reformers very much in the way we did our services’. To encourage family attendance, children were allowed to mix with other children at Sunday Service. But St Mary’s thrived as a community and, it seems, Fiennes regretted his promotion in 1968 to become Dean of Lincoln Cathedral.

The recording reveals a quick-witted, confident but self-deprecating man; according to Martin, his uncle joked that he was the only person in Britain whose full name and title could not fit on a single line of an envelope: The Very Reverend The Honourable Oliver Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

Lambeth – and gardeners – have a thank you to write to Oliver Fiennes. And I have hundreds to write to our supporters. My very first was to a Friend who by chance I met in the Oak Room at Broughton, both masked. ‘Is that Christopher?’ In the first and glummest days of the crisis I opened a letter from she and her husband which said: ‘You must be having a difficult time, and we hope this helps’. It was a cheque for £10,000. That was before we had even begun our Appeal. Thank you, and to the 712 other supporters who have donated since.

If you would like to support our Appeal, find out more here.