St John’s Jerusalem

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British Gardens, British Wildlife

On a July afternoon, a cock blackbird sunbathes in the hot sun splayed on the dry grass. I hope to see flat flies run for the cool shade of the adjacent copse or perhaps feather lice fried but no such luck.  The pair are nesting in the copse somewhere and both appear from time to time but the female does not flaunt herself in the same way.

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Sunbathing cock blackbird.

The hay in the field has recently been cut and attracts every gamekeeper’s foe; a young fox hunts the voles in the evening whereas ten magpies or more and two brace of crows enjoy the invertebrate bounty throughout the long day. I watch the fox sniff out a vole, pounce and trot away with an arrogant air with the tail of a vole dangling from its jaw. The vole is tossed in the air, then quickly recaptured. The behaviour reminds me of a killer whale flinging a fur seal across the cruel sea. For the grisly finale, the vole is unceremoniously scrunched hard a few times and swallowed.

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Fox on the hunt for a vole.

On the far side of the hay meadow, the old chapel and gardens at St John’s Jerusalem, a National Trust property, are open on Wednesday afternoons through the summer. As the website puts it: ‘The rare surviving chapel is the only remaining structure of the Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem formed in 1113.’ 

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The ‘rare surviving chapel’ through the three arched windows on this end of St John’s Jerusalem.

The large house, with its old brick and tile construction and elegant proportions, looks at long and peaceful ease; it is surrounded by modest sweeps of lawn and tall trees including a huge copper beech and much mutilated cedar of Lebanon with most of its lower limbs amputated; I hear an echo of Monty Python’s Black Knight.

St John’s Jerusalem makes for an interesting contrast to Charles Darwin’s home not far away. Downe House is down-to-earth in its flat square proportions and plain-washed walls fitted with dark trellis; it was the home of a practical man of profound thought, probably little interested in external appearances. However, both gardens are equally captivating with stands of hollyhocks (Alcea sp.) and other ‘English’ garden plants sheltered by a symmetry of hedges and, at Downe House, fine flint walls. Darwin had taken over much of his walled garden to run cross-breeding experiments on hollyhocks and primulas with orchids and insectivorous plants in the long and exquisite, pastel blue greenhouse.  At St John’s Jerusalem the planting amongst the tall, neatly trimmed yew and clipped box is simple, timeless spaces of colour and proportion.

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The gardens at St John’s Jerusalem.

The river Darenth runs past St John’s Jerusalem and is fast flowing, crystal clear and crowfoot-filled; it has been tapped to run round the house and gardens in a square moat now filled with dense rushes and other marginal vegetation. Kingfishers’ busy whistles are commonly heard at the moment, but the wooded banks of willow and alder often hide the dashing, low level, mazarine blue and jaffa orange flashes.

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Kingfisher working the Darenth from a favourite perch.

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