Within the footsteps of Thomas Extra’s Utopia in a west London churchyard


I hate the UK heat. It scorches the garden and activates old mental scars burned into me since the unrelenting heat of the summer of 1976. In between, I think of ideal alternatives – utopias in which thistles are excluded and it rains gently every night.

During the red heat wave I let my mind wander from the garish garden to the venue of a party in London and the thoughts it provoked. It’s another example of shady tranquility in the city. London is not a universal sweatshop. It has green oases shaded by tall old linden and plane trees. Some of the greenest and most pleasant are hidden and little known.

At 381 King’s Road, Chelsea, I found myself in one of those green oases, currently the outskirts of the Moravian Church. Its two mulberry trees have fresh green leaves and its plane and linden trees are over a hundred years old. It is an ideal place for utopian thinking as it has close ties to two utopias, albeit of very different natures. It illustrates the changes and opportunities that come to gardens over time. Part of their allure is that they never stand still.

Number 381 is on the grounds of Thomas More’s stables. In 1520, under Henry VIII, this ‘man of all seasons’ bought this retreat and adjoining land and enacted grand plans for a manor house, garden and stables down to the Thames. The garden became one of London’s Big Eight, a riverside octet that gave the city a pleasant frontage to the Thames: the sole survivor is Hampton Court.

More’s Utopia had no door locks and no privacy. I would hate to live and garden in this imperious nightmare

Just beyond the wall of the modern Close’s, More set off on his boat to Hampton Court, scenes that were memorably featured in the Oscar-winning 1966 film A Man for All Seasons. More invited Henry VIII to dinner in his London garden, after which the king is said to have walked for over an hour with his arm around his chancellor’s neck. In 1535 More was dismissed and later deleted. A staunch Catholic, he refused to support Henry’s divorce and remarriage.

By 1516, four years before buying the Chelsea property, More had already written his imaginary utopia, which would become a bestseller. He had his protagonists discuss it in a garden, not in London but in the international trade center of Antwerp, to which he had just paid a diplomatic visit. The More utopians were disciplined tillers who cleared, tilled, and tilled the land for growing produce. He did not portray them as untidy “primitives” as reported by Spaniards and others in some of their accounts of America. Reason, diligence and technology were her trademarks. They weren’t in the wild at all. They sought to improve nature, not restore a lost paradise.

In their walled cities, the houses and gardens of the utopians were all the same size. They were distributed by lot to the parishioners and reallocated again after 10 years. No one owned them, but their 10-year-old residents took great pride in gardens. They grew “vines, fruits, herbs and flowers so resplendent and so cultivated that I have not seen anything more prolific or elegant anywhere else,” More wrote. They gardened with intense joy and “the dwellers of the different streets vying with each other”. As late as 1516 they were depicted as being 1,760 years old.

Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Sir Thomas More from 1527 © Frick Collection, New York; Alamy

The Moravian Church Close in west London

Competitive urban flower shows have very old roots, you might think, but life in More’s Utopia was no cross between a street party idyll and Jeremy Corbyn’s dream come true. There were slaves, sneaks, spies and slave laborers. Its founder had prescribed almost everything in minute detail, and if he left flowers to the individual’s choice, it was because they were of secondary social importance. There were no locks on the front doors and no privacy. I would hate to live and garden in this imperious nightmare.

More’s book appeared in 1516, the year before the Reformation, with the consequent Catholic backlash against free thought. His utopians were not Christians and were not hindered by original sin. Ten years later he would certainly have written differently. After his death, his London house and garden passed from owner to owner, all the way down to Hans Sloane: he had More’s ruined house unleaded while he demolished it, and sold the stables and part of the garden to the Moravian Church . Its members were ultra-Protestants, the polar opposite of Catholic More. The stables became the site of a church that More would have found absolutely repulsive. Garden owners cannot control the future.

The Moravians also had utopian dreams. Their tombstones are still visible, face up, arranged neatly in rows and none larger than the next. None is grandly enrolled. Virgins are buried in one part of the garden, married women in another; Men are also classified according to age and marital status. I thought at first how More’s Utopia would endorse this properly regulated community.

The Moravians also had a utopian ideal, so I learned from a church member: it was to produce Sharon. A memory of the inimitable Alan Whicker flashed in my mind. In a TV series about his travels, I remember him standing on a beach in Greece and portraying it as a once-idyll where “now Sharon from Luton flies in” when the age of package holidays arrived.

But the Moravians made no effort to make the Essex girls feel at home. They sought to plant the Sharon of the Bible, the valley that the prophet Isaiah upholds as the future “pasture for flocks,” while the author of that anonymous love song, now known as the Song of Songs, declares, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley”. Nobody knows what this “rose” really was. Some think it should be translated as crocus. Others think it might be a hibiscus or something else, the low-growing yellow-flowered Hypericum calycinum that matt covers dry and shady soils.

Moravian Christians first gained importance in post-Reformation Bohemia. In the 1730s, one of their leaders had a vision that commanded them to spread their faith worldwide. Some of them boarded ships to America, but ended up in the Caribbean after stormy voyages. There they gained Caribbean converts and put down roots that have endured ever since. The Stables of More still includes a modest Moravian church which is home to a small Chelsea congregation. Other stables are now studios for artists, part of another visionary project, the artistic project of Ernest and Mary Gillick.

I wouldn’t want to live in Sharon on Earth. I looked at the current Close and liked it the way it is, green, well wooded and kept as an unpretentious haven. I returned home to my brown lawns and wilting phloxes, but eventually the heat warnings will end. When the rain first returns, I look forward to reviving my burned plants. Utopia is for overheated interludes, but the true ideal on earth is an ever-changing garden with its correctable flaws.

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Thomas More’s Moravian Links Recall Another Classic / By Penelope Woolfitt, London N10, UK