Johnnie and Joseph of Myatts Fields

20Jun09

COPYRIGHT RICHARD BAKER 0609

For a brief moment in this place’s heritage, the paths and legacies of men called Joseph and Johnnie crossed, as a man danced.

Midsummer’s eve here was the quintessential English afternoon. But as we cycled downhill through Ruskin Park to Myatts Fields Park, Camberwell, the confusing acoustics of weekend emergency sirens seemed to bounce from walls and echo around the streets.

On this 20th June, the day in 1837 when a young Queen ascended the throne, residents and members of the Myatts Fields Park Project Group held their Big Event – a re-opening of their exquisite green space, after its £3m landscaping revamp courtesy of the Heritage Lottery and the borough of Lambeth.

Once part of the 109-acre Knatchbull estate, Myatts Fields were purchased by the Huguenot Hughes Minet in 1770. But it was that celebrated tenant market gardener Joseph Myatt (born in a nearby hamlet now known as Loughborough Junction) and famous for his delectable strawberry and rhubarb varieties sold to 19th century London society, who has lent his name to a pretty oval of south London. The land was eventually designed into public space by Fanny Wilkinson, one of the first female professional landscape gardeners and a well known supporter of women’s suffrage.

Where Poly-Tunnels might now be used to mass-produce the food of Wimbledon’s hoi-palloi, Joseph’s plants would have been set in beds of well-drained soil, rich in love and humus. Perhaps beneath where the circus tent is today, the plucky Dulwich Ukelele Club were followed by street synchro dancers who leaped to rasping rhythm and vocals. At the band stand, as pristine as the day this fourteen and a half acre oasis of gentility opened in 1889, a tea dance troupe encouraged kids from the nearby Paulet Road estates to polka.

The instructor swaggered and flounced to Duke Ellington and Sinatra then slid across the floor as if on skates. Had he been in top hat, riding boots and breeches rather than 50s braces he might have resembled the character from one of the most famous and powerful drinks logos ever marketed. The Striding Man icon was sketched on the back of a napkin 1909 by illustrator Tom Browne who was asked over lunch to come up with a likeness of the Scottish farm boy-turned malt whiskey magnate, John ‘Johnnie’ Walker. Like Myatt, Walker was born into an agricultural family and the Victorian drinks entrepreneur started to sell whisky in his grocer’s shop at the age of 15, rapidly cultivating his blended Scotch whisky empire that today sells over 130 million bottles in 200 markets annually.

Walker’s more recent campaign took the mesmerising Robert Carlyle, whose brilliant monologue tells the company history during a flawless six-minute stride through Inverlochlarig glen (“Hey, piper .. shut it!”).

If Walker carries on apace across the global drinks industry then coincidentally, Joseph Myatt’s does too. In 1906 Frank Myatt left for Australia and his grandfather’s name lives on as the 2005 Joseph Myatt Reserve – Merlot (93%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (7%) – so commemorating the Myattsfields Vineyards family’s founding horticulturalist in Carmel. WA. Much like I imagine knowledge and passion was needed for growing prize garden fruits back in rural Camberwell fields, the wine shows “concentration, finesse and balance”.

The marching progress of industrial Johnnie and Joseph’s quiet cottage-industry came, then went. Then the boy in the Celtic stripes ran across the floor, tripped .. and London moved on.



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