Wimbledon was once famous for its local wine and horticulture - especially tulips.

Not recently, mind you. The reputation dates back more than 350 years to the time of the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell.

General John Lambert (1619-84) was a close ally of Cromwell during the Civil War that ended with the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. In 1652 he bought the manor of Wimbledon and, unlike various previous owners, spent most of his spare time there.

Before the war the manor had been owned by Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and although never resident, she had had a fine garden created in the contemporary French style.

This Lambert improved with Dutch plantings, particularly tulips, and he became so well known for them that political opponents nicknamed him "the Knight of the Golden Tulip".

He was said to grow "the finest tulips and gilly-flowers that could be had for love or money" and a friend and fellow horticulturalist, Sir Thomas Hanmer (1612-78), gave him one of the best tulips then grown in England.

Lambert painted flowers too and was described as "dressing his flowers in his garden and working at the needle with his wife and his maids".

Lambert also had many fruit trees and a vineyard in the upper garden of the manor. A survey in 1649 before he bought the place had referred to 13 muskadyne vines "well ordered and planted bearing very sweet grapes".

They were valued at £3/5 shillings. When Hanmer, who was a wine enthusiast as well as a lover of tulips, wrote a book on vines years later, he referred to "the red Wimbledon grape" which "bears very thicke and is very good but not ripe till the end of September 1669".

When Lambert fell out with Cromwell in 1657, he retired full time to his Wimbledon home to concentrate on the gardening. He would have stayed there had it not been for the changing political situation following Cromwell's death in 1658, his own attempts to oppose the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, and his subsequent imprisonment for the rest of his life. His family was expelled from Wimbledon and the manor briefly reverted to Henrietta Maria until being sold to the Earl of Bristol in 1661.

The association of Wimbledon with tulips seems only to have coincided with Lambert's residence but the first known reference to local wine growing pre-dated him by more than 400 years.

As early as 1236 the Lambeth Palace records of the manor mentioned repairing a local vineyard and in 1462 a "Vyneyard wood" was said to cover no less than 12 acres. In 1617, another survey of Wimbledon mentioned "the Vyneyards, encompassed round about with a brick wall". Clearly by 1649 they were very well established.

Vineyard Hill Wood survived for generations after Lambert's time right up to 1912 and is still recalled today by Vineyard Hill Road in the Wimbledon Park area.

But it is unclear for how long the local wine was still cultivated. One clue may be provided by the fire which destroyed Earl Spencer's Wimbledon manor house in 1785.

A mob broke into his wine cellar towards the end of the fire and got "excessively drunk" on the contents. No fewer than 240 bottles were found to be missing. Their provenance was not reported.

The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.

For more information, visit wimbledonsociety.org.uk and www.wimbledonmuseum.org.uk.

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