Time and the Clee Hills

‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift

I’ve heard people say that during this lockdown time seems to have been passing unusually quickly. I didn’t work for the first three weeks. Every morning the day stretched ahead with limitless opportunities: to learn a language, watch a play, visit a museum. Every night I went to bed feeling I’d achieved very little. Despite that each week sped by and before I knew it I was in the queue for the supermarket again, bracing myself for the weekly shop. Since mid April I’ve been able to work in clients’s gardens  (thanks to side entrances and social distancing). Far from time weighing heavily upon me, the past three months have flashed by in a blur of news bulletins, Zoom calls, weeding and watering. Perhaps anxiety contributes to the sensation of time passing faster than normal?

It seems appropriate that while time, like everything else, has developed a new normality, I read a book one of the central themes of which is the nature of time itself. The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift is a beautifully written account of the creation since 1988 of a garden in Shropshire.

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But it is far from just the story of the making of a very special garden. It can also be read as a meditation on time itself. The book is structured around the monastic Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Before settling in Morville, the author worked as a rare book librarian, latterly at Trinity College in Dublin. Even the book’s cover design, depicting a symmetrically designed canal garden under a clear blue sky, emulates the richly illuminated Books of Hours containing the prayers and psalms to be recited in each of the eight ‘Hours’. In the vivid pages of one of the most famous Books of Hours, ‘Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry’, the months of the year are represented by images of a magnificent chateau whose noble inhabitants hunt and party, whilst in the surrounding gardens and fields serfs plough, prune, sow, mow and harvest.

Similarly, Katherine Swift charts the progression of the garden and the surrounding countryside through the seasons. She describes winter nights when a fox leaves dainty paw prints in virgin snow in a yew hedged area of the garden, spring days when may blossom breaks over the hedgerows resembling ‘long rolling waves peaking and cresting like the foam of Atlantic breakers’. In one memorable scene she works into the night in sub-zero temperatures, frost fringing her coat, to plant hundreds of tulip bulbs.

In hearing the story of the garden, we also learn something of the author’s life story and that of her parents. How, in finding Morville, she finally put down roots, her childhood having been punctuated by moves from one end of the country to the other. The families  who once lived in Morville House (now a National Trust property) and in Katherine Swift’s Dower House also weave through the pages of the book. Here too is a larger history: the formation of the landscape, the geology of nearby Wenlock Edge, the early inhabitants of the county of Shropshire.

When I examined the map of Shropshire at the beginning of the book I noticed that Morville lies about ten miles north of the tiny hamlet of Neen Sollars to which my paternal grandparents moved in the late 1950s from a suburb south of Birmingham, via a brief spell in Essex. Old Forge Cottage was two stone cottages joined together and had two staircases, one at either end of the house. As a child I was fascinated by the quirky layout, the brass warming pans on the walls, the high feather mattressed beds. Between Neen Sollars and Morville lie the Clee Hills,  which are mentioned frequently in the book.

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Katherine Swift gently educates the reader about numerous subjects, but is never  didactic. Here are enough ‘ologies’ to please Beattie in those old BT adverts: archaeology, meteorology, ornithology, mythology. As well as horticulture and agriculture we are introduced to apiculture. Botany rubs shoulders with poetry. This is a book rich in details and imagery. How better to describe an early spring dawn than: ‘Slowly the garden begins to emerge, like a photograph lifted dripping from the developing tray’. Rich too is the vocabulary. We are introduced to ‘azimuth’ and ‘myrobalan’ , an arc of the horizon and a kind of plum respectively.

In one of his classes, Hector, the inspirational teacher of Alan Bennett’s ‘History Boys’, comments that ‘the best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met….And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. I experienced this sensation several times when reading this book, particularly when the author muses upon gardening: ‘That’s the other thing I really like about gardening: the silence. Not that silence out of doors is ever really silence. But absence of words, space for the thoughts to come. A silence that enables you to listen’.

In the final chapter, the author modestly sums up the book as a ‘jumble of fragments tossed together like the made-up ground of the garden, this blackbird’s nest of cobwebs and sheep’s wool, this day in a life, this life in a day’. But I would argue that this book is far more than that. Faced as we all are by doubt and uncertainty, never has it seemed so important to cherish the small things, to appreciate our surroundings, to be mindful. The Morville Hours reminds us to look, to live in the moment. The chapter called ‘Sext’ concerns the garden at Morville in June, when the wealth of roses are at their height, including Blush Noisette which I grow in my garden. I have never read so detailed or perceptive a description of the structure of a flower (here a rose) culminating in the wise observation that ‘no one can be a gardener without really looking’.

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Rosa ‘Blush Noisette’

I was under not one but two deadlines when I finished this wonderful book which is as much about time as it is gardening. We were due to discuss the Morville Hours in book club that week and I also had to finish sewing a couple of pairs of scrubs for delivery to the local scrub hub. So I listened to, rather than read, the second half of the book. It was a mercifully unabridged version, read by the author herself . The book was literally read in the first person! I had to pause and rewind frequently to replay those passages where, to paraphrase Hector, a hand came out and took mine. This is definitely a book to which I shall return. And I’m already investigating whether a visit to Shropshire and the garden and landscape which inspired this book might be possible once we are able to plan trips further afield than the local garden centre.

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Banks & Banking

In the spirit of stepping outside my comfort zone to do something I have not done before, I joined other volunteer gardeners at National Trust Osterley this summer to deliver guided tours of the gardens. Once, sometimes twice a week, two of us led a group of up to 15 visitors through gardens which reflect the history of the house, from its origins in Tudor times, through its elegant Robert Adam makeover in the eighteenth century to today’s innovations, pausing on the way to mention the garden’s role in the Second World War.

As the season changes and we plan to alter our itinerary to take in parts of the garden designed to look at their best in the winter and early spring, I invite you to join me in this post on a virtual early autumn walk through Osterley’s gardens. You start your tour at the rear of the house, at the top of the elegantly curving double staircase facing the park beyond the garden, which Henry James (a weekend guest at the house in the late nineteenth century) describes in the opening passages of his novella, ‘The Lesson of the Master’. The hero Paul Overt, a writer, stands in the same position and observes that the steps ‘descended from a great height in two arms, with a circular sweep of the most charming effect’. He also commented on ‘the expanse of beautiful brickwork that showed for pink rather than red and that had been kept clear of messy creepers by the law under which a woman with a rare complexion disdains a veil’. From this vantage point you can see a classic feature of an eighteenth century landscape garden: bucolic pastureland framed by specimen trees, the pasture grazed by the neighbouring tenant farmer’s Charollais cattle. Before the scene we see today was created, John Roque’s immensely detailed map of London of 1741 showed three avenues of trees radiating from both the front and back of the house. This device is known as a ‘patte d’oie’  or goosefoot. The avenues have long gone save for two oak trees which once formed part of one such avenue.

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The rear of the house and the double staircase
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The Charolais cattle

Trees feature throughout our tour. Let’s descend the steps and head to the shade of the Oriental Plane tree which was planted in 1755. One of my fellow guides describes this huge tree as a grand old lady resting on her elbows, a reference to the gnarled limbs which swoop down to the ground to shade the path to one side. Look up into the leaf canopy and spare a thought for we volunteer gardeners when over the next couple of months we shall sweep up and gather the leaves to deposit in the leaf pile on the boundary of the garden. In a couple of years time we shall use the ensuing leaf mould as a winter mulch to the beds and borders in the garden so as to maintain moisture and improve the texture of the soil.

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The Oriental Plane

Come with me now to ‘Dickie’s Border’, the symmetrically arranged three layered shrub border named after Dickie Denton, the last Head Gardener before the property was gifted to the National Trust in 1949. His nickname was ‘TickTock’ because he was tasked with winding the clock in the Stable Block each morning. In the middle layer of planting compare the red dimpled globular fruits of the Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) with the developing catkins of the Silk Tassel Bushes (Garrya elliptica). A variegated form of Rhamnus alaternus is the third shrub at this level. Alternating Magnolia grandiflora and Loquat trees (Eriobotrya japonica) provide a dark evergreen backdrop, whilst at waist height you can see shrub roses, rosemary and the gold margined leaves of Daphne Odorata aureomarginata

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Dickie’s Border

Our next stop is Mrs Child’s Flower Garden where you have a perfect view of Robert Adam’s recently restored white stucco decorated Garden House which stands at the heart of the ranks of curved flowerbeds planted for spring and summer interest. Here tall Verbascum tower candelabra-like over Salvia sclarea, Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), Centaurea Montana to name only a few of the intriguing plants to be found in these beds.  The grounds here were used at the beginning of the Second World War for training the forerunners of the British Home Guard in guerrilla tactics and house to house fighting. Led by a left-wing writer, Tom Wintringham, they were described by MI5 as ‘the bunch of socialist revolutionaries at the end of the Piccadilly Line’ and soon afterwards the operation was closed down and the park used for food production as part of the war effort.

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The Garden House with Mrs Child’s Flower Garden to the right

As we walk towards our next stop please take a look at the four beautiful and unusual trees near the brick wall: Foxglove trees, Pawlonia tomentosa, and do mind your head on their low-hanging seed cases which develop from the spires of bluish mauve bell-shaped flowers which the trees bear in April. Other trees to note here include weeping limes and a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and nearest the path take a look at the unusually lobed leaves of the Sassafras albidum, whose roots flavour Root Beer, and which this week is glowing with a rainbow of autumn shades.

Let’s proceed to the Picking Garden, where the flowers are grown for the 65 floral arrangements which decorate the house each week. As well as several members of the Daisy family: Heleniums, Shasta daisies and Cosmos, you can also see a row of Pot Marigolds (Calendula). These are the symbol of Childs Bank, associated with the family which owned Osterley. The variety chosen this year is Calendula ‘Radio’. You can tell from its name that this is a modern cultivar. Whilst the species of plants in this part of the garden are era authentic and would have been available to an eighteenth century gardener, their cultivars tend to be more modern and are chosen for reliability and resilience to pests and diseases.

Now we move to the main section of the Tudor Walled Garden which is laid out into four large central beds. In the bed devoted to brassicas you can see the latest member of the garden team, Harry the Hawk, whose job it is to scare pigeons from the cabbages. The next two beds are planted potager style with both ornamental and edible plants and are designed to look at their best in late summer and early autumn. Dahlias feature strongly as do Cleome (the Spider Flower), gladioli and nicotiana. Chard and amaranthus provide the edible element of these beds and at the corners of the beds you can see pyramid shaped supports to which cling the deep purple morning glory, Ipomaea ‘Grandpa Ott’. In the centre of the beds look out for the tall Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis,  with their spiky pink flowers and large hand-shaped leaves. This plant played a key role in a tale of international espionage from 1978 when the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was murdered in London with an umbrella the tip of which contained a pellet of the deadly poison Ricin which is derived from this plant. The fourth bed is planted almost exclusively with vegetables and salads. At this late stage in the season the various beans have been harvested and their supports removed, but turnips and beetroot (both red and golden) abound as do aubergines and salad leaves.

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Harry the hawk scaring pigeons from the brassica bed
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Amaranthus, Spanish Flag, cannas, dahlias and the Shoofly plant in one of the mixed beds in the Tudor Walled Garden

Our virtual tour is almost over. I shall leave you at the far side of the walled garden, beside the Long Border and point out to you the enormous specimen of the climbing rose Rosa banksiae and ask you to imagine a curtain of pale yellow blooms in April: it is one of the earliest roses to flower. It is named for Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, and on his return advised George III on the creation of a botanic garden at Kew. There is a local connection too, as Banks lived at Spring Grove House about half a mile to the south of Osterley. What remains of his house now forms part of West Thames College. Before we part, consider this: the Osterley site was once slated as a possible site for a national exhibition centre. Thankfully a site near Birmingham was chosen for the NEC enabling us to enjoy the gardens as they exist today. Thank you for joining me today and do come back on another occasion to see the American Border and the Winter Garden.

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Salvia microphylla with fragrant scented leaves in the foreground with Euphorbia mellifera, the Honey Spurge and Stipa gigantea, Elephant Grass behind: the planting beside the last stop on the tour.

 

Lawn restoration at Osterley and a horticultural ghost

Volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House, the National Trust property a few miles from Heathrow Airport, is a special experience. Today was a day of autumn sun, long shadows and little wind. To see my Friday team colleagues clustered under a tree in the further reaches of Mrs Child’s flower garden, preparing an area for re-turfing, evoked a timeless scene. As I approached them from the work yard with a replenished barrow of soil, I might have been seeing Osterley gardeners from several centuries earlier. Silhouetted against the autumn sunshine, working with tools little changed over time, mattocks, shovels and landscape rakes, I had a strong sense of time suspended.

Today was devoted to lawn repair, with the morning occupied with removing ivy from a bed previously occupied by rhododendrons, where the stumps have recently been ground down. Having ripped the ivy stems from the soil, we raked level the area to be seeded, using wide wooden landscape rakes. We broadcast the grass seed generously across the plot and marked off the sowing area with rope, slung between shepherd’s crooks.

In the afternoon we moved into the sunny area mentioned above and created a neat rectangular plot where again roots and stumps had been ground out. We dug out the spent soil and sawdust to a depth of three or four inches and introduced more soil which we levelled in preparation for the turves. These had been dug from elsewhere in the garden some weeks ago and were stacked in the area occupied by the glasshouse, cold frames and nursery beds. After placing them carefully in a long low barrow, grass facing grass, we trundled the precious cargo around the Tudor Walled Garden to the denuded patch, where we placed the turves in a neat patchwork within the rectangle. The yellowing blades of grass in some of the turf pieces should green up satisfactorily, once exposed to the sunlight from which they have been shielded whilst in their temporary location.

At home in Kew the two pots of  Ceratostigma willmottianum plunged into the blue glazed pots in the front garden, have transformed in the last several weeks from their intense blue flowered prime, into bonfire hued red and gold. I knew the species epithet ‘willmottianum‘ to refer to a horticultural personality whose name features in some species and common names, Ellen Willmott. Earlier this week, when reading about Miss Willmott’s early life, I discovered that she was brought up near Osterley in the area of north west Isleworth known as Spring Grove, and attended Gumley House School. So after leaving Osterley, I took a detour by bike to see the area where she lived before her wealthy solicitor father moved the family to Warley Place near Brentwood, Essex. Spring Grove is an area of substantial Victorian properties and the Willmott family home at 52 Spring Grove is described as a three storey double fronted suburban villa with its own coach house and private three quarter acre formal garden. 

Wouldn’t it be intriguing to know if the protagonist of the ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’* legend visited the garden at Osterley House as a child and whether it contributed to her lifelong passion for plants and horticulture? What is likely is that she would have been taken to Kew Gardens given the proximity of what was once known as Spring Grove & Isleworth railway station (now Isleworth Station) on the Barnes to Feltham railway loop line, three stations from Kew Bridge Station.

*’Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is Eryngium giganteum, a short lived perennial up to one metre tall with spiny silvery grey bracts, the seeds of which Miss Willmott is said to have surreptitiously scattered in gardens she visited.