A me­dieval gar­den and park

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy: He­len Har­ri­son

In a northamp­ton­shire vil­lage on the River Nene sits a gar­den that harks back at least 600 years. A re­con­structed me­dieval gar­den, it be­longs, fit­tingly, to one of Eng­land’s long­est con­tin­u­ally-in­hab­ited houses, the Preben­dal Manor in Nass­ing­ton. What was once an un­cul­ti­vated 6-acre plot, with a semi-derelict farm­house and agri­cul­tural build­ings, is now a beau­ti­fully main­tained his­toric build­ing and home. In the gar­den are the plants, colours, scents, bird­song and in­sect life that would have been fa­mil­iar to the res­i­dents six cen­turies ago. The work of restoration was car­ried out by owner Jane Baile, who bought the prop­erty in 1968. “It was ter­ri­bly run­down and di­lap­i­dated,” she says. “There was no gar­den at all, so it’s par­tic­u­larly sat­is­fy­ing to see it now. I love it when the roses are out and there’s colour ev­ery­where.” Today, an el­e­gant, tiered yew top­i­ary leads to­wards the sub­stan­tial Tithe Barn. Lightly fenced small gar­dens are set in and around a large lawn. There is a cir­cu­lar labyrinth, 33ft (10m) in di­am­e­ter, near a 16th cen­tury dove­cot. Across an abun­dance of flow­er­ing plants, there are ex­ten­sive views over the ad­ja­cent 4-acre Plea­sure Park to the empty farm­land be­yond.

Royal con­nec­tions

The Grade I listed Manor is the old­est sur­viv­ing dwelling house in Northamp­ton­shire. “It was a Royal Manor for cen­turies, even be­fore Henry I pre­sented it to the Bish­ops of Lin­coln in the early 12th cen­tury,” ex­plains Jane. “King Cnut stopped here in 1017. He com­plained about the ac­com­mo­da­tion, and the tim­ber hall was im­proved soon af­ter.” “The build­ing had been turned into a farm­house, but was derelict when we ar­rived,” she says. “It was easy to see it had enor­mous po­ten­tial. We had no plan­ning con­straints, so were able to do ex­ten­sive ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions over the years.” Her first in­ves­ti­ga­tion was in 1984, with fur­ther ones con­ducted in 2003. “Out­side, we had to do a huge amount of clear­ing. There were net­tles ev­ery­where. Trees needed to be cut down, stumps and an­i­mal en­clo­sures re­moved. “I’d met Michael Brown, the gar­den his­to­rian, de­signer and hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist,” she con­tin­ues. “I was in­spired by his enthusiasm and knowl­edge. I de­cided I’d like to cre­ate a gar­den suit­able for the Manor in its hey­day, from the 13th to 15th cen­turies, so asked him to de­sign for me. He’s re­searched ex­ten­sively to en­sure the de­signs and plant­ings are authen­tic. There’s lit­tle top­soil here, so the small raised beds, typ­i­cal of the pe­riod, were ideal. Where nec­es­sary, we im­ported soil.” Euro­pean me­dieval gar­dens were in­flu­enced by the op­u­lence of the Moor­ish and Byzan­tine gar­dens knights saw dur­ing the Cru­sades of 1095-1291. Re­turn­ing home, they sought to em­u­late them. Stylised rep­re­sen­ta­tions of these gar­dens are shown in paint­ings and ta­pes­tries, and de­scribed in manuscripts. “Michael drew on these widely,” ex­plains Jane. “Once we’d agreed the struc­ture, the first pri­or­ity was clear­ing and clean­ing the ground, mak­ing paths and fences, then plant­ing trees and vines. That took about a year. Then we be­gan plant­ing in earnest, us­ing only plants in­tro­duced be­fore 1485. Some were easy to ob­tain. Oth­ers, such as Peony mas­cula, were more dif­fi­cult, and came from friends or spe­cial­ist nurs­eries.”

Plea­sure and prac­ti­cal­ity

The me­dieval gar­den, which mea­sures ap­prox­i­mately 2 acres, is typ­i­cal of the sort that would have been at­tached to a wealthy es­tab­lish­ment such as the Preben­dal Manor. It is de­signed to com­bine the prac­ti­cal and the aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing. The south-fac­ing site, on a slight slope to­wards open coun­try, is ideal. Nearby rivers and streams pro­vide plen­ti­ful wa­ter, in ad­di­tion to the ponds and sev­eral wells in the gar­den. The well near the

Great Hall has wa­ter to a depth of 8ft (3m). Al­though the plant­ing re­flects the me­dieval style, many of the dec­o­ra­tive flow­ers and herbs re­main gar­den favourites today. There are roses, pinks, laven­der, bay, sage and thyme. Oth­ers are less likely to be cul­ti­vated de­lib­er­ately now, but are well known as wild­flow­ers or weeds. These in­clude herb robert and Scotch this­tle. In me­dieval times, all plants were grown for a pur­pose, and most had a va­ri­ety of uses. Onions were im­por­tant for the kitchen, but also val­ued for their dye­ing prop­er­ties. Dec­o­ra­tive flow­ers, such as pinks and marigolds, were also eaten and used to make ton­ics. The highly-poi­sonous al­ka­loid, deadly night­shade, Atropa bel­ladonna, was val­ued for its medic­i­nal prop­er­ties by care­ful physi­cians. It was, how­ever, rather dan­ger­ous to the high-born ladies who used it as a cos­metic to di­late their pupils. The opium poppy, Pa­paver som­niferum, white bry­ony and lilies-of-the-val­ley all

“What wond’rous life is this I lead! Ripe ap­ples drop about my head; The lus­cious clus­ters of the vine Upon my mouth do crush their wine” An­drew Marvell, ‘The Gar­den’

have a dec­o­ra­tive ap­pear­ance in Jane’s Poi­son Bed. This be­lies the risks they pre­sented when used medic­i­nally by physi­cians of the pe­riod. Other plants in the bed in­clude monks­hood, hem­lock, fox­glove, man­drake and hen­bane.

En­sur­ing pri­vacy

One of the first parts of the gar­den to be de­vel­oped in 1996 was a her­ber with turf seats. A her­ber was a planted gar­den, of­ten en­tirely en­closed. The screen­ing helped de­ter an­i­mals, and also cre­ated pri­vacy, some­thing al­ways in short sup­ply in me­dieval house­holds. Jane’s first her­ber backs onto a bound­ary wall and one side of the im­pos­ing dove­cote. Trel­lis screen­ing makes up the other two sides. Scented roses clam­ber through and around the screen­ing, as seen in me­dieval de­pic­tions. In an era with lit­tle san­i­ta­tion, plants with pleas­ing fra­grances were es­pe­cially ap­pre­ci­ated. The en­closed na­ture of the her­ber en­cour­ages scent to linger, to be en­joyed by those sit­ting within. More fra­grance is pro­vided by un­der­plant­ing with wild straw­ber­ries, cat­mint and sweet-smelling herbs, while the cen­tral grass sward is dot­ted with daisies. A sweet bay tree, Lau­rus no­bilis, tow­ers to al­most 20ft (6m) in one cor­ner. This­tle, gera­nium and vi­o­let pro­vide struc­ture, colour and more per­fume. Fruit is pro­vided by a fig tree. A pre­vi­ous res­i­dent of the Manor, the physi­cian Ni­cholas Col­net, in­spired the de­vel­op­ment of Jane’s se­cond her­ber. He re­ceived the Manor af­ter at­tend­ing Henry V dur­ing the Agin­court cam­paign in 1415. Wealthy enough to main­tain

three ser­vants and a chap­lain, his will men­tions his copy of the early 14th cen­tury med­i­cal book, Lil­ium Medic­i­nae. He would have known all the plants in the her­ber named af­ter him, and prob­a­bly used them reg­u­larly. A third her­ber was in­spired by a visit to the Cluny Mu­seum in Paris. “We saw a paint­ing there, The Vir­gin and Child with St Madeleine, dated 1475,” says Jane. “We based our next de­sign on this.”

Shady places and flow­er­ing plants

Pale com­plex­ions were val­ued by ladies in wealthy me­dieval house­holds. This meant shady ar­eas were al­ways de­sir­able in their gar­dens. At the Manor, there are sev­eral tree seats, their canopies shaped to pro­vide shade and shel­ter. One is within a sub­stan­tial sweet bay. An­other is set be­neath the Glas­ton­bury thorn bor­der­ing Henry, The Poet’s Gar­den. In­spi­ra­tion for this came from a 13th cen­tury man­u­script de­scrib­ing the gar­den be­long­ing to the writer and An­glo-Nor­man his­to­rian, Henry of Hunt­ing­don. Liv­ing from circa 1088-1157, he was raised in the wealthy court of Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lin­coln. Henry suc­ceeded his fa­ther as the se­cond Archdea­con of Hunt­ing­don, ap­prox­i­mately 25 miles from Nass­ing­ton.

The gar­den named af­ter him con­tains a large va­ri­ety of flow­er­ing plants. These in­clude Rosa mundi, iris, yel­low daisy-like in­ula, ox-eye daisies, al­lium and Madonna lilies. There are also fa­mil­iar herbs, such as bor­age, rue and fen­nel. Less com­mon is birth­wort, Aris­tolochia clemati­tis, with at­trac­tive, pale yel­low flow­ers. “This was widely used dur­ing child­birth through­out the me­dieval pe­riod,” says Jane. “Sadly, it prob­a­bly only made the event more life-threatening. Its deadly ef­fects have only been doc­u­mented and iden­ti­fied in re­cent decades.” The plant was rec­om­mended by Dioscorides, the Greek physi­cian and botanist, in the first cen­tury AD. Ro­man texts rec­om­mended it as a medicine to be in­gested to treat asthma, spasms, pains and the ex­pul­sion of the af­ter­birth. Its name re­flects its com­mon us­age, taken from the Greek aris­tos, mean­ing best, and lochia, mean­ing child­birth. On the south­ern perime­ter of the gar­den is the Rose Walk. On one side, it is bor­dered by wooden screen­ing that sup­ports climb­ing roses. These are densely un­der­planted with peren­ni­als and an­nu­als, in­clud­ing gera­nium, cam­pion, pe­onies, ferns, pul­monaria, prim­ula and aqui­le­gia. Vines are set at both ends of the perime­ter. The walk leads into, and looks out across, the ad­join­ing Plea­sure Park, sep­a­rated from the gar­den by an an­cient wall.

In the park

On en­ter­ing the 4-acre Plea­sure Park, there are more ed­i­ble treats, with an orchard and Nut Walk, made from trained hazel, Co­ry­lus avel­lana. Records con­firm an orchard at the Manor cen­turies ago, pro­vid­ing fruits for cook­ing and

brew­ing. The Nut Walk makes a shady tun­nel, lead­ing down to two ponds with lots of fish, “prob­a­bly tench” sug­gests Jane. The park is home to many es­tab­lished trees, flow­er­ing hedges and more fruit trees. These in­clude black­thorn, crab ap­ple, cherry, pear, quince and med­lar. There is also a gag­gle of geese, which wan­der at lib­erty when there are no visi­tors. Vines were com­par­a­tively com­mon in the Mid­dle Ages, when the cli­mate was slightly warmer. Jane’s vine­yard is set on the south-fac­ing slope of the park. Here, it backs onto the heat-re­tain­ing wall of the gar­den near the Tithe Barn.

A jour­ney in time

Vis­it­ing the Preben­dal Manor and gar­den pro­vides an in­sight into life 600 years ago. The Tithe Barn is home to a dis­play of pho­to­graphs and in­for­ma­tion about the his­tory of the site. Jane and Michael have com­bined au­then­tic­ity with ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and a visit opens up the me­dieval way of life to every­one. “It’s a very high-main­te­nance gar­den, es­pe­cially the con­stant re­pairs to the wooden struc­tures and the weed­ing, and so forth,” says Jane. “It re­ally needs three full-time gar­den­ers, and I don’t have them. But the gar­den is a great de­light for me and for the visi­tors.”

Owner and re­storer of the Preben­dal Manor, Jane Baile, ad­mir­ing Rosa gal­lica, the apothe­cary’s rose. In recog­ni­tion of her restoration and re­search into the ori­gins of the manor, Jane was elected a Fel­low of the So­ci­ety of An­ti­quar­ies in 2012. Yew top­i­ary Col­net her­ber Tithe barn Cluny her­ber Dove­cot Vine­yard Plea­sure Park Fish ponds En­closed her­ber Poi­son bed Labyrinth

The Manor Turf seat Henry, the Poet’s Gar­den En­trance Rose ar­bour Nut walk

Both the opium poppy (above left) and black hen­bane (above right) were used for pain re­lief by me­dieval physi­cians. Both are poi­sonous. A cor­ner in­side the En­closed Her­ber, filled with scented white Rosa alba and red apothe­cary’s rose, a fig tree and sweet rocket, Hes­peris ma­tronalis. ›

Fox­gloves, Dig­i­talis pur­purea, pop­pies in­clud­ing Pa­paver rhoeas and P. som­niferum, va­ri­eties of gera­nium, echium and cam­pion all flour­ish in Henry, The Poet’s Gar­den. This is based on a 13th cen­tury man­u­script de­scrib­ing the Square Gar­den be­long­ing to the 12th cen­tury poet, Henry of Hunt­ing­don.

A sub­stan­tial tree seat, cre­ated within a sweet bay tree, Lau­rus no­bilis. Seats such as this al­lowed me­dieval ladies to sit in the shade, en­sur­ing their com­plex­ions re­mained fash­ion­ably pale.

The Rose Walk forms one side of Henry, The Poet’s Gar­den. It leads away from the for­mal gar­den into the Plea­sure Park, orchard and nut­tery. Rosa alba and R. Gal­lica in­ter­twine around sturdy oak screen­ing. The walk is densely un­der­planted with an­nu­als and peren­ni­als.

Birth­wort is an ex­am­ple of the me­dieval Doc­trine of Sig­na­tures, based on the idea that plants could be used to treat prob­lems in parts of the body they re­sem­bled. The bulb of these small yel­low flow­ers was be­lieved to look like the womb, so it was used dur­ing child­birth. Today, it is re­garded as one of the most poi­sonous of plants.

An old damask rose, Rosa gal­lica ‘Ver­si­color’, also known as Rosa mundi, has a heady scent. It grows in Henry, The Poet’s Gar­den at the Preben­dal Manor.

A highly-scented pink rose in Henry, The Poet’s Gar­den.

Plums form­ing on one of the fruit trees in the orchard. The early sun lights the green sward of the Plea­sure Park. Pale com­plex­ions were a mark of sta­tus in the me­dieval pe­riod, so shady walks like this one at the Manor were ideal to pro­tect high-born ladies from the ef­fects of the sun.

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