Away day: A Tudor botanist and religious dissenter’s garden
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
The bank holiday is a great opportunity to spend some serious time in your own garden but really keen gardeners can use the extra day to visit other people’s outside space for inspiration or just plain lusting over.
William Turner (c.1510–1568), “the father of English Botany”, led an interesting life in interesting times, as physician, herbalist, botanist, clergyman. A fervent Protestant, he used his enforced exile during the Catholic Queen Mary’s reign to further his botanical studies in Europe, returning to Wells in Somerset after her death.
Turner’s life’s work was aimed at making the healing properties of plants accessible to all, through accurate identification, a far more difficult and radical project than it now sounds. The three volumes of his New Herball were published to the unacknowledged benefit of later, more famous, botanists.
He spent the last six years of his life in London, but Wells Deanery garden had been there long before his tenure, and is still there now, secluded behind a wall along the Cathedral Green and has been restored in Turner’s honour.
A noticeboard with a botanical illustration, changed monthly according to the season, entices visitors to open days. When the gate is open, a dark curving path leads up into a thoroughly enjoyable, intriguing place, created by volunteer gardeners.
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With no contemporary illustrations to help, the design and planting are informed by research into what is likely to have been there, the plants Turner mentions, and so on. The beds are filled with plants available in Tudor England, such as wild strawberries, sage, teucrium, foxglove, pinks, lavender, hart’s tongue fern.
There is a mixed orchard, with mulberry and medlar as well as old varieties of apple, Catshead, White Joaneting and a red perry pear.
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The rose bed is planted with, naturally, The Apothecary’s Rose, and other varieties Turner would have known. An Italian garden refers to his time in Bologna and Ferrara. There is a fine copper beech, probably from the early 19th century.
Turner seems to have been much exercised by cures for “the bytynges of serpentes”, for which he recommends (among many other plants) hart’s tongue fern leaves “dronken with wyne”. Occasional labels noting such prescriptions are sited near relevant plants.
All these good things aside, one of the most striking things about visiting the Old Deanery Garden is the air of joyous participation among the volunteers.
When they started in 2003 the garden had been somewhat maintained, but not to the exclusion of ground elder, snowberry, yew seedlings or tarmac and not, as far as I heard, with any interest in William Turner. Unprompted by me different volunteers kept remarking on how lucky they felt to be part of this project.
It is completely self-financing which, judging from the newsletter, involves a fair bit of dressing-up, cooking, music-making, scholarship and fun.
Of the volunteer garden projects in north London we have featured, the one of which The Old Deanery most reminds me is The Bothy, in the grounds of Avenue House in Finchley.
The gardens have in common being walled, neglected, brought back to life by an enthusiastic group. Both are only occasionally open, so that visitors can enjoy the excitement of entering a hidden space.
The Bothy, however, while being part of the story of Stephen’s Ink, does not have an interesting botanical tale to tell. It is the connection with William Turner that makes The Old Deanery so special. That and, let’s admit, having Wells Cathedral rather than Finchley outside its walls.
The Old Deanery Garden, 9 Cathedral Green, Wells, Somerset
Wildegoose Nursery, Shropshire
August may be the time for straying beyond the Hampstead and Highgate patch, but I do try to find connections with it, often by visiting nurseries present at the Plant Heritage Grand Sales in Highgate (next one, September 3) or at the Grow London fairs in Hampstead.
Wildegoose Nursery had such a captivating stand of violas at Grow London in June that I wanted to visit them in Shropshire, but arrangement difficulties have got in the way. Still, I can report that Laura Crowe and Jack Willgoss, of Wildegoose, are building up a delightful-sounding nursery in a formerly overgrown walled garden.
In 2011 they took over a rare collection, Bouts Violas, from Mark and Stephanie Roberts who had spent more than 30 years conserving and developing these modest, varied and enchanting plants. The current Wildegoose catalogue lists several varieties of Viola cornuta, a species from the Pyrenees from which many violas have been bred, which look particularly desirable.
Wildegoose Nursery, the Walled Garden, Lower Millichope, Munslow, Shropshire, SY7 9HE