Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
.

  

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The Carthusian gardeners at Mount Grace

The garden behind the restored cell at Mt. Grace

The Carthusians practice an intensely private, solitary life of prayer, work, and contemplation. Carthusians live apart not only from the world, but also from each other. They rarely speak, eat most of their meals alone, and do not converse during the meals they eat in company. If they meet accidentally, they are expected to pull their hooded cowls forward to cover their faces, and to pass without speaking. Once a week at Mount Grace, the brothers gathered to walk outside the monastery for a few hours, and during this brief outing we know they were allowed to speak to one another. Did they talk about their gardens? Share cuttings and advice? The records don't tell.

About ten hours of every twenty-four was spent in devotions. The remaining hours were were taken up with eating, sleeping and working. During the brief time each day that might be given to leisure, a monk could garden. Within his private garden he planted what he wished, and archeologists have found that each of the more than twenty private gardens at Mount Grace had its own layout and uses.

We know from medieval records that gardening had long been a well-established tradition in England. Monks of various orders played an important role, carrying seeds and plants from monastery to monastery, propagating and selling plants, developing new varieties, experimenting with new techniques, and learning all they could about how to use what they grew. The Carthusians, for example, developed a healing elixir that is still renowned today, and a cologne that has been famous for nearly three hundred years. A surprising range of plants was available to them, and sharing plants by these gardeners was as popular then as now.

The summer of 1994 marked the first time in more than 450 years that anyone had set seedlings into the small garden behind the cell at Mount Grace. It is a testament to horticultural skills of those long-ago gardeners that, had a time-traveling monk accompanied our walk through the plants of this garden in 1994, he would have felt right at home.

To travel from the house to the garden, you pass through the cool shadows of a long, slate-roofed walkway. This walkway would have sheltered the monk from the elements (no small kindness in a Yorkshire winter) all the way from the back door of the house to the cell's privy, tucked up tight against the back priory wall. But on this sunny June day, we turn from the walkway into the well of sunlight that is the garden proper. (Larger ground plan)

The walls of this hortus conclusis are very high and very white in the sunlight, a situation no doubt welcomed by its gardener, who had to cope with the disadvantages of a garden planted on the north side of a tallish house.

The long, east-west arm of the L-shaped yard contains a rectangular plot edged with roofing slates to create a slightly raised bed. This replanted garden, though tiny and simple, repeats several of the motifs common to medieval gardens. Its plantings are geometric and precise, creating symmetrical patterns of color and foliage. Dwarf boxwood provides the almost architectural edging so characteristic of medieval gardens. A stone-paved walk surrounds the bed. In 1994, the garden was planted with herbs that played a role in the daily rounds of medieval religious life, and also with those known to flavor honey.

The shorter, north-south arm of the L is a tiny kerchief of daisy-dotted lawn, a "flowery mead." Standing at its southern edge is the little cloister of this cell, a shadowy, glassed-in walkway for quiet meditation.

A life of monastic simplicity has its appeals, and never more so than when you find yourself in the stillness of a golden afternoon, secure in a high-walled, sweet-smelling sanctuary shared only with a fluffy, wide-eyed owlet and a few lazily buzzing bees.

It was, of course, too good to last. During Christmas week in 1539, under great duress, this little garden was surrendered with the rest of the priory to the king, as ominous signs and portents had warned would happen. The monks, novices, and lay brothers who had made the monastery their home were given pensions and sent away. Mount Grace was sold to a dealer in monastic lands; over the next four hundred years it would have a number of owners, one of whom would turn the southwest range of buildings into a small manor house. Today, this manor house and its fine terraced front gardens are worth a visit in themselves. Presented to the National Trust in 1953, Mount Grace is now beautifully maintained by English Heritage.

Table in the monk's cell at Mt. Grace

Mount Grace Priory

Plants grown at Mt. Grace

A Carthusian elixir

 

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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