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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Monk's cell at Mt. Grace Priory

A Medieval Herb Garden at Mount Grace Priory

Carthusian gardeners at Mt. Grace

Plants grown at Mt. Grace

A Carthusian elixir

For many gardeners, England in June is the nearest thing to paradise. It offers the full range of gardens -- from the fantastic, through-the-looking-glass topiary of Leven's Hall, to the glowing tapestry of roses among the abbey ruins at Bury St. Edmunds, to the remnants of the grand kitchen garden at Kentwell. But one of the most evocative of England's gardens is the tiny gem of an herb garden at Mount Grace Priory, on the western slopes of Yorkshire's Cleveland hills.

There is something special, of course, about herb gardens. Perhaps they are so fascinating because as you begin to learn about such gardens, you open the door to a tradition that spans at least two millennia. What's more, it is a tradition uniquely documented by those ancient and often arresting manuscripts, the herbals. And then there is the mystery that has attached itself to the healing plants.  As Walter de la Mare wrote,

Speak not, whisper not,
Here bloweth thyme and bergamot;
Softy on the evening hour,
Secret herbs their spices shower...

Guardens, yards, and gardens
The word garden originally referred, quite specifically, to an area of ground secured by walls or fencing; both yard and guard are implied. Until very recently, if you wanted to have a garden, you needed a strong fence to protect it (and sometimes the gardener as well) from both two- and four-legged marauders. The notion of the garden as refuge took root early on, during the violence and instability of the early Middle Ages. It is from those chaotic times that we gained the concept of the hortus conclusis, an "enclosed garden" symbolic of all that is self-contained, secure, and well-ordered.

For the modern gardener no less than for his or her medieval counterpart, an herb garden can be a place in which you cultivate tranquility itself. While we moderns have probably given up on the idea that you can create order from chaos, in the herb garden you can at least construct a buffer against chaos. Any ardent gardener knows why all the world's great religions locate heaven in a garden, and few gardens offer more insight into this metaphor than the tiny garden at Mount Grace.

Mount Grace Priory
To reach the priory, you climb a low rise, and as you mount the first crest you are greeted by glowing green lawns, across which are scattered broken sections of biscuit-colored wall. Ahead is the shell of a small, bell-towered church, and beyond it an enormous green square of lawn, the cloister garth.

Mount Grace Priory ground plan

Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian monastery, was born in political turmoil about six centuries ago. Its founder, Thomas de Holland, Duke of Surrey, backed the wrong king in 1399 and was beheaded by angry townspeople in Cirencester, upon which, says chronicler Froissart, "Great sorrowe was made in dyvers parts of England: for he was a fayre yong man..."

But Holland's monastery survived its impolitic beginnings to flourish for more than two centuries before its suppression under Henry VIII. It is celebrated in part because it was at Mount Grace Priory that a unique manuscript was preserved -- the complete writings of remarkable 14th century mystic Margery Kempe.

But when the suppression of the monasteries came, Mount Grace was dismantled with so singular a thoroughness that the monks took the very wainscoting of their cells away with them -- perhaps to keep whatever they might out of the hands of the king.

Today only one cell -- the house and yard occupied by a single monk -- is intact at Mount Grace. It was restored by archeologists at the turn of this century.

Sketch of the layout of a cell at Mount Grace

Click to enlarge

This cell includes a peaceful garden twice enclosed, first within the high outer wall of the monastery, and again within the wall of the cell itself, for each monk at Mount Grace had in essence his own private domain. He alone occupied his cell's small, two story house. On the first floor he had a living room, small chapel, study, and bedroom, each with its own mullioned window set deep in the stone of the wall. All of the second story is taken up by a single, well-lit workroom. Behind the house, a small and graceful garden is enclosed by a stone wall that reaches twice the height of a man. At the far corner, tucked in beside the wall, is a tiny necessarium, or outhouse.

On the afternoon that we explore the cell and its garden, some of its charm is conferred by an unusual visitor, a downy, half-grown owlet perching anxiously on the stone sill of the window. Inside, taped to the one of the diamond-shaped panes of leaded glass, is a hand-written note:

Please don't disturb the little owl --
he is easily frightened.

As we explore the garden, the eyes of the anxious little owl never leave us -- and the monk who lived here five hundred years ago would probably have responded to our visit with similar alarm.

Carthusian gardeners at Mt. Grace

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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