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.
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..."
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
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.
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.
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
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
Carthusian gardeners at Mt. Grace
Plants grown at Mt.
A Carthusian elixir