Jack Carrigan is inspired by one woman's daring horticultural adventure
The Morville Hours
BY KATHERINE SWIFT BLOOMSBURY £17.99
Towards the end of her book Katherine Swift remarks casually: "I made a garden out of a field, gradually expanding it over the space of 20 years." This, of course, is part of the attractive English tradition of understatement; there is much more to be said on the subject and, indeed, the author herself supplies it in this intensely moving and beautifully written volume.
What happened was that in 1988 she discovered the Dower House at Morville Hall near Bridgnorth. Shropshire, and decided to create a garden. With a background as a librarian of rare books in Oxford and Trinity, Dublin, such a decision might indicate insanity or imagination. In fact it proved to be both: an inspired folly.
The National Trust, which owned the property and which gave her a 20-year lease, was initially sceptical. As Swift confesses: "I had never made a garden before. I had no training, no experience, no money and no income and I was proposing, single-handedly. to fund, build and maintain a new garden..." Of such dreams are great enterprises undertaken.
Early on, the author followed the Pope's injunction: "Consult the Genius of the place." This wayward and persistent deity introduced her to the ghosts of the past, stretching back several hundred years. Sensitive to their potent if spectral presence the field gradually metamorphosed into a sequence of interlocking themes. which included a cloister garden (because of the medieval Benedictine monks who had tilled its soil for 400 years): a Tudor turf maze, a knot garden, a fluttery, a canal garden, a Lammas meadow and a Victorian rose border. If her past had been absorbed in books, Swift, who has a fine poetic instinct for metaphor, began to see her new landscape was also a kind of book "if only one could read it".
Gardening, as all serious gardeners know. is a passion. For Swift, no less, it is a lasting love affair, surviving the disappointments and setbacks that all love affairs engender. "We teeter daily on the brink of disaster, the garden and I horticulturally. aesthetically, financially, physically, emotionally."
For five years, from 1993, she suffered from ME, so that the smallest task exhausted her. There was also drought: the refusal of some flowers to thrive, temperamental bees, the anxiety caused by gales or severe frost. Finally, the triumph: what she had seen entire in her mind before she ever took up trowel had taken root. shape and glorious life.
But as the curious title suggests, this book is hardly about what to plant and when, and where; it is about an inner journey in which Swift. planting seemingly random remarks within her narrative, tells the reader "how I came to Morville and why I am as Lam". The "Hours" are those of the Benedictine daily Office Lauds. Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline and these inform the chapter headings.
The author's past calendar, in which there had never been enough time. changed at Morville into the "eternal now", punctuated by the regular chimes of the village church clock. And just as medieval Books of Hours Swift cites Eamon Duffy as her source here included illustrations of the labours proper to each month, so Swift's own seasonal tasks began to reflect these immemorial activities.
"Isolation: it's what I do best," she tells us; later: "I'm a Wiglets, pretzel and olive sort of depressive, myself."
Married but childless (her parents had warned her gloomily against having children). one senses that the maternal instinct has been transformed into an almost maternal tenderness and absorption in her enterprise, carefully nurturing seedlings indoors and checking the garden in the dark to see if everything is safe and content.
Snowed in one winter, Swift reads The Secret Garden. Just as that garden brought about healing for the wounded characters, so the reader learns of familial estrangements healed and reconciliations made during the long years at Morville. Swift's father, who gave her an early love of gardening and whom, after a quarrel, she hardly saw for 30 years. comes in old age to live in the village with her mother; she cares for them both and when they die scatters their ashes over Wenlock Edge, a place they had discovered during their courtship; peace is also made with her brother.
part autobiography, part gardening journal. filled with antiquarian excursions and recondite lore about bees, rocks, word origins and much else besides, this book should be savoured slowly, in the same spirit in which the garden was conceived and grew.
Just as Ronald Blythe's story of a small corner of Suffolk. Akenfield, made it justly celebrated, so this lovingly produced and illustrated volume gives a permanent glow to a modest, hidden area of Shropshire. The 20-year lease is up this August: Swift is pondering the future. Her parents had been spiritual gypsies, moving from Anglicanism to Communism to Catholicism and thence to Buddhism; perhaps the kindly presences, those medieval Benedictines. with their labours on the land, their Lectio Divina and their liturgical chanting of the Hours will now lead her home.