GARDENING: Within a secluded arbour

The bower of bliss of medieval literature is a romantic dream. Michael Leapman sees the reality re-created
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A MEDIEVAL garden is a romantic notion. You imagine fresh-scrubbed ladies in wimples being serenaded in vine-covered bowers by languid swains with lutes, while fragrant old roses and pure white Madonna lilies bloom profusely round a camomile lawn.

Yet to create something like that at the end of the 20th century - is it maybe a touch perverse? The thrust of horticulture in the last 700 years has been to develop improved strains of flowers and plants that stay in bloom longer, resist disease and are generally more gardener-friendly. Why hark back to the bad old days?

It is to Sylvia Landsberg's credit that in her new book, The Medieval Garden, she meets that question head-on. While encouraging readers to recreate pre-Tudor gardens, she wants them to know what they are letting themselves in for.

"I believe in using the past as a source of inspiration," she says. "I would not design a wholly medieval garden for myself because it would only be in flower for a short season. A lot of the old plants are floppy and need staking and a lot are prone to disease. And a camomile lawn is brown for most of the year.

"If you insist on the correct plants you omit the terrific wealth of flowers we've developed since then. The Elizabethans would cry their eyes out with envy if they could see all the flowers we've got. In a private garden you can create the medieval elements and then put in plants that have a longer flowering season."

Dr Landsberg did not allow herself that latitude, though, when she designed Queen Eleanor's Garden, behind the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. The hall, all that is left of the castle, was built in the 13th century but much altered 100 years later. The garden represents English horticulture at that later date. All the plants in it were being grown here by the 14th century; some, such as wallflowers and hollyhocks, may have been introduced by Eleanor of Castile (d 1290), queen of Edward I. She is one of the two Eleanors after whom the garden is named: the other is her mother- in-law, Eleanor of Provence, who also lived in the castle.

Though only fleetingly colourful, the garden contains much of interest all year, even on the cold February morning when I walked round it with Dr Landsberg. It is small - a wedge-shaped 90ft by 30ft - and as authentic as she can make it. White doves cluster round the dovecote built into the sloping wooden roof of the pentice (covered passage) at one end. There is a long arbour, lined with white Rosa alba and red Rosa gallica, shaded by vine leaves in summer. The fountain, where water spouts from leopards' heads, is based on a contemporary description. A garden seat is copied from one in Winchester Cathedral. The principal feature is the "herber", a conversation area with turf-covered benches and a wild-flower lawn in the centre. Here the benches are enclosed by a trellis and a low rail but they can be backed by narrow borders of flowers such as roses, peonies and lilies, with fragrant herbs sown among them.

The plants in medieval gardens were valued as much for their aromatic and tactile qualities as for their colour. As we walk around, Dr Landsberg is constantly rubbing leaves between her thumb and forefinger. She picks some, along with a flower or two, to make a decorative and fragrant posy of bay, sage, lavender, periwinkle and a brave early cowslip. "That's what courtiers would done in the Middle Ages," she says. "Scent is something we've lost today. We say we want scented gardens, but we always end up with pretty-looking ones."

A botanist, Dr Landsberg researched her book for five years. It was not easy, because no authentic medieval gardens have survived unaltered and there is not much documentary evidence either, except a few plant lists from monasteries and castles, and pictures from illuminated manuscripts. From those slender sources, she has set out the principles of horticulture in the Middle Ages and offers practical advice on adapting them to the 1990s.

Not many people had gardens in that era. Yeomen and peasants would be more likely to grow vegetables than flowers on the patch of land around their houses. Noblemen designed their castles primarily as defence installations and as barracks for their private armies: a green spot for quiet contemplation was low on their list of priorities. The sprawling Winchester Castle in the 13th century had only three small gardens, none of them, probably, any bigger than Queen Eleanor's today.

The most ambitious gardens were at monasteries and other religious houses, where monks and nuns needed space for reading and solitary thought. That is why several features of a medi-eval garden have religious significance. The green of the lawns and evergreen shrubs symbolises everlasting life. The red berries of holly, of Gladdon (or stinking) iris and of the Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) represent Christ's blood at the crucifixion, as in summer do the fruits of wild strawberries. The significance of the Madonna lily is implicit in its name.

All these elements are contained in the Winchester garden and in another of Dr Landsberg's creations, the Shrewsbury Quest, where she designed a garden for the fictitious 12th-century detective Brother Cadfael. The Shrewsbury design includes a herb or physic garden, divided into rectangular beds, familiar from re-creations of Tudor and Stuart plots.

"The idea in the Middle Ages was that the garden should be a place of tranquility," she says. "If you can have a corner that has just turf and the sound of trickling water, and then the birds in the trees, you've got what's appreciated in a garden. You can recreate that idea in a modern garden - especially a cottage garden, which is close in spirit to a medieval garden. Or you can set aside a part of a garden for a herber or conversation area like the one at Winchester. That's what I want to encourage people to do."

! 'The Medieval Garden', by Sylvia Landsberg, is published by British Museum Press at pounds 12.99.

Queen Eleanor's Garden at Castle Great Hall, Winchester, and the Shrewsbury Quest, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, are open daily all year.

HOW TO MAKE A MEDIEVAL GARDEN

ESSENTIAL ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES

HERBERS (conversation areas) are the most distinctive element. Designs can be U-shaped, L-shaped, rectangular, hexagonal or circular, constructed in any part of the garden. In our climate, a herber should be in sunshine for part of the day. If you have a tiny town garden you could convert all of it into a herber, comprising turf or stone benches encircling a flowery lawn, no more than 10ft wide, with a small built-in wooden table, or space for a portable one. It can be enclosed with a low hedge, fence or trellis for climbing plants, or open, with beds of flowers and herbs behind the benches.

BENCHES have brick or stone bases filled with rubble and earth, with stone slabs or turf on top. Turf is hard to maintain and often damp. A mixture of fragrant herbs (including camomile) and wild flowers is more picturesque, but be careful about herbs that attract bees, including thyme. An evergreen groundcover such as periwinkle also makes a decent cushion.

For LAWNS, camomile is a nice idea if you do not mind it being brown from October to April: it is more authentic to use a flowering variety than the non-flowering kind usually seen today. Medieval lawns generally had wild flowers among the grass: if you do this you will have to leave it uncut for part of the summer.

ARBOURS should have a wooden frame covered with a vine to be historically correct: other climbers weren't introduced until the 18th century. Vines need sun but are bare in winter, so have that in mind when deciding where to place the arbour and what to plant in the border. It should be 7ft 6in high and wide enough for lovers to stroll through holding hands.

WATER FEATURES can be in the form of fountains, channels of flowing water or fishponds. Monks ate fish often and had complex arrangements for breeding and storing them. Your pond will be ornamental rather than practical, so it is prudent to stick to fish of only modest size.

SUITABLE PLANTS

The following is a selection of plants grown in medieval England. They are tough - as they need to be to have survived so long - and grow on most soils. However, some of their modern descendants are more attractive and could be substituted with little loss of effect.

ROSES Rosa gallica and Rosa alba are the red and white roses of Lancaster and York, ancestors of many modern varieties. The sweet briar rose was used in hedges. All flower in June.

IRISES The Gladdon or stinking iris (Iris foeti-dissima) is one of the oldest varieties. Purple and white flag irises were grown as well. They flower in May, making a good display with peonies, which were also popular at the time.

LILIES The white Madonna lily does best on a chalky soil, flowering in July. Water lilies and lilies of the valley featured in medieval gardens.

WALLFLOWERS Thought to have been introduced into Britain from southern Europe in the 13th century, possibly by Queen Eleanor of Castile; she is also credited with bringing in hollyhocks, pot marigolds and lavender.

EVERGREENS Holly, ivy, bay, periwinkle.

HEDGING PLANTS Hawthorn, honeysuckle, sweet briar and golden broom (once called planta genista, the badge of the Plantaganets).

FERNS Several types of these were grown.

WILD FLOWERS Violets, cowslips, bluebells, wild strawberries, campion.

HERBS Many of today's herbs were grown in medieval times, chiefly for medicinal use.

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