The problem with going away to visit a distant garden is that you’re hostage to the weather. Which is why, last May, my husband and I found ourselves soaking up water like sponges as we took in the gardens of Morville Dower House in a downpour.
Morville is a very special place, despite the vagaries of Shropshire weather. Created by Dr Katherine Swift over twenty years, it marries the history of gardening with the history of the people who lived there, taking you through different historical periods and recognising different influences. Here’s what she says about it:
“Although the garden is divided into separate areas by high hedges, it is less a succession of garden ’rooms’, each leading into the next in an orderly sequence, than like a medieval church, with nave, transepts and aisles, choir and apse, little side-chapels and chantries, glimpsed sideways through arches and arcades in an ever-shifting perspective. There’s a transparency about it—the way an overture before an opera introduces all the themes that will be elaborated later—yet it retains its secrets, its ability to surprise.”
And all this falls into place if, before you visit, you read her enchanting book The Morville Hours — about the garden, but not about gardening (and from which the above quote is taken). Like music, the book is full of interconnected themes. It hangs on the framework of a Book of Hours, a devotional book of offices and prayers, echoing the rhythm of daily monastic life. It also follows the seasons, with memories and stories chosen to suit the essence of each time of year.
The Morville Hours was published in 2008 to quiet rapture. My husband was relieved that, for once, I knew what I wanted for Christmas.
But when I started it, something was wrong. Here was a book I’d eagerly anticipated, with all the ingredients I like, and yet I wasn’t enjoying it. Then I realised: I was reading too fast. This is a book to linger over, to savour; it has a meditative quality. Like fine chocolate, it doesn’t do to eat it too fast; you miss too much and then feel slightly sick.
The pages are dense with history and stories (the variety of subjects is huge). Included are memories so personal that gradually you realise that she’s telling you about herself. And then, as with all good literature, you realise that she’s really telling you about yourself.
“Wherever we were, Pa always planted a garden. Like tent pegs hammered into the ground, it anchored me.”
The Morville Hours is firmly anchored in Shropshire, and reading it adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of this most atmospheric county. And for those who do not know Shropshire, The Morville Hours must surely make them regard their own landscape with a more perceptive eye.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ursula Buchan’s review in The Daily Telegraph sums up the garden. (There's also a lovely article in The Times by Jane Wheatley, but their paywall won't allow a link. It gives a much more intimate picture of the author, as well as a lengthy book excerpt, should you be able to access it.)
If you’re thinking of a break in Shropshire this year, just make sure you’re there on a Sunday, Bank Holiday or Wednesday, the days when Katherine Swift opens her garden gate to guests.