The Gardener’s Hut

I was sad to hear that the Gardener’s Hut at the Prebendal Manor Medieval Gardens was demolished on Saturday 10 February 2018.

It had been a favourite project of mine and I had spent many hours constructing and maintaining the building. I did not keep written records of the work, so this is mostly from memory. The order of building is correct but how long it all took is forgotten.

My longstanding friends, Sam Martin and Tim Mason, who had been founder members of possibly the second medieval society to be set up in the UK, the Knights of the Fettered Swan, and fellow pilgrims, had presented the plans and the wood for the frame. The wood was elm from young trees that Sam had cut down when he split his garden for sale. The wood of elm is hard and equally importantly, it resists water; in the past the trunks of elm trees were hollowed out to make water pipes. Tim worked in construction, so he had produced a good plan.

Work to build the frame began late summer in 1999. The joints were cut and pegged to create a frame that would be, coincidentally, roughly the size of the sleeping area of some of the buildings at the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire. John James, another friend ex-knight and pilgrim also helped with building the frame.

1 Sam and Jamo

Eltham – Sam Martin- and Rothersthorpe -John James- build the frame

1b Rothersthorpe Eltham Gardeners Hut Preb2 1999

Eltham – Sam Martin- and Rothersthorpe -John James- build the frame

This took several days spread out over numerous weekends. By that time, it was well into autumn, perfect for cutting the willow and hazel to make the wattle inserts. I had planted a good coppice to supply firewood for the manor, so suitable wood was not a problem.

The Coppice

The Coppice

I admit we cheated and used an electric drill to drill the holes to take the uprights, but everything else was cut manually. The holes in the lower part of the frame were cut deep enough to hold the uprights firmly in place. The upper holes were deeper, so that you could push the rod up into them enough to allow the rod to slid into the frame and dropped into the lower hole. It made the task fairly quick to compete and you didn’t have to worry too much about the length of the uprights. The hardest part was weaving the horizontal withies between the uprights, especially as you reached the top. This job took much longer as we had to harvest more withies than we first thought. It was early November before the wattle was in place, even with me doing a panel whenever I had some spare time between the my work and maintaining the medieval garden. The next part of the job would be to add the daub to make the  walls more solid and keep out the bad weather. I suspected that the roof would have been thatched first and that the daub would be applied during the spring and summer, but needs must, and I would be daubing at the coldest time of the year. Sam and Tim didn’t sound so keen to do that and decided to skip the daubing. Sam had met a thatcher during a country crafts event and had arranged a lesson in the early part of the following year. The frame which had been a little wobbly, was very solid once the wattle was completed.

I began the daubing during the latter part of November. I had scythed and dried some long grass as we didn’t have a supply of muck. Jane Baile, the owner of the manor, had been carrying out an archaeological dig close to the pond, where she had found a good seam of marl clay, which I could use for the daub. Traditionally, a pit would be dug and the clay and manure could be trodden to form a pliable mix for the daub, the fibres in the manure acting in a similar way to the fibres in fibreglass, adding strength. I found a disused meatal feed trough that had been used for the sheep. I barrowed the clay to the trough which I had placed close to the hut. I emptied the clay into the trough, cut lengths of hay and added those and then several buckets of water from the well. I then had to mix it all by walking up and down the trough. I wore wellington boots, so they kept coming off in the sloppy mix. It was also very cold weather that year. My feet soon became very cold. I got wet from splashing the water and then I had to push the mix into the wattle sections; my hands felt like blocks of ice and I rarely felt my fingers after the first half hour of work. This is what led me to the conclusion that the work would be carried out during warmer weather. It would also help the daub to dry more quickly. I threw handfuls of daub onto the wattle, but then had to push it into the gaps. I used fingers and a wooden float that I had originally made to smooth the surface. It was slow, cold work. It took many weekends to complete the job of daubing the outside and the inside, but eventually I finished and heaved a huge sigh of relief and satisfaction.

I also used and clay to cover the floor. I made a thick slurry-like mix and spread it out and left it until it was nearly dry, when I used the float to level it off and smooth the surface.

I made the door from an old table top. I had t reduce the length to fit it in the doorway, so I left a three-inch protrusion at each end of one side. I bored holes that were slightly wider than the lugs I had made; and again the one above was a deeper hole than the one at the bottom of the door frame. I then slid the top lug into its hole and pulled the door into the frame until the bottom lug fell into the hole. Volia! A door without any metal hinges. It never fell out and stayed in place until the day the hut was destroyed. I had some solid pieces of seasoned oak, so I carved two sockets for a rising bar to secure the door when it was closed. I made the window shutters from elm panels and again I used the lug system instead of hinges. I made two wooden sockets to take a sliding bar to keep the window shut.

Christmas and New year passed quickly. Sam went on his thatching course. It lasted for all of about three hours. The straw was ordered and delivered. Sam made the tools we would need. The first task was to make a thick straw rope for the ridge which was tied in place with tarred twine. I had an old butchers needle that I used at work when I was a butcher. It was originally used for pushing through poultry to tie the legs and wings in place, but it was equally good for pushing the string from the outside of the roof, around the bundles of straw and then pushing it back out again. This time I was the labourer, making up the bundles of straw and tying them, before passing them to Sam on the roof. We were all surprised at just how solid the building was now it had been daubed. Just as well, as Sam stayed on the roof as I passed things to him. It took us a weekend to finish the thatching. For the sake of authenticity, we only used hazel rods to hold the straw in place. I had tried to make the twists, U-shaped pieces of hazel that hold the rods on place, but it was harder than it appeared, so we had bought some from a local woodsman who looked after several coppice areas. Chicken wire covering was also not historically accurate for the medieval period, so that was the job finished.

2 Preb gardeners hut

Nearly Finished

Later in the spring we bought some ready-prepared lime wash that I painted onto the daub to help make it waterproof. The lime wash was very watery and expensive. £40 per drum, which did not cover much daub. It took four drums to paint the walls on the outside.  In future I made up my own lime wash, which saved a fortune. Any lime wash that spilled on the floor was spread so that eventually the floor had a thick layer of lime plaster and was much harder wearing than just the clay.

5 Gardener's Hut completed BEST

Door fitted, and door and window oiled


In April 2000, Sam, Tim and myself put a thick layer of straw on the floor and after a meal and a few drinks we slept in our medieval hut. We had chosen a very frosty night, but we were as snug as bugs in a rug.

I had already made some medieval garden tools and a wheelbarrow, so these now had a good home.

6 Tools

The Gardener’s Tools

7 hut in snow

The Hut in snow

The hut was used for living history events and over the years I spent a few more night in it. It had been a very good project and I learned many different things from my time working on it. One was that the angle of the roof was too low, only 30°at most. It should have been no less than 45° to throw off the water properly, so our roof began to rot sooner than it should have done. I began to repair the thatch, but there wasn’t the money to buy enough straw.

7 Hut

The Hut in early summer

I am sorry to hear that the hut has gone, I have fond memories of it.

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A Lost Medieval Garden Tool

There are many lists of tools from the medieval period, none of which include a tool specifically for hand weeding. There is no mention of weeding trowels or small hand forks, although there are pictures mattocks of various shapes and sizes being used to weed or plant. Many years ago, I noticed that an illuminated page from Crescenzi’s Ruralium Commadorum, showed a gardener standing over a raised bed with a small implement in his hand. It could be something to weed the flower beds, I realised.

TOOL Manuscript

The tool as shown in the manuscript

I have shown this picture in my talks on medieval gardens for over twenty years now and have not seen a similar tool in a museum, nor in another picture that dates from the medieval period. The shape reminded me of two other gardening tools; the daisy-digger or a miniature bicornis or bidens, as used by the Romans. I have seen the full-size heads of the bicornis in museums displaying Roman finds, and there are also medieval pictures showing people using them. They were still being used in many parts of Europe until recently. I thought would be a relatively simple matter to make one.

Bidens Bicornis

The Bicornis or Bidens

I spoke to my blacksmith friend, John Wills, several times about the tool and eventually, I decided to make one myself at his forge where he makes historical metal items but also gives lessons to budding blacksmiths who would like to have a go themselves. I had wanted to make a sword at school during my metalwork class, but I wasn’t allowed to, although I was eventually allowed to make a grappling iron. The method to make the grappling iron had used similar techniques to those needed to make my garden tool, but it was decades since I had left school. I didn’t want the usual toasting fork or S hook, but this tool looked simple enough to me, so after a chat, I booked a day with John.

As we waited for the fire to get hot enough, we drank coffee and looked at the picture. John had already made a copy of how he thought the tool was made, which appeared to resemble the picture. We enlarged the picture more than I had before, and I realised that the angle of the object in the picture indicated that it was definitely not a daisy-digger type tool and definitely a claw. Something easily obtainable from most garden centres in the country, but the modern tool usually has three tines, instead of the two shown in the picture.


The Fire


Once the fire was hot enough, John took a metal rod and demonstrated how the tool would be made. It didn’t take him very long to produce the finished product. I realised that I could make one, but it may take a little longer and not be made with such perfection. I was given my piece of metal and placed it in the coals which I had to pull over the end to make sure it got hot enough. Next, I had to hammer flat the end where the tines were to be made.

This was not so easy as it sounds, mostly because I didn’t hit the metal fast enough, so it cooled before I had achieved much. Having made the end flat I had to heat it again and split the end with a chisel to form the tongues that would become the tines.


Splitting the metal to make the tines

The metal was heated again, and I bent one tongue over the anvil to get it out of the way so that I could make the remaining tongue longer and taper it to a point. The finished tine was then bent over and the other one straightened and made to match the other one.


Making the tines 

One tine was a bit too long, so the end was cut off using the chisel. Both tines were then hammered back into line with the handle. I then had to heat the rod so that it could be cut to the correct length. Once hot enough it was placed over an edge set in the anvil, and I hammered until it was nearly cut through before it was carefully snapped off. Next, I had to hammer the handle into a square section, which took a lot of hammering and quite some time for me to complete. Experience is a fine thing. John makes it look so easy. The tines were now ready to be properly formed. Once hot, the tines were carefully opened enough to get them over a fatter chisel-end held in the anvil. I tapped the end of the rod to open them more and then bent them out so they were at 90° to the handle. More heat, then I bent them over the anvil to make a toasting fork shape, and finally bending them another 90° to make the claws.


Nearly finished…

To finish the piece, I heated the blunt end, hammered it to a taper and then curled it over, making a loop to hang it up. The picture shows a blunt end, but it would be more useful to me to be able to hang it up at my historical garden displays. The curl at the end was not that good, but I was pleased with my finished tool. John suggested treating it to give a good finish by heating it and then quenching it in a container of oil, but I thought that it wouldn’t have been done for such a lowly item. Over lunch, we realised that if one of these objects had been found, its use may not be obvious. It could be used as a butcher’s hook to hang meat, although probably not as a back scratcher.


The completed weeding tool

The next tool that I wanted to make was a pruning hook. I had seen these in many museums from the Roman period onwards. They are small bill hook-like tools that can be used for pruning shrubs or vines and as a general gardening knife. I have used one in the medieval garden that I made and tended at the Prebendal Manor, Nassington, Northants. In the days before secateurs, this was the garden tool all gardeners would need. Mine usually hangs ready for use from a leather lanyard fixed to my belt. It is an item that can easily be lost.


Pruning hook that I use in the Prebendal Manor Medieval Gardens

John agreed that in the time we had left that this was the best option. I thinned the flattened end to make the edge and then bent the blade inwards towards the socket. It looked quite similar to some weeding hooks that I had seen, although others were curved, much the same as pruning hook.


My Weeding Hook

It had been a good day. I had my new ‘lost’ medieval gardening tool and a weeding hook; all I need now is some drier weather to try it out.


Using the tool


To contact John Wills for historical metal work or for a day course:

Email :


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Heritage Lost – The Menagerie Grotto


Heritage is ephemeral and is easily lost. ..

I was the Head Gardener at The Menagerie, Horton, Northamptonshire when Gervase Jackson Stops was creating a garden to suit the building. The Menagerie was originally a part of the Horton Hall Gardens and held gardens and pools for a small collection of animals and fish. The building was what most people would call a Folly, but besides being a decorative feature of the parkland, it was quite practical, being a music room, with a subterranean kitchen. Walls extended from central building that terminated with sheds, which could be used to store tools and food for the animals. In 1763, Horace Walpole, the diarist who seemed to get everywhere of any note, stated that the grounds of the Menagerie were set out as,

‘a little wood, prettily disposed with many basons of gold fish’.

There were also animals;

“storks, ‘racoons that breed there much’, a young tiger, a bear, ‘uncommon martins’, and ‘warthogs with navels on their backs”.

The whole was enclosed by a circular moat, which may have been filled with water. Little of the moat now survives. I later discovered earthenware pipes between the ponds and bricks with a very dark green glaze on only one side which may have been part of the pools.

The hall itself was demolished and all its contents sold at auction. The Temple and Arch buildings were lived in, but the Menagerie building fell into disrepair. Gervase Jackson Stops bought the ruin and converted it into a habitable building.

When I took on the position of Head Gardener Ian Kirby had designed a garden to suit what we all came to affectionately call the Stately Bungalow.

Visitors to the menagerie would have left Horton Hall, by coach or on foot, and then crossed man-made lake using the Green Bridge. They could admire the animals and fish, and listen to music as they wined and dined with food prepared in the kitchen beneath them. Gervase, wanting everything in his garden that could have been found in the gardens of the grander houses during the 18th century wanted a grotto and the kitchen was an ideal place to create one. As the kitchen was beneath the ground, what better theme than Orpheus in the Underworld.

Before work began, there was the problem of a drainage pipe set in the floor of the kitchen. Would building the grotto affect the drainage system. One bright October Friday morning Ian said that he was off to London, and as the ground was waterlogged he gave me a container of green dye, with instructions to pour some in the drainage pipe and see if I could discover where the water went. I poured part of the dye into the pipe and went down to a small pond in the field north of the Menagerie. We had been fairly certain that this is where the water would eventually go, but there was no sign of any greenish hue to the water. I decided that maybe I hadn’t used enough of the dye, so I went back and emptied the contents into the drain pipe and went back to the pool. Nothing. Rather puzzled, I made my way back and met the farmer on the way. He asked what I was up to, so I explained. He suggested that the water may drain into the decorative lake in the valley, so off I went. I struggled through the undergrowth to the water’s edge. I stopped in horror. The water was a bright fluorescent green, rather like the fluid in a spirit level. One problem solved. At least we knew where the water drained to. I searched for the exit point and found a triangular structure built of stone that was in line with the centre of the Menagerie building, which was over four hundred yards away. Even with modern ploughing the simple drainage system still worked.

Another task was to remove any remaining rubbish. Most privately employed gardeners usually end up doing more than just the gardening, so this was one of my extras. The walls had to be sandblasted to make a clean, but irregular surface for the lime plaster that would later be covered with seashells. I remember being on the lawn as the workers blasted the walls. Great clouds of dust billowed out from the kitchen windows and door, and drifted across the lawn, looking suitably hell-like, and leaving a thick layer of fine dust all over the grass. I was coughing outside, but the workers inside did not wear any breathing apparatus or dust masks. How they managed to breathe, I have no idea. The dust inside then had to be hoovered with a very noisy vacuum cleaner.

Two local builders from Northampton then had to put on a coarse layer of lime plaster. Ancient plastering methods had been researched; apparently, eggs yolks could be added to make it easier to spread the plaster. Finely chopped horse hair was to be mixed in to help prevent cracks in the plaster. Getting enough horse hair was impossible. The egg yolks were used for one mix of lime, but it soon became apparent that the number of eggs needed would be too expensive, so neither eggs, nor horse hair was used, and it seemed to make little difference. Some days later the plastering was completed which then had to be allowed to dry; this took a few weeks.

Christopher Hobbs, who amongst other things, constructed film sets oversaw the implementation Gervase’s ideas. Steps descended from the patio to the kitchen entrance. It was decided to make a small pool in front of the door to represent the River Styx. Next to the doorway would be the ferryman, who would ferry you over the water. Charon the ferryman was constructed of lead sheeting. His head was more natural and modelled on Gervase himself. Originally there was an idea that the ferryman would have an outstretched arm; a visitor could place a large coin onto the hand, the arm would drop – and the door would open, to allow you to enter into the depths of the underworld.

Charon the Ferryman

Charon the Ferryman based on Gervase


In the time available this could not be achieved, so the visitor had to open the door themselves. The outside walls by the door were covered with tufa, a volcanic rock full of air bubbles, rather similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. I planted ferns and other plants that could withstand the shade in pockets that I cut out of the tufa, to create a suitably gloomy atmosphere.

Shell Face near the entrance to the grotto

Shell Face near the entrance to the grotto was a small fountain. It was on the opposite side of the steps from Charon.

Christopher also created the figure of Orpheus, which was modelled on Ian Kirby, although the likeness was not as good as the painted hardboard cut-out that had been set in place until the statue was completed. The various animals were also made by Christopher; I remember some being carved from breezeblocks before being covered. Stalactites were moulded from chicken wire mesh and then covered with pieces of old glass and pieces of broken pottery that I had collected in the garden.

Orpheus in the Underworld

Orpheus in the Underworld. I would soak the shells before visitors arrived to make the shells glisten in the lights.

Much of the grotto was to be decorated with shells, and very soon a lorry loaded with sacks of sea shells brought a delivery from a shop in Cornwall. Some of the shells were exotic, but there were many mussel shells that formed the background on the walls, being stuck on to show the black outside in some places and the mother of pearl inside for others; so twice the effect from the same type of shell. We all had a go at fixing shells to the walls, but it was very time consuming and took two summers. Most of the shells were fixed by Tom and Polly Verity during their holidays.

The walls were also decorated with pieces of wood and bark to create a rustic effect. Decorated tables were built and placed beneath mirrors that were surrounded by shells. Over the fireplace was placed a representation of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Hades. All three of the necks were collared and chained, against a background of lurid yellow and red flames embellished with pieces of mirror that glittered in candlelight or the lights from the Orpheus tableau.

Cerberus the three-headed hound

Cerberus the three-headed hound guarded the entrance to Hades.

Two shell faces were built; one male and the other female. They were based on Gervase’s friends, John and Eileen Harris. John was quite happy with the face based on him, but that Eileen was less than happy with hers.

Shell Face

Shell Face in the Menagerie Grotto

A dipping pool cum jacuzzi was built between Orpheus and Cerberus. The top was decorated with handmade tiles that had been specially created by a woman who was a  descendant of the American, General Patton.  The pool was removed by a later owner of the menagerie. As far as I am aware the tiles were destroyed in the process.

The grotto also housed a wine store, a shower, a sauna and an area for exercising with weights.

The final touch was the ceiling. This was painted a dark blue and then the night sky as it appears at mid-summer day was added. Some stars were highlighted with sequins to make them sparkle. The artist had only just returned from a commission in Italy. He gave me a Geranium robertianum ‘Album’ as a present. I planted it in the garden and later took seed for myself. I still remember the Menagerie when I see the flowers.

Milky Way

Milky Way on the Menagerie Grotto ceiling; #Some stars were augmented with sequins for added sparkle.

The grotto was officially completed in time for Gervase’s farewell party. He returned to the Menagerie, much against medical and family advice, to be with his friends. An opera was performed in a marquee that had been set up in the garden and there were fireworks once it was dark enough when I opened the fountains to full height and turned on the lights too, for some watery fireworks of our own. It was a magical occasion. Gervase was smiling. He died only a few days later.

Sadly, the grotto was removed by the owner of the Menagerie in 2017.  The owner said that the grotto was morbid; since it was well-known that both Gervase and Ian had died of AIDS.  Planning permission to re-instate the grotto to its original function as a kitchen was granted without opposition. As Conservation Officer to Northamptonshire Gardens Trust, I only found out once planning permission had been passed.

All that remains of the grotto, for the time being, are photographs and memories.

I understand that much of it has been removed and it will be rebuilt elsewhere. I will add more information as it becomes known to me.

© 2017. All photographs are my own.


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Growing Nux vomica- The Strychnine Tree


I need a photograph of a Nux vomica plant, the strychnine tree for the book that I am writing about poisonous plants, ‘Death in the Garden.’

Gerard the herbalist wrote about the medical use of the seeds; the name Nux vomica gives the game away. The vomiting nut. The seeds were used for purging to balance the humour.

The other main use of the seeds was to poison vermin, or people.

As far as I can tell, the only  establishment that grows it in England is the Chelsea Physic Garden. I will try to  photograph their plant later, but meanwhile I have decided to attempt to grow my own.

I bought the seeds online. I have no idea of how old they are or even if they are viable.


The seeds have a nipple

The seeds are easily identified, being flat with a distinctive a nipple in the centre.

Today I finally thought it was time to have a go. Having pondered my options,  I decided that I would treat the seeds  in a similar manner to Sweet {Peas.

I have first soaked them in water for a few hours.


The seeds were soaked in water

I then thinned the coating of the seed.

The seeds were put into a clear plastic bag with compost. I then tied the top of the bag to keep the compost moist.


The seeds were mixed with compost and put in a plastic bag

The bag has been placed in the dark.

I now have to wait – and hope.

Looking on the bright side; I have grown numerous avacado plants using a similar method.

Fingers crossed….

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Valentine’s Day

There is possibly more to Valentine’s Day than roses.

I have come to realise this as I continue to research for my book about poisonous plants.

Love brings out the best – and worse in people, and plants have always been there if you needed some help. You may need an aphrodisiac to help things to get moving.  The most famous magical plant of all is the mandrake, and that has been also recommended as an aphrodisiac and it was included in love potions, and yet again it will send you to sleep if you take too much; so maybe it could be counter-productive.

One method of harvesting mandrake root suggests its connection with love;

‘Thus it is  said,  that one should draw there circles round mandrake with a sword, and cut it with one’s face towards the west and at the cutting of the second piece one should dance around the plant and say as many things as possible about the mysteries of love’

My plant isn’t even above ground yet, so not a lot of use for this year.

Mandrake 2

Mandrake – Mandragore officinarum

The painting of Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli was thought to be fairly innocent until David Bellingham noticed that the devilish satyr at the bottom right has his left hand resting on the seed case of a Datura, usually known as Thorn Apple.  It may have initially have acted as a stimulant, but then has the usual effect of inducing sleep. Poor Venus does seem to have a rather fed up expression…


Venus and Mars. The National Gallery

Maybe Mars should have eaten some chervil; it was said to be good for sexual over indulgence and for revitalising sexual virility. Some early sources suggest that Bindweed has similar properties; a good excuse to get outside and to start weeding.

Mars may have also have found it helpful to take some Butchers’ Broom, Ruscus aculeatus, which was said to be good for ‘men’s problems’; pound the roots in water or the stems in vinegar- and presumably drink the mix as the herbal doesn’t say what to do with it.

During the Elizabethan period tomatoes were only recently introduced into England. Nobody was at all sure what to do with them, but they knew they were of the solanum family, many members of which are poisonous. Tomatoes became known as ‘Love Apples’, an aphrodisiac, and were not to be commonly grown for food until the late 1800’s.

If you wanted to be left in peace to a good night’s sleep, there were anti- aphrodisiacs available too. Pliny mentions the ‘Eunuch’s Lettuce’ named because of its potency in reducing ardour.

If the having indulged, you found you had the problem of an unwanted pregnancy, most herbals included plants that could induce abortions, one of the most commonly used being Juniperus sabina. Gin was known as ‘Mothers’ ruin’ for a good reason. The problem with the abortifacients that genuinely worked was that the remedies were all very poisonous, and thus it was a very risky enterprise to use them.


Birthwort – Astrologia clematitis

And your problems may not have been over, even if you married.

Strabo wrote that if you suspected your Mother-in-Law of trying to poison you with Aconitum, you should take horehound as an antidote. I suspect that this is one that he didn’t try himself, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.


Monkshood – Aconitum napellus

And on that cheerful note –


……. But you can’t leave without the public safety notice.

All of the above plants are poisonous. Do not use them for medicinal or any other uses.

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The Georgian Garden

The Georgian period was one of great advances in gardening, but also one of changing fashions and taste. The formality of the grand parterres in the French Style were soon to fall out of favour and be grubbed up as the English style of landscape gardens slowly evolved and then blossomed.


Parterres, similar to these as Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, were common in the gardens of the larger estates.


There had always been areas of wilderness in many of the formal gardens, although it was not as wild as we may expect it to be;  many of the pathways and ridings being cut in straight lines with the formally cut hedges cut to just above head-height lining the more informal planting within. Sometimes the lower growth of the trees was trimmed before being allowed to grow more naturally.


The wilderness at Ham House is a very formal design.

Some say that the ‘French style’ parterres were expensive to maintain, but having looked after small ones the maintenance is not such a problem – and acres of grass needs even more maintenance to look its best; even more so in the days before lawn mowers.

One major problem with scything a lawn to keep the grass short is that the mowing must be carried out when the grass is wet, either from dew or rain. Once the grass dries the scythe blade glides over the grass, rather than cutting it. This reduces the hours per day that the grass can be cut, especially in hot, dry weather. It also means that the men mowing the grass have to get up very early in the morning and cut as much as possible before the sun dries the grass.


At Berrington Court the grass goes right up to the house.

Another task was to roll the grass to keep it flat so that the scythe blades would not scuff raised parts. The rollers were usually made of wood or stone and depending on the size could be pulled by men or horses. One side effect of the regular use of rollers is the compaction of the top soil, reducing the speed of the grass growth, although this is not mentioned in the books of the period.

One small estate in Buckinghamshire had six scythes, three stone rollers with iron frames, one iron horse-roller and two large wooden horse-rollers. The man-power needed to maintain the large areas of grass was quite high.

Paths were often made of sand or fine gravel and made with a cambered profile over a hard-core base so that they would drain quickly. The paths would be dug up in late winter, when they were not being used very often, to remove weeds and to relay the surface. Worms were a problem as they leave casts of soil on the path surface, which encourages weeds to grow. Weeds were also controlled with hoes or by salting the gravel. Regular rolling of the paths compacted the surface, giving weeds little chance to germinate.

Most of the gardeners’ equipment was similar to that used today, although there were no secateurs for pruning and few digging forks. Many of the spades were made of wood with only a metal shoe to edge the blade. Most of the tools would be made by the estate blacksmith until factories became more common.

Regardless of whether the garden was formal or in the new landscape style, every estate needed a walled Garden to grow the fruit and vegetables needed by the family for the whole year. This required careful planning and a large labour force to not only grow, but to protect the crops.

Pest control could be simply driving the birds away with various noisy bird scaring tools, such as what most of us know as the Football Rattle – work for children and the apprentices.

There were also many poisons and ingenious traps to kill vermin and birds- if the birds, rats and mice eat the food, people cannot and food would have to be brought in from elsewhere. Early gardening books are as much about killing things as they are about growing plants.

People were also treated as pests. It was not only the internal walls of walled gardens that were trained with fruit trees, the external one were too. To deter children and adults from the temptation of scrumping the ripe fruit, mantraps were often set near the walls. The threat alone would probably have deterred most people.

William Cobbett, famous for his, Rural Rides, wrote a book about Gardening where he said it was better to plant hedges to stop people reaching the walls, ‘than ruining a man’s life by the use of traps.’


People were considered as much of a pest as animals.

Sadly, traps were cheaper than planting and maintaining hedges and the use of mantraps was not banned until 1827.

To grow the out-of-season early and late crops required heat and protection.

The making of Hot Beds was one of the most important tasks. Gardeners would barrow manure to the store areas next to the walled garden to keep it hot and then barrow it into the walled garden when it was needed it. They made large flat piles of hot dung by sifting the manure and straw with forks to open it. It was left for three or so days to get hot and then the pile was moved again by sifting once more with the forks. They checked the temperature for several days until and if it was not too hot they put soil over the pile and set the frames on it. For several days, the gardeners checked the temperature with their hands to make sure that it was not too hot, before eventually sowing their seeds.

If the weather was cold the frames were covered with straw mats to keep the plants warm.

Sometimes the dung was put into pits and the frames placed on top, which made looking after the frames much easier.

Hot beds were easier and cheaper than using stoves to heat the glass areas.


The hotbed was a frame set on a pile of manure. Later tanners bark was also used.

The fumes from the stoves would often kill the plants rather than preserve them.

John Evelyn designed a stove house that used a through- draught to keep the Stove House warm, but the prevented the air inside becoming stale.

Melons and cucumbers were grown in hot frames, but also later in the period, the much prized pineapples

Bell Jars, or cloches, from the French word for a bell, had been used since the late 1600’s cloches, the bell-like glass jars that were placed over individual plants to protect them from pests but that also kept them warm.

Life was not easy, nor very well paid for most gardeners. They would leave school at about eleven years old and become apprentices. The Worshipful Company of Gardeners had been granted their first Charter of Letters Patent in1605, with a second revised Charter was drawn up in 1616. The company suggested that apprentice gardeners should learn,

“The trade, crafte or misterie of gardening, planting, grafting, setting, sowing, cutting, arboring, rocking, mounting, covering, fencing and removing of plants, herbes, seedes, fruites, trees, stocks, setts, and of contryving the conveyances to the same belonging…”

After completion of a seven year apprenticeship the newly trained gardener could become a journeyman and leave his place of training to work in other gardens to widen his experience and knowledge. At about the age of 25 he would hope to become a foreman of an area within a large garden or the Under-Gardener to a Head Gardener, with the hope of eventually becoming a Head Gardener himself. The Head Gardener no longer worked physically in the garden himself, but supervised, managed and planned the crops.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown earned £26 a year plus some £6 expenses and was given one of the lodges as his home.

Apprentice and Journeyman gardeners lived in a bothy and were not allowed to marry if they wanted to carry on living in the bothy.

The bothy was often a dark, damp single storey building on the north side of the north wall, where not much would grow. They could employ an old woman, sometimes a widow, to tidy and cook for them- at their own expense, of course. Loudon, writing at a later date, suggested that she should be elderly and unattractive so as not to excite the young men.


The Bothy at Audley End.

After Lancelot Brown died the fashions in garden design began to change once more. People grew tired of the grass that grew to the base of the walls of the house. It may look lovely on a fine day, but it could look very depressing under a wet and grey English sky.

Humphry Repton began the task of pushing the grass away from the house and reintroducing terraces and balustrades.  He added themed gardens, such as the American Garden, the Rose Garden or the Chinese Garden.

It was more pleasant to sit on the terrace sipping tea and nibbling your dainty morsels surrounded by surrounded by brightly coloured or scented flowers; the more exotic the better, especially if they neighbours couldn’t grow them; and you could still view the Landscaped parkland beyond the balustrade.

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Being Lancelot Brown

2016 has been varied and busy for me thanks to it being Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s 300th anniversary. I have pretended to be Brown, I have been photographed with different images of Brown, given talks about his work and given displays on Georgian Gardening. I even went to Ireland to give a talk in Armagh, one up on Lancelot Brown, who refused to work in Ireland, having said, ‘I have yet to finish England.’

It has certainly been an interesting and eventful year.

Here are some of the highlights of my year as Mr Lancelot Brown.

The year began with a photo-shoot at the West Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate. The photo was to be taken with a landscape student who had won a competition to redesign part of the showground in the style of Brown. Unfortunately snow began to fall gently, and then a blizzard soon developed. The photos were all taken in the snow which was cold work but the results were certainly more dramatic.


Where on earth is that? Too much landscape detail lost in the snow.

The Spring show at Harrogate soon came round and I spent three days at the show as Mr Brown with my display of Georgian gardening and surveying equipment set up next to a temporary room , designed to look like a garden temple, although the cold temperatures meant that the glue wouldn’t set properly and parts fell off during the event. Inside the temple were information boards about Brown and his gardens in the north of England. I gave a talk every morning in the large Floral Marquee.

It was at Harrogate where I got to drink some ‘Incapability Brown Ale’ brewed by Great Newsome Brewery, and very tasty it was too, but best after work, not during.

Haddonstone, a company that is local to me in Northamptonshire, commissioned a bust of Brown, using the same painting that I based my clothing on. I met the bust again later in the year.


The Haddonstone bust of Brown









I went to Studley Park Royal Gardens, a landscape Garden that includes the genuine ruins of Fountains Abbey. I had the whole gardens to myself before  and after opening times. There was a very hard frost one morning which made the garden look magical.



A cold and frosty morning.

I spent two weekends at Blenheim Palace, where there was an excellent display that included many paintings that are not usually on show.12717611_1243376049010729_2750167390206429219_n-copy

They had a cardboard cut-out of Mr Brown made for the

Later I was back to Woodstock to give a talk at the Oxfordshire Museum’s ‘Tokens of Love’ display, my theme being ‘Sacred and Secular Love in the Medieval Garden’- it hasn’t been just Brown this year!



Compton Verney held a Georgian Weekend that followed the vote to leave Europe. I featured in the national evening news- scything into an unknown future, but my favourite part was collapsing into a comfy seat Sunday evening when we finished.


A relaxing way to finish the day. where’s the wine?


Chichele College at Higham Ferrers held a Plant Fair. As a part of Northamptonshire
Gardens Trust I helped to make a table top Brown landscape based on the  Knuckle Bone Arbour part of the gardens at Castle Ashby.

There was a scarecrow competition.

First place was taken by a certain Ginger Spice.

Capability Brown came last…


Northamptonshire Gardens Trust also invited school children and others who would not normally be able to see a Brown garden to Castle Ashby House. I organised one group of children into a team to pretend to scythe a lawn. Thank goodness it was only pretend or Northampton Hospital A and E would have been very over-worked.

Madingley Hall is one of Brown’s smaller gardens. I spent q very long day there. In the morning Richard the Head Gardener and I went to visit a local school to tell them about the hall gardens and Brown. We had an amazing reception. Later in eh afternoon the teacher brought us a pile of pictures drawn by the children.


Somehow I acquired a sword.

After lunch I displayed Georgian gardening and surveying equipment and helped visitors to understand the garden.

I spent three weekends in August at Wimpole Hall. I had a silhouette made, a  very Georgian thing to do.


The evening was spent at a reception and presentation my several other people and myself.


My most challenging event was to speak to some visiting Chinese students at one of the cambridge colleges. My presentation pictures had to be sent off to have the captions translated into chinese


Brand ‘Brown!’ 布朗 品牌效应!



In November I went to Armagh in Northern Ireland to give a talk at the Archbishop’s Palace. The talk was held in a lovely room with chandeliers and Christmas decorations.


They even bought me a birthday cake!

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On the Monday after my weekend in Ireland I was out again with Northamptonshire Gardens Trust to plant trees at the sites of all the people we had invited to Castle Ashby.img_0094-2


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Illegal Mandrake Collecting

I have just read about an online petition that has been set up by the RSPCA to ban the illegal use of dogs to harvest mandrake roots.  Mandrake, Madragora officinarum, has been harvested for millennia for its medicinal properties.

Mandrake 2


The problem is that the plant screams on being torn from the soil and anybody hearing the screams will die. EU Health and Safety Regulations now require all mandrake harvesters to be properly trained in order to gain a licence to collect the roots. They must also wear the correct protective clothing, including a special ear protector that is tested to above the usual regulatory limits.

An RSPCA spokesman said that although EU countries comply with the correct safety measures, because of the cost involved, illegal harvesters are using the traditional method of tying a starving dog to the plant, and then standing a safe distance away, waving a bowl of food at the dog. The hungry animal rushes towards the food, pulling up the plant as it does so and promptly dies.

Mandrake 1

A dog being used to pull a mandrake from the ground.

Protestors have complained of the cruelty involved, even before the dog is sacrificed in order to harvest he much prized root. Although the risks are great small fortunes have been made by the illegal harvesting of the roots.

Mandrake 3

A Mandrake Root

The EU are holding an emergency meeting to discuss this matter today.

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William Cowper- A critic of Lancelot Brown

Although we are celebrating Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown this year, he was not without his critics. One was the poet William Cowper who lived in Olney – famous for the Pancake Race- and later Weston Underwood, a short distance away.

Cowper is known for his love of the countryside, so you would expect him to enjoy an English Landscape Garden, not a formal one. Yet this is not the case. In a letter to Lady Hesketh he mentions the recent pruning of the Lime Avenue. This was part of the  park garden of the Throckmorton’s of Weston Underwood and ran from the outside of the Wilderness Garden towards the Alcove which Cowper would often visit on his walks.


The Alcove


28 July 1788. To Lady Hesketh.

‘We also, as you know, have scenes at Weston worthy of description, but because you know them so well, I will only say that one of them has, within these few days, been much improved; I mean the Lime Walk. By the help of the axe and the woodbill, which of late have been constantly employed in cutting out all straggling branches that intercepted the arch, Mr Throckmorton has now defined it with such exactness, that no cathedral in the world can show one of more magnificence or beauty. I bless myself that I live so near it; for were it distant several miles, it would be well worth while to visit it, merely as an object of taste; not to mention the refreshment of such a gloom both to the eyes and the spirits. And these are the things which our modern improvers of parks and pleasure grounds have displaced without mercy, because, forsooth, they are rectilinear! It is a wonder they do not quarrel with the sunbeams for the same reason.’



Some of the surviving trees from the Lime Walk.

Cowper is equally forthright in his poem, ‘The Task‘ where he calls Brown the ‘Omnipotent Magician’ who waves his wand to alter the courses of streams and causes valleys to rise. In this case, although he criticises Brown, he also is more intent on ridiculing the vanity of the owners of estates who squander their money and bankrupt themselves to follow the latest trends in gardens and for the sake of being at the height of fashion, they bankrupt themselves, and somebody else gets to enjoy the fruits of their spending.


Storer, who later wrote a book about Cowper’s walks around Olney, claimed that Weston Underwood Park had in fact been designed by Brown, but he was mistaking his Westons; Brown designed Weston in Shropshire. Weston Underwood seems to have been created by the Throckmorton’s themselves and even a cursory visit shows a landscape completely at odds  to brown’s design preferences.

I have been trying to discover more about the gardens at Weston Underwood, but there are very few records concerning the. One document is an agreement to build walls around the garden; the other is an agreement for iron railings to be made at Bedford, which were probably intended for Weston as the surviving pictures do show such railings in front of the house.




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A Valentine’s Day Rose


Rose BudWho Saint Valentine was is not at all certain. He may be a conglomeration of more than one saint, and although no churches in England are dedicated to him, his popularity is now virtually un-rivalled across the world.

Chaucer wrote in his, ‘Parlement of Foules‘ that the birds seek their mates on Valentine’s Day, which is not so erroneous if the weather is warmer than it usually is lately.

                         or this was on seynt Volantynys day

                        Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

As ever, it was the Victorians who were responsible for popularising and, as ever, profiting from the saint with their use of Valentine cards.

The Rose

Roses were sacred to many goddesses in ancient times, including Venus and Aphrodite. The Romans were very fond of roses and the wealthy would shower them from the ceilings at banquets; some reports say people suffocated under the petals. When they could no longer supply enough roses from Rome the petals were imported from Egypt.

The church was very aware of the rose’s association with profane love and initially the rose was frowned upon; but you can’t suppress flowers in the same way as you might books and creeds. The church, with its usual method of adopting pagan customs and then Christianising them, relented, and the rose came to take on Christian symbolism.

According to one medieval myth, roses were originally white. The story tells how the Crown of Thorns was in fact a rose briar with white flowers. As Christ bled, the petals were stained red with his blood. Red roses thus represent Christ and martyrdom. The white rose represents the purity of the Virgin Mary.

The rose bud may also represent Christ, or in the secular world, the object of the lovers affection and devotion; the lover of course, always being a man.

The monk may seek and praise Christ as the rosebud in the heavenly realms , whilst the courtly lover would search for her in a physical form, here on earth.

The most popular book during the medieval period was the ‘Romaunce of the Rose.’ The book was begun by Guillaume de Lorris c. 1230, and it is generally accepted that he failed to finish it. Jean de Meun completed the book c. 1275. Although written in French, educated knights would have had no problem reading the book. Later, when the 100 years’ war with France made it more politically correct to speak English, Chaucer made his own translation.

The story is set within a garden and tells of the trials and tribulations of the lover to achieve his heart’s desire – the rose bud.

Nowadays we are unlikely to chase our desire in a garden, as many people are glued to their various electronic devices. Ordering your roses online is very easy – and paying is even easier.

The sale of roses for mid-February is huge, with the price often trebling its usual level. No self-respecting lover will accept anything other than red roses.

The more cost-aware lover may well buy his roses considerably cheaper after February 14th, but I suspect the object of his affection would be most unlikely to appreciate his financial acumen.

The modern Valentine Day rose is usually in bud; for the manufacturer’s advantage not ours, as they are less likely to be damaged.

The recipient, meanwhile, can try as she may, but the rose buds rarely open, and even more rarely bear any scent.

How may well Shakespeare lament,

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’

when sadly, these roses do not smell at all.

Maybe today it is enough that you send a text and tag a heart to it. Not very romantic, but that is the modern world.

‘Amor vincit omnia,’

‘Love conquers all,’

as the bracelet of Chaucer’s prioress proclaimed.

Happy Valentine’s Day.



To see a fine collection of old Valentine’s cards, visit the Oxfordshire Mueum at Woodstock:

Where I shall giving my talk

‘A Garden Enclosed – Sacred and Secular Love in The Medieval Garden’

on March 5th 2016 at 2.30 pm.

See the museum web site for more details.


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