So it was that the Hours came to mirror my life in the garden – not only the calendar illustrations with their regular round of tasks, but also the feasts and the fasts, the highs and the lows, the red-letter days and the dies mali: from the crunch of grass underfoot at midnight on a frosty New Year’s Eve, to the drip of trees in a melancholy March dawn; from a perfumed May Day morning when the whole world seems sixteen again; to the enervating heat of a midsummer noon; from the bloom of blue-black damsons picked on a golden September afternoon, to the smell of holly and ivy cut in the dusk of a rainy Christmas Eve. Senses seemed keener in relation to the Hours, with their lesson of attentiveness. Theirs was a world where time was accounted for, each second precious: instead of hearing, one listened; instead of seeing, one looked; instead of tasting, one savoured; instead of touching, one felt. ‘Listen,’ said St Benedict, ‘listen with the ear of your heart.’
This is the story of a garden & of the woman who created it. Katherine Swift was a librarian in Dublin when her husband tempted her back to England with the opportunity of leasing the Dower House near Morville Hall in Shropshire & creating a garden from nothing. The Morville Hours is the story of how the garden was created. It’s structured like a medieval Book of Hours, with the liturgical hours of Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers & Compline acting as a guide, not to one day in the life of the garden but to the gardening year. This is a lovely conceit because it allows Swift to use the many beautiful Books of Hours created for royalty & noble families in the Middle Ages as a guide to the garden. Each month would have its tasks from Keeping Warm and Chopping Wood in February to Picking Flowers and Greenery in April & Mowing in June through to Slaughtering Beasts, Roasting Meat and Baking Pies in November & December.
I especially enjoyed the history in this book. Swift takes us back to the glaciers that first formed the soil & mountains of Shropshire & gradually moves forward to the first garden on the site in the time of the Priory through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s & the last Prior, Richard. The Priory & its contents were stripped & sold off. The land was sold to Roger Smyth of Bridgnorth, the first in a long line of secular owners down to the present day when the Hall & Dower House are now owned by the National Trust.
I’m not much of a gardener but I could certainly enjoy & identify with Swift’s struggle to create the garden. The madly ambitious plans that had to be passed by the National Trust, the urge to buy too many bulbs & then the rush to get them planted in time. The delight in researching & discovering plants that have a connection with the house. Swift decided to create several gardens at the Dower House, each one reflecting a period of its history. So, there’s the Cloister Garden as the monks would have known it; the Knot Garden of the 16th & 17th centuries, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden with its Apple Tunnel & Victorian Rose Border.
The Morville Hours is also about living in a community. Swift tells the stories of her neighbours & friends as they help her with advice, labour & plants. It’s also a very personal story which tells of the lives of her parents & her own childhood. I felt a real sadness in these sections. She doesn’t seem to have been a particularly happy child & her parents seem to have been disappointed people in some way. The family moved house many times but Katherine’s father always planted trees, created a garden. When he is old & ill, she creates a garden for him in his last home, partly because she wants to do it for him but partly because she is good at it. He accuses her of pride & she says she does it out of love but she knows that they’re both right. Swift’s relationship with her parents & brother seems to have been quite distant for much of her adult life but at the end of her parents’ lives, they reconnected.
There’s a real sense of melancholy in this book. Swift’s favourite season is winter when the garden is dormant, sleeping, quiet. The stories she tells of the history of the Priory & the sometimes tragic lives of the subsequent owners are fascinating but full of the melancholy nostalgia for a past that is long gone. Maybe it’s her sensibility but that’s how it seemed to me. I enjoyed reading The Morville Hours, I like wintry melancholy, but I found myself turning from it to something lighter & more frivolous every now and then. The weight of sadness & melancholy was too much. Katherine Swift’s creation of a garden that would honour & remember all those who had gone before her is a tribute to Morville’s past & her determination to create a beautiful garden as a living memorial.