The Morville Hours – Katherine Swift

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.

10 thoughts on “The Morville Hours – Katherine Swift

  1. As a gardener, Rose, I think you'll really enjoy it. She's also written The Morville Year which I think is more about the garden. The cover is gorgeous, isn't it? There are lovely line drawings in the text as well.

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  2. I have stood in shops with this book in my hand so often, and I always put it back on the shelf because I wonder if it would be for me as I am so very much not a gardener (however much I wish I were). But your post ahs convinced me that I was wrong and that I really *should* pick it up next time I see it.

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  3. I've been lucky enough to visit the garden and it is amazing, not just the garden but the nearby village and church and the big hall next to the dower house where the author lives – she was on hand serving teas in the courtyard. I loved reading the Morville Hours but agree on the sometimes overwhelming melancholy in her writing and also the sheer beauty of her descriptions of the surrounding landscape and her complete understanding of its history and its people. I found the Morville Year in a sale at the local garden centre and dip into it occasionally:)

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  4. How wonderful to have visited the garden, you are indeed lucky! The history was my favourite part of the book, especially the evocation of monastic life & following the seasons as we don't do anymore.

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  5. I remember thinking I might read this when it first came out, having been born and brought up not a million miles away from Morville and having passed through the village many times, but in fact I've only just read it, having recently found a copy in a second-hand shop. I must say I totally agree with you about the melancholy tone – it doesn't distract from what is in my opinion a beautifully evocative work, but like you, I found myself needing occasionally to read something lighter, but isn't it marvellous that a piece of writing can have such an impact on our emotions. I'm not often near Morville these days, but I'll never drive past again without thinking about all she describes here.

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  6. I still have the Morville Year sitting on the tbr shelves & realising that it's been a year since I read TMH makes me think I should read it sooner rather than later. The melancholy tone was so evident & I was reading it in winter which probably made it seem even more so but I did enjoy it.

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  7. Melancholy SUITS gardens! And I found this book irresistible – I pick it up and put it down, I relish some of her richer descriptions, dog ear pages and come back to roll them around in my head again and again. So if the sad bits get you down, don't read them. This is a book that can be consumed in pieces.

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