Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden

Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden

by Katherine Swift

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An exquisitely written book about one particular English garden—and about the arc of life.

Nobody writes about gardens like the English. And few English writers have ever been as eloquent or astute as Katherine Swift. Some twenty years ago, she and her husband leased a house in the town of Shropshire with a garden that became her


An exquisitely written book about one particular English garden—and about the arc of life.

Nobody writes about gardens like the English. And few English writers have ever been as eloquent or astute as Katherine Swift. Some twenty years ago, she and her husband leased a house in the town of Shropshire with a garden that became her passion. Driven to uncover its history, she takes readers on a journey back through time, linking the stories of those who lived in the house and tended the same red soil with her family's own saga. Spanning hundreds of years, The Morville Hours is also deeply personal—a journey through the seasons and also one of self-exploration, of finding one's place in the world and putting down roots.

With each chapter bringing to life an hour of the day or night—from the crunch of grass underfoot at midnight on a frosty New Year's Eve to the bloom of blue-black damsons picked on a golden September afternoon—Swift pulls us into her world and, at the same time, expands and illuminates our own. For anyone with a passion for gardens and gardening, The Morville Hours will be unforgettable.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Swift, a former London Times gardening columnist, invites readers to slow down, taste the fresh fruit and sniff the blooming flowers. Entwining gardening with natural and local history, family memories, garden visitors like insects, animals and people, and religious traditions, Swift explores the cycles of the seasons and life while providing a fresh breath of country air. Was quince responsible for the Trojan War as well as Adam and Eve's fall from Paradise? Garden tidbits, such as pear trees living for 250 years and damson plums having provided the dye for British military uniforms, are abundant. But more so, Swift offers an exploration of the world as seen through the eyes of a longtime gardener. The months in the garden are explored alongside the medieval Catholic book of hours; days and seasons cycle with Swift's narratives of garden design, Roman history, astronomy and brain chemistry. Swift's meditative prose should appeal to gardeners (armchair or soil-based) and nature lovers alike with its invitation to pause for reflection. (May)

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Library Journal

In 1988, the author and her husband obtained a 20-year lease at Dower House, Morville, Shropshire, England, from the National Trust and with their permission set about creating a garden. Despite the subtitle, her book is about neither the garden nor the task of gardening; it is a collection of thoughts and passages on various subjects, from hay making and sheep shearing to church history and astronomy. The chapters are titled by the hours of the Divine Office, the daily routine of worship practiced by the monks. Like the medieval Book of Hours, Swift takes her readers through the seasons of her garden year, exploring the histories of the families who once lived there as well as occasional muses of her own personal autobiography. Eloquently written but hard to categorize, the book may appeal more to history enthusiasts rather than gardeners. Recommended for public libraries.
—Phillip Oliver

Product Details

Walker & Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Katherine Swift
Walker & Company
Copyright © 2008

Katherine Swift
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1753-5

Chapter One I Come to Morville

Some people watch birds. I watch clouds. Sometimes it's the same thing, as when the buzzards soar on a rising thermal above the garden, or the swifts and house martins chase highflying gnats on a summer's day. But mostly it's just clouds I watch: the hard edge of a retreating cumulonimbus, the thin veil of cirrostratus as a warm front comes in, the halo of rainbow-coloured ice crystals around the moon in a mackerel sky. In winter the clouds run down from the north and the east, from the open land beyond the garden; in spring they come bowling up the valley from the south-west, their shadows scudding across the hillside, the fields darkening and brightening with their passage.

I came here to make a garden. In the red earth I find fragments of blue-and-white willow-pattern china, white marble floor-tiles, rusted iron nails. A litter of broken clay pipes in the flower-beds, their air holes stopped with soil. Opaque slivers of medieval glass, blue as snowmelt. Flat wedges of earthenware dishes with notched rims and looping patterns of cream and brown. Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window? Did they stand as I stand now, watching the clouds on the hillside?

Angles and Romans, Cornovii and Normans, monks and soldiers, herdsmen and farmers; millwrights, iron-founders, carpet-makers and railwaymen, they came this way too - following the valley, up from the river, looking for land, iron, work, a home, the hillside brightening and darkening with their ebb and flow. Only the land remains, and the land remembers - in crop mark and hollow way, ridge and furrow, bell pit and Roman road, turnpike and stew pond.

I first came to Morville in the dark; felt, rather than saw, that same high horizon and that round bowl of land. Driving down from the Holyhead ferry in a winter dusk, I made a detour off the old A5 south of Shrewsbury. Night had fallen before I reached Morville. The hairpin bend at the turn to Ludlow was as sharp as it appeared on the map, and there, by the light of the headlamps, were the gate piers to the Hall. I left the car at the end of the drive and walked down the avenue to the house, my feet feeling for the road in the blackness. Emerging from the trees I was conscious of open space curving away from me, and of the dark bulk of the Hall beyond. I kept my distance, half-embarrassed, half-unwilling to be seduced by this new place. I stood, instead, looking across the lawn at the illuminated windows on the first floor, at the light streaming from the narrow embrasures of the turret stair. I could see two pavilions, one on either side, joined to the main house by high curving walls. In the light from the windows, the outline of cupolas was just visible, with a glint of filigree ironwork from the weathervanes above. To the right, the untenanted Dower House; dark, its windows yielding nothing. To the left, a high wooded horizon, black against the first stars. Water rushed somewhere below. And then, high up, behind me, a clock struck the three-quarters - two bells combined in a musical phrase of two notes, one high and one low, repeated three times - their softly muffled sound drifting out into the darkened valley. A church! I had not expected that.

I was at that time working in Dublin as Keeper of Early Printed Books in the library of Trinity College, and commuting back and forth from Oxford. My husband had a bookshop in Oxford, and he was still living there. Morville was his plan to lure me home. He used to meet me from the plane at Heathrow every Friday night with a wallet of photographs of all the houses he had been to see in the previous week - diminutive Georgian manor houses we couldn't afford; gaunt brick ruins with walled gardens filled with nettles; sagging timber-framed palaces. They haunt me still, the ones that got away; like parallel universes, the alternative lives I might have led. In Lincolnshire, Cumbria, North Devon, Wales, Yorkshire - anywhere where land and houses were (at that time) relatively cheap.

And then he found Morville. Shropshire had always shimmered on the periphery of my vision: Housman's A Shropshire Lad was an anthem of my childhood, a copy always in the house (though it was not until later that I understood why). Ludlow and Clee were familiar names, though as yet unvisited; Wrekin and Wenlock Edge were tinged with longing and regrets, though not mine. My father bought me books every Christmas and birthday. When I was twelve he gave me the poems of Mary Webb. I learned them by heart. We were in the hills of heaven But yesterday! All was so changeless, quiet, fair, All swam so deep in golden air; White-tapered chestnuts, seven by seven, Went down the shady valleys there ...

'I think this is the one,' said my husband.

We agreed to take the Dower House on a twenty-year lease, but I had yet to see it, except in photographs. I was reluctant to leave Dublin and my job and friends there, and I was unsettled by the impermanence of a lease. But as I stood in the darkness that night and listened to the bells dying away and the sound of the stream welling up into the silence, everything suddenly seemed possible. We moved to Morville August 1988, with two removal vans of books, three cats and two carloads of plants.

The sound of the church clock became the regular accompaniment to my daily labours in the garden. It provided a sort of basso continuo to life at Morville, so quiet that the fog across the Church Meadow could stifle it, or the north wind blow its notes away into the trees. In the warm wet violet-smelling air of April, a gusting south-westerly would bring the notes in breaths and snatches. One heard it best in summer dawns before the drone of road or field; or on winter evenings when Orion burned coldly above and the congregation made its way over the potholed road towards the lights of the church; or in the watches of the night, when the clock numbered the long sleepless hours till dawn. For much of the year, I could see the clock from the garden, glinting gold on the north face of the church tower. I would watch the interplay of light and shadow, perpendicular and horizontal, plane and angle - tower, nave, chancel, aisle - as the sun made its daily revolution around the church. In high summer the tower was hidden in the green leafiness of the trees, and that was when the clock would chime clearest of all, the sound vaulting over the empty air in the valley bottom where the sleek brown mill-race ran, springing up into the bright wooded air beyond, and echoing back from the high horizon.

One day I climbed the tower with the clockwinder to look at it, clambering hand over hand up a zigzag of wooden ladders inside the dim void of the tower to a platform halfway up where a confection of shining brass cogs gleamed in a cupboard in the dust-smelling darkness. Vast counterweights on chains disappeared into the gloom below. Hawsers ran up the rough surface of the stone walls above and disappeared into the floors overhead, linking the clock's mechanism to the dial and to the bells on which it struck the hours - a Victorian mechanism attached to eighteenth-century bells in a Norman church - the counterweights rising back up the tower like buckets from a well, like water brought up slopping from the past. The church was built in the early twelfth century by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury, twenty miles away. Then in 1138 the Abbot of Shrewsbury received permission from the Bishop of Hereford to appropriate the church into a new daughter house, a priory he wished to build at Morville, to be headed by a Prior drawn from the senior monks of the Abbey.

The names of the priors of Morville survive - four Johns, two Williams, two Richards and a Walter - scattered here and there in miscellaneous documents over the succeeding four centuries. There are many gaps. Where a name is recorded, it is more often than not because of some misdeed or inadequacy. The Priory seems to have begun in a grand enough way: in about 1168 additions were made to the church which included an extended chancel capable of accommodating two dozen or more. But in later years the size of the community seems to have shrunk to just two or three. It cannot ever have been a rich living. In 1253 Prior John Wallensis (John 'the Welshman') was charged with receiving part of a deer poached from the royal forest. In 1290, when the Bishop of Hereford visited Morville with his retinue, the Prior managed to provide fodder for the thirty-five horses, but the Bishop had to provide the greatest part of the food for his men himself.

For four hundred years the monks worked the land around the village: the flat land near the church, the heavy land down by the stream, the sloping side of the hill, the stony ground where my neighbours and I garden. Then came the Reformation. The Priory was dissolved, the monks ejected and the land bought by the local merchant who built the big house here. Of the Priory buildings now there is no trace. Even the site itself is now in doubt: perhaps it lay beside the church, to the north, where the remains of buildings still show themselves as parch marks during drought; perhaps to the west, underneath what is now Morville Hall; perhaps at the crossroads, on the high ground where the road to Ludlow meets the road from Shrewsbury, sliced through now by modern roadworks. Only the church still stands, with its eighteenth-century bells and its Victorian clock striking the hours.

The word 'clock' comes from the Middle English clok, the bell that called monks to prayer. And as I stood in the garden in those early years listening to the church clock striking the hours, it recalled for me the Hours of the Divine Office, that ancient system of worship followed by the monks who once worked this ground under the Rule of St Benedict, with its discipline of physical labour in all weathers, tempered with the injunction to study. It recalled the rhythm of a day which began with Vigils and Lauds, then Prime, Terce, Sext and None, Vespers and Compline, the bells raising the monks before dawn, guiding them through the day in measured steps of work, study and prayer, and delivering them safely back into the night once more. It also recalled for me a half-forgotten time in my childhood when I too had been part of that world. My mother had converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1950s and, increasingly drawn by the monastic life, she had become what is known as a secular tertiary, a member of the Third Order of St Dominic. (The first order consisted of monks, the second of nuns, and the third of laypeople, one of several such institutions founded in the thirteenth century in response to a surge in popular religious feeling.) A tertiary commits him- or herself to the Rule of the Order, as far as that is compatible with life in the world, and to the recitation of the Hours of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, the shorter version of the Divine Office devised for the use of laypeople, at the appointed times each day. My mother used to take me on retreats to Dominican abbeys, and while she was at her prayers, I - a child of eight or nine - would roam about the grounds or help the lay brother in charge of the gardens as he weeded the paths or dug the vegetable patch.

Among the books I brought with me to Morville was my mother's Dominican prayer book, containing a modern text of the Hours. Slim, black-leather-bound and discrete, almost devoid of illustration or decoration, it was a far cry from the gorgeousness of the medieval Books of Hours. I went to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to look at some of them. Tiny, of a size made to be held in the hand or carried in a pocket, they opened like small dark jewel boxes to reveal a kaleidoscope of colour - lapis lazuli and turnsole violet, verdigris and vermilion, orpiment and cinnabar. Whole processions of saints filed by as I turned the pages, each with his or her identifying object - St Peter and his church, St Catherine and her wheel, St Cecilia playing the organ - the richness of their robes set off by the plump gold-leaf cushions of their haloes. There were complete cycles of images of the Passion of Christ or the life of the Blessed Virgin, each gilded page more splendid than the one before, bordered with curling tendrils of foliage or a scattering of trompe-l'oeil flowers rising from the page as if newly picked. Books of Hours like these are among the treasures of Western art.

As I followed the familiar words in the unfamiliar script, each letter as narrow and pointed as a Gothic arch, I was decoding the sources of my mother's spirituality, rediscovering something which for me as a child had been a daily reality. Books of Hours now are studied in minute detail, the chain of their ownership traced, the location of the workshops tracked down, the artists identified, their handiwork exhibited in art galleries and printed catalogues. But I was less interested in the iconography of the saints, in the delicacy or psychological realism of the paintings, than in the words themselves, and in the half-remembered music they conjured up: the haunting cadences of the Gregorian chant, at least as old as the Hours themselves. I found, as I read, that I could still sing the Latin text of whole prayers and hymns - learned fifty years ago and buried in the back of my memory - Glorias and Credos and Salve Reginas; Kyries, Sanctuses and the Dies irae.

And there was something else too, something which in those days when I was first beginning the garden, and would stand, spade in hand, listening to the church clock striking the hours, had for me even greater resonance: the calendars that prefaced the Books of Hours, with their illustrations of the horticultural and agricultural tasks appropriate for each month; their tables of saints' days and holy days, Simple and Double, Semi-Double and Greater Double, Doubles of the Second Class and Doubles of the First Class - the 'red-letter days' of joyful celebration - picked out in red ink; their columns of Dominical Letters and Golden Numbers for calculating Sundays and the date of Easter; their days marked 'D' for the dies Aegyptiaci or dies mali - the bad-luck days (from which our word 'dismal' comes), when anything begun would come to naught and seed would shrivel in the furrow; their dual system of dates - Arabic figures and Roman numerals, the one counting by tens, the other by ides, nones and kalends (the source of the word 'calendar'); and their ancient Babylonian signs of the zodiac tracing the sun in its annual progress across the sky, each governing not only a segment of the heavens but a part of the human body, dictating what medical treatment might or might not be appropriate that month. The calendars made up a cycle of multiple resonances, spiritual and secular, terrestrial and sidereal, liturgical and agricultural, pagan and Christian, breathtaking in its richness and antiquity and in the geographical spread of its references, but also grounded in the here and now, in the everyday.

In the world of the Books of Hours, tiny emblematic figures dig, prune, sow, chop wood, mow grass, reap grain, tread grapes, each in their allotted month. There are animals being fed, tended, led to market, slaughtered, consumed. There is an interlude in April and May for picking flowers, courting, making music. Another at Christmas for feasting. In a world of electric light and central heating, where one month is much like another and vegetables are flown in daily from Kenya and Spain, this all seems like an echo from a vanished world. Nowadays, adrift in an affectless no-man's-land, we are cut off not only from the hopes and fears, the triumphs and despairs of the agricultural year, but from the shared emotions of the great story which plays itself out month by month in the liturgical year. The twenty-first century is fighting a losing battle to keep its calendar. Gardeners of course have never lost it.

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.'


Excerpted from THE MORVILLE HOURS by Katherine Swift Copyright © 2008 by Katherine Swift. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Katherine Swift lives at the Dower House, Morville Hall, Shropshire, England. She worked as a rare-book librarian in Oxford and Dublin before becoming a full-time gardener and writer in 1988. She was for four years the gardening columnist of the Times.

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