LHM writes: A family holiday on the channel island of Jersey last week introduced me to a good number of new gardens, all enclosed, and dating from both the Middle Ages and more contemporary times. Jersey’s temperate climate is fully conducive to a lush vegetation, including plants such as Allium, which grow like weeds at the roadsides, roundabouts and hedgerows – as opposed to those in my own garden in west Wales which only decide to flower every few years (this year is a good year and I currently have eight magnificent flower-heads in the deepest purple-blue).
As well as the many civic gardens dotted around the island and looked after with great care, the country roads were also often resplendent with flowers, my favourite one forming narrow avenues of enormous hydrangeas in almost every variation of blue, violet, pink and red. Again, the combination of warm sunlight and adequate rainfall allow these to develop into huge, full-blown shrubs adorning the small country roadsides all over the island.
Jersey’s medieval history is everywhere attested: even its political status still rests firmly on its eleventh-century loyalty to the Anglo-Norman crown – and it has castles in plenty. In particular, Mont Orgueil Castle towering above the fishing village of Gorey in the east is an enormous structure built into the pink granite cliff and dating from the beginning of the thirteenth century, when the island needed defending after King John’s loss of control over Normandy.
Built as a series of concentric circular defensive walls, the castle has a history of impregnability and today offers itself up to the visitor as a complex maze of rooms, passageways, tunnels and sudden walled spaces bathed in warm sunlight.
A good number of these walled clearings were used as internal gardens during the medieval and early modern periods, and some have been given over to household herbs and other medicinal plants once more for the delight of the visitor.
Indeed, the curative nature of the herbs was emphasised by a giant, wooden reconstruction of the famous ‘Wound Man’ image in Wellcome Trust Library, MS 290, housed in an alcove just past the main gate of the castle.
Particularly prolific were the fennel plants, now going over slightly and filling the gardens with their instantly recognisable aniseed-like aroma as the gardeners cleared the drying stalks and piled them up on the cobbled paths joining each section of the castle. Elsewhere, outside the castle, the fennel grew wild near the cliff paths.
Another medieval building, this time a restored farm complex at the island’s centre, gave way to another partially walled garden outside the kitchen, full of a wide range of herbs and containing accessible labelling to point out the variety of uses.
There was also a run of fruit-laden espaliered pear-trees laid out systematically against the old medieval wall, demonstrating most clearly how productive and space-saving this form of trained fruit production can be. The only problem here is that, whenever I spot an espaliered tree such as this one, I cannot get out of my mind the sharply observed poem by Alice Walker, ‘A Woman is Not a Potted Plant’, a section of which goes like this:
a woman is not
a potted plant
against the fences
of her race
her trained blossom
turning this way
of whoever feeds
As if echoing these thoughts, an impressive cockerel – and one that could, and did, give even the lordly Chaunticleer a run for his money – rooted around bossily, surrounded by a group of hens, some with small chicks learning to grub around for food beneath their mothers’ feet. If any other cockerel came near, retribution was swift and noisy, with the rival being chased out into the open field beyond the garden.
But this place is an example of restoration at its best, including exactly the right amount of reconstruction/re-enactment to accentuate visualisation without significant intrusion (there was, for example, a very well-informed ‘goodwyf’ in the kitchen prepared to answer visitors’ questions and talk them through how food was processed, bread made, etc.) and the entrancing little garden with its family of fowl helped to bring that part of the medieval past ‘to life’ in strangely direct ways – in spite of, or because of, its espaliered pear-trees!
Later, we visited a fragrant lavender farm with an even more fragrant distillery shed where the oils were being extracted and processed. If this wasn’t spectacular enough, little prepared us for what we would find in the adjacent field: Reg’s garden! Entered via a small gap in the hedge, we found ourselves in an entrancing, quirky, horticultural otherplace of the owner’s own twenty-five years of making. Centrally, there was a constructed lake with a wide, ten-foot or so waterfall, surrounded by flowery walkways and winding paths; trees in full leaf and shrubs with swaying blossoms. Sculptures lay hidden in the undergrowth, ducks and chickens wandered at ease, glass-houses containing vintage toys and railways appeared from beyond the foliage; and, in one hedged area, a ‘fairy garden’ where mothers hung out in the sunshine with their children who were sometimes dressed up as fairy-tale characters too.
This otherworldly garden has been constructed from scratch by Reg, who wanders around taking pleasure in his visitors and chatting to them readily about the garden’s construction. Reg charges no entrance fees; the garden appears in no visitor’s guide; one is led to it merely by coming serendipitously across a sign at the far limit of the lavender farm saying ‘Welcome to Reg’s Garden’ with a red arrow pointing the way. And then in you go through the gap in the hedge to find this exceptional otherspace of plants, insects, birds, water, fish, the breeze rippling up the surface of the water, and children’s voices.
Utterly entrancing. Eat your heart out, Foucault! This is the heterotopia par excellence.
But, unfortunately, a week is not a long time on Jersey (especially in terms of gardens and medieval monument visiting). We failed to find time for a trip to the fourteen acres of landscaped gardens attached to the medieval Samarès Manor in St Clement’s parish. Whilst dating from the 1920s in terms of design, nevertheless these gardens and their ancient manor house provide me with sound reasons for returning to this lovely island next year.