This month I’ve been doing a bit more work on Gerald of Wales’ Itinerarium Kambriae [Journey through Wales], thinking in particular about the enclosed spaces within the landscapes he observes and occupies. Such a task, of course, necessitated, a day trip to the ‘fortified villa’ where Gerald was born in 1145/6: Manorbier Castle on the south Pembrokeshire coast some sixty miles north west along the coast from my home in Mumbles. I wanted to see for myself once again his home, his local church and the extraordinary landscape that prompted Gerald to write, ‘In all the broad lands of Wales, Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far.’ Having made the same journey in 1913, Virginia Woolf apparently thought the same, making her decision to become a writer on the beach below the castle ramparts – at least according to her diary. It’s tempting to speculate that the enclosed, sublime location, wrapped around by hills and the open sea, the neat, domestic ‘feel’ of the enclosing castle walls and, indeed, the small circular cell-like rooms set into the thirteenth-century castle turrets may have played some part in this decision.
Having hit upon the sunniest day of the early autumn to visit, I could see that Gerald certainly had a point, in spite of his disingenuous apology for a biased view-point: ‘this is where I myself was born,’ he explains. And, indeed, the castle has changed little in layout since the thirteenth century, when the earlier twelfth-century structure was rebuilt in stone, with a chapel and crypt added to the main hall in or around 1270. That chapel, along with its domed crypt, is still there today.
Whilst the entire castle interior has been transformed over the years into a large enclosed garden (it is still a privately owned castle and regularly occupied), and is almost entirely grassed over for the convenience of owners, tourists and wedding guests, it is also abundant with flowering herbs and insect-attracting plants (a monarch butterfly landed on my chair whilst I was drinking my coffee in the sunshine!). Nevertheless, it was a small, seemingly insignificant triangular architectural space between the chapel and the outside curtain wall that caught my attention. It is an area that was clearly created accidentally upon the addition of the chapel to the main hall (to the left of the photograph): the need for the chapel to be aligned east had created a small walled area with high walls on all three sides.
This space, however, had clearly been appropriated immediately formal, private use, since its only access is through a large doorway from the main hall. Its high west wall still carries the clear traces of a dove-cote (or shelter for pigeons), and the whole space is overlooked by one of the large windows of the main chamber in its north wall – giving a perfect view also towards the sea over the curtain wall (also pictured). Surely this awkward and potentially redundant space must have been used as a serendipitous walled garden with its aromas, buzzing insects and cooing doves adding to the pleasures of a domestic residence so eulogized by Gerald. The likelihood of this was certainly strengthened by that fact that the stones, responding to the all-day sunshine in that confined location, radiated so much heat that they were physically hot to the touch. As such, this walled garden would have provided an ideal environment for the production and protection of its delicate plants – a type of thermally insulated greenhouse, but made of stone rather than the transparent glass with which we have become familiar.