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The Morville Hours
by Katherine Swift

This beautiful, heartfelt, classic work of garden writing is poised just at the point where the muddy business of gardening becomes something more spiritual and meaningful. It captures perfectly that elusive depth of feeling we all experience when we’ve got our hands in the soil. It is the kind of book I would like, one day, to aspire to when I write the story of my own garden.

It’s essentially a love letter from Katherine Swift to her 1.5 acre garden at the Dower House at Morville Hall, an Elizabethan manor house owned by the National Trust in Shropshire.

Katherine – a garden historian – designed the garden to tell the history of British gardening through a series of rooms, each designed in a particular historical style. It’s open to the public, so you can go see for yourself.

The book, published in 2008, tells the story of the making of this garden, from the moment Katherine first arrived there – somewhat unwillingly, since she describes the garden as her husband’s ‘plan to lure me home’, with great reluctance, from Dublin where she was then working looking after Trinity College’s collection of rare and ancient books.

But what lifts this book above just another story of how a garden was made is the fact that – like so many of the best gardeners – Katherine is a dreamer, and an uncurable romantic. Just take this paragraph, from the first page of the book.

‘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?

It is beautiful writing: and she has a knack of making you see things in a new light. I’ve never looked at the junk I’ve pulled out of my garden in quite the same way since reading that paragraph: last week I dug up an old iron hook, hand-forged and rusted but still strong as an ox, and have been wondering about the Somerset blacksmith who made it – and the farmer who left it there – ever since.

She’s also a wonderfully inspiring historian, seamlessly weaving historical facts and stories from hundreds of years ago with mysteries and ancient lore through the text, meandering down sidetracks every few sentences until you’ve forgotten where it was you started. The book itself is modelled on the Book of Hours: a guide for mediaeval monks laying out the seven Day Hours and Vigils, the Night Office (aka Matins): a strict code to follow, but within which she finds plenty of room to wander well off the beaten track.

This means that one minute she’s talking about thawing the garden stopcocks, the next she’s wondering whether a figurine in the local museum – thought to be a votive offering to a natural spring and found at nearby Wenlock Priory – is a Gaulish sacred relic or a Romanesque carving. And that leads on to a short history of milling and the Industrial Revolution in Shropshire: for a book about a garden, this is one with the widest possible remit.

A deep feeling of place pervades the text and you fall in love with Much Wenlock and the Shropshire Hills along with the author as she delves further into its people and its history.
It’s also full of delightful vignettes: take Lady L (for Labouchere), nearly 80 and in failing health.
‘There was lunch at one and tea at four, hot-cross buns at Easter and steam whistles from across the park on Bank Holiday weekends – the sound of the Severn Valley Railway on the other side of the river. The big old sitting-room was piled with books, papers, letters, photographs, Country Lifes and Christie’s sale catalogues, half-finished embroideries and just-begun watercolours.’
She goes on to mention that Lady L is related to the pioneer women photographers Lady Charlotte and Lady Lucy Bridgeman, known to their descendants as ‘the burnt aunts’ because they died together in 1858 when their crinolines caught fire.

It’s a finely-observed, sharply intelligent, sensitive book, quite unlike any other I’ve read. Apparently there’s a successor now: after The Morville Hours was serialised on Radio 4, people woke up to the fact that Katherine had been quietly contributing gardening columns for The Times for four years. ‘The Morville Year’ is a collection of those columns, published this time last year. She’s also currently working on a third book. But this is the one they’ll all have to measure up to: and I can’t think they’ll find that easy at all.