The beginning of our records state that for some 800 years, the Bishops of Winchester owned Highclere. Lacking today’s supermarkets and grocers, the gardens played a vital role in daily life. Fruit, vegetables and herbs were grown close to the buildings whilst further afield, pastures provided fodder for sheep, cattle and horses, while crops such as oats were farmed on the arable land on the surrounding hills, much as we do today.
Later, during medieval times, the walled garden was built on a south facing slope to the south east of where the Castle stands today. The tall walls kept the wind out and the bricks retained warmth far better than stone. Records testify to the different types of pear and apple trees grown within its walled protection plus a description of a “frost gate” opening out at the bottom into an area of old woodland. This carefully chosen aspect meant that more tender plants could be grown, warmth rising back up the slope, whilst the ‘frost gate’ in the bottom wall allowed (and still allows) the cold air to escape.
It may also have served as the location for the physic garden. Such a garden was central to every medieval infirmary and it would be unlikely for a community such a Highclere not to have had one. Sage, hyssop, rue, chamomile, dill, comfrey and cumin … All typical plants for such gardens and ones that are easy to grow on the chalk and alkaline soils found here. It is interesting to see how many of these were used for digestive complaints. I remember reading somewhere that it was not uncommon for medieval soldiers returning from battle, mentally shattered by all they had seen, to be offered work in monastic gardens and given herbs to encourage them to sleep. Nothing much changes in the turmoil of today …
In fact, even earlier, the Ebers Papyrus from ancient Egypt c.1500 BC recorded over 850 plant medicines, including fennel and linseed which we still grow here, plus notes on treatments for trauma. Indeed Tutankhamun was buried with garlic and onions to help his respiratory system and digestion in the next life.
Walking through the old walled garden today you can still see ancient foundations, the shadow of unused doors, coping stones which just extend out above the crab apples, figs and vines trained up the faded brick walls. Long beds of lavender grow in abundance, whilst mulberry trees and quince stand amidst green grass. Today, we have also planted roses and other flowers for scent and beauty which perhaps also aid health by encouraging us to smile and feel happy.
The Monks’ Garden, however, is a little distant from today’s Castle, down an incline and along a gravel path. Reflecting on the history of herbs grown here we have, in recent years, created a new, symmetrically planted herb garden within a beech hedge near the Castle tearooms. In the middle is a modern sundial on which is inscribed:
‘Omnia tempus habent et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo”
From Ecclesiastes it translates as “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven”.
Philip has worked in the gardens at Highclere for over twenty-five years and in particular he helps me look after this area, planting a traditional selection of herbs, all of which I very much enjoy using today. There is plenty of sage because, apparently, if you grow plenty of sage, you will never grow old. We also have sweet woodruff to deter moths, sorrel which aids digestion and liver problems, lavender for sleep, rosemary to promote energy and fennel and chamomile for teas.
This is not just old fashioned “sage” advice: plants form the basis of around a quarter of all modern western medicines. All must be treated with caution as different parts of the plant may be toxic if used improperly. For example, daffodil bulbs are highly poisonous, yet one chemical within it, galantamine is now licensed for use to help Alzheimers.
Mahatma Gandhi said “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” Most of us have the space for a few pots of herbs at least.