Highclere’s gardens lie to the south-east of the Castle. To reach them you walk along a curving gravel path past an old spreading cedar tree with a metal seat under it. Round the corner you see the charming flint and brick arches of the west wall of the Monk’s Garden. For the last 12 years the gardens have been a much-loved preoccupation for Geordie and myself. We have extended them considerably: developing the White Border begun by my parents-in-law; creating our Wood of Goodwill, the Six Sisters’ Walk and the Rose Arbor in memory of my mother; planting thousands of spring bulbs under my husband’s direction; and our latest project, a garden for Catherine, the 6th Countess.
In amongst this I also decided to create something for those either not wishing to walk so far or easier for those in wheelchairs. My inspiration was our forebears at Highclere who created gardens here in the 13th century. Thus I set out a rectangle herb garden within a beech hedge which is, thank goodness, at long last starting to grow. It takes the form of 4 reasonably sized triangles of box within which are herbs planted for their healing properties. At that time of course, herbs and plants were the only resource available to relieve pain, heal wounds or induce sleep. In fact there are some records from medieval times that show that monks tried to help battle scarred knights recover both in body and spirit by growing herbs for depression for example, something that we have only recently begun to acknowledge the need for again.
The research into what herbs can add to our lives is fascinating. I myself use herbs in cooking as well as tisanes and it is interesting to see how much greater interest there is in some of the old remedies these days. Discussing this with a friend working in a hospital in the Middle East, we came up with the idea of creating a healing garden, (a physic garden), there. It is a unique charity offering help in Jerusalem and Gaza. (www.stjohneyehospital.org) It seems very positive to swop and share knowledge and plans as they progress with landscaping and planting.
Some of the herbs I’ve planted at Highclere such as lavender (which helps promote sleep and rest), rosemary (which is uplifting) and garlic (antibacterial especially for the lungs) will be very familiar. Others may be less so, for example Angelica which, as the name suggests, has heavenly associations. Legend has it that it flowers on May 8th, the feast day of St Michael the Archangel. It was thought to offer protection against various diseases and today is used in essential oils whilst the seed is used as a cooking flavour. It is perhaps particularly appropriate for my herb garden as the original church here at Highclere was named for St Michael the Archangel. Other herbs grown here include Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) which when dried has a sweet smell of hay and honey hence its name. It has been used to scent linen and ward off moths. It was also valued as a sedative and to help varicose veins. In Germany the herb is steeped in wine and drunk to celebrate May Day each year.
We also have Lovage (Levisticum officinale). Traditionally an aphrodisiac, it was grown and used by Greeks and Romans as well as in medieval times. All parts of the plant can be used: the seeds chewed to aid digestion; infusions used to help urinary problems; whilst the leaves have antiseptic qualities. The leaves can be added to salads or soups. Another less usual herb is Bugle (Ajuga reptans) which has astringent properties. The leaves, whether fresh or dried, have been used to treat wounds, throat irritations and mouth ulcers.
The list could go on for some time but I have thoroughly enjoyed putting it together and hope that it will become a lasting legacy to the Castle.
(As ever this blog is to share stories and experiences so please do not consider any of the above as professional advice on any medical matter!)