Weekend Wandering: In the footsteps of Shakespeare
I spent a fascinating day in Stratford-upon-Avon this week courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust where we were shown the early results of a massive project to revamp the 5 properties under their care. Here we're looking into the garden at New Place, the choice property in the centre of Stratford where Shakespeare lived for the last 19 years of his life and wrote many of his plays.
Sadly New Place is no more, so the project team took the opportunity to find archaeological evidence to inform a contemporary re-imagination of the property and gardens. Here we're standing on part of the house's footprint, looking towards the gardens, with the first lines of Shakespeare's sonnets at our feet, plus a modern garden to the side and artwork revealing aspects of Shakespeare's life and times.
He's keen to introduce more individuality across the gardens, to create more of a sense of place for each property, aided by the use of a wider variety of plants. He has a team of 9 gardeners - including an apprentice - plus around 12 volunteers to help achieve his vision.
The photo above shows the newly restored knot garden, which lies behind the contemporary entrance area. It's in keeping with the original design by Ernest Law, who was an expert in garden history and a trustee around 100 years ago. His knot garden was based on an illustration from 1577, so was in keeping with Shakespeare's time.
An upright Euonymus 'Green Rocket' replaces box in the design to avoid issues with blight. We had a lively discussion over whether the tulips are 'Queen of Night' as bought by Glyn as some of my fellow visitors thought they were too tall.
The circle you see in the middle is an enlarged replica of a signet ring found close by, which probably was Shakespeare's. The letters are deliberately back to front, as the ring also served as a seal.
Then we were led into the Great Garden, where I had a sense of déjà vu. At first, I thought I'd been in a similar garden in Stratford with choir, then Glyn soon confirmed I was indeed in the same place as before, much to everyone's amusement. This garden was also designed by Ernest Law, with input from the redoubtable Ellen Willmott. The plan here is to introduce more seasonality into the garden, and a 'rewilding' of the wild bank, with a probable reshaping of the yews into straighter lines. The latter was met with horror by some of us as we liked the organic shapes!
Standing in this garden I realised we'd been guided through a burgage plot like the ones I saw at Helmsley last year. What I didn't know then was the cooking part of the kitchen was usually placed away from the main house because of the danger of it setting fire to the property. In the case of New Place, the archaeological investigation shows it was sited at the entrance of the Great Garden.
We then moved a couple of miles from New Place to Anne Hathaway's cottage. This garden will be redeveloped along romantic lines as it's where Shakespeare wooed Anne. The roadside approach to the cottage will be rerouted as too much is given away to visitors on the way in to the car park.
Most of us liked the colourful tulips after their shower of rain and hail, but Glyn told us they'll be replanted with a more subtle combination, and the Spanish bluebells will also go along with the more thuglike plants to allow for a wider variety of planting.
At the top of the photo you can just see the start of a small vegetable garden, and I was delighted to hear there is a connection with nearby Wellesbourne (they helped me with my A Level biology project and confirmed it was an innovative study), who are advising on the agricultural varieties grown at the time of Shakespeare.
At the orchard's entrance stands this wonderful quince tree which puts my pot grown one to shame. When the opportunity arises local varieties of apples and other top fruit will be added to this area.
Rescued hedgehogs have been set free at the cottage as part of the Hedgehog Friendly Town project led by three girls. We were shown one of the hedgehog hotels in the orchard, and how their food is hidden. They're earning their keep as the slug population has gone down noticeably.
Over time the wider property will be developed at the cottage to encourage visitors to explore the site further. I asked why most of the gardens are using the Edwardian schemes as their basis seeing the story is about Shakespeare. Glyn explained that replicating those times means every property would be a farm and Mary Arden's House performs that role for the Trust.
Plants in keeping with Shakespeare's time will be included in each garden as appropriate, and at Hall's Croft - the home of Shakespeare's daughter Susanna - there are medicinal herbs to reflect the work of her husband Dr John Hall.
We also caught a brief glimpse of the small garden at Shakespeare's birthplace, where a temporary hot border is in the pipeline whilst the long term plans for the garden are decided. You can also choose some Shakespeare on demand from the actors in the garden!
There is still much more planned over the next 5-10 years, and I'll definitely be back to see how the project progresses. Thanks to the rest of the Trust's team in addition to Glyn for such an interesting day, particularly Kerry and Alison for their organisation, plus Nic Fulcher, who was a mine of information on the project's context, Shakespeare and the social history of the time.
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Non Morris' account of the same visit in her Dahlia Papers.