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Gardens and Gardening, by Jill Francis, and The Immortal Yew, by Tony Hall

30 November 2018

Jamie Cable on old gardens and much older yews


The “pulpit” yew at Nantglyn, in Denbyshire, is shown in one of Tony Hall’s photos in The Immortal Yew

The “pulpit” yew at Nantglyn, in Denbyshire, is shown in one of Tony Hall’s photos in The Immortal Yew

JILL FRANCIS’s Gardens and Gardening: In early modern England and Wales is concerned with the period 1560 to 1660. “What form exactly did a man’s ‘plat of ground’ take and how did that change over the period? Who was gardening? Why were they gardening and how, ultimately, did they view the spaces they had created?”

Francis answers these questions by focusing on the practical aspects of gardening and “the ‘ordinary’ gardens of the country gent as opposed to the ‘extraordinary’ gardens of the aristocracy”. With a few exceptions, gardens from that period have not survived; so Francis uses a wide range of primary sources, including household accounts, correspondence, and memorandum books.

The period covered charts the rise in status of the working gardener, and the social mobility it could bestow, the increasing trust in science and empirical knowledge, and the influx of exotic plants into the country, which necessitated a whole new way of gardening.

This is a serious book on early-modern society, but we are drawn in by the personal nature of the evidence: the gardeners’ loves, extravagances, and preoccupations. The Revd Walter Stonehouse returned to his beloved garden after being imprisoned during the Civil War unrest. He notes “on his list that most of the plants had not survived in his absence and that he now had ‘no hope of a new colony’.”

Much may have changed since the 17th century, but not some of the trees described in The Immortal Yew, by Tony Hall: they were already veterans. Hall, manager of the arboretum and gardens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, writes, out of his lifelong interest in trees, about more than 75 yews that are accessible to the public.

Yew trees are the oldest living things in the UK. They can regenerate by layering, or putting down long aerial roots into their hollow trunks, making them potent symbols of resurrection. Churchyard yews make up the majority of the trees featured. This is because of the yew’s longstanding connection with religion, and to these specimens’ being well documented.

I surmise that Hall was surprised to enjoy discovering the churches alongside the yews on his agenda; he gives a brief history of the buildings and worship at each site. In the case of the “Waverley Abbey yew”, we learn as much about Waverley Abbey, the very first Cistercian monastery in Britain, as about the yew itself. He allots a short chapter to some of the architectural and archaeological highlights, and touches on the wealth of flora and fauna associated with ancient churchyards.

The featured yews (mostly in the south-east, or Wales, with only one in Scotland) are arranged alphabetically according to their location, and there are O. S. grid references and helpful directions to the exact spot. Hall clearly intends the reader to retrace at least some of his many footsteps. The fascinating tree profiles — which include the historical uses of the sheltered spaces created by their extraordinary growth forms, alongside their vital statistics — make it hard to resist the call.

Jamie Cable is a gardener and freelance writer based in Staffordshire.

Gardens and Gardening: In early modern England and Wales
Jill Francis
Yale £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

The Immortal Yew
Tony Hall
Kew £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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