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Palace Garden at Southwell Minster: Beauty with full sensory immersion

04 August 2023

The grounds of the ruined palace adjoining Southwell Minster have been reimagined as a colourful garden. Pat Ashworth visits

Claire Connely

Spring flowers flourish near the ruins of the episcopal palace at Southwell

Spring flowers flourish near the ruins of the episcopal palace at Southwell

THE Palace Garden at Southwell Minster is a garden rediscovered, resonant of garden in The Secret Garden in many more respects than just the robin perching on the spade of the head gardener, Claire Connely.

Its origins lie in the ancient hunting grounds of the Archbishop of York as he broke his journey to London. It borders on the sweeping parkland of Higgons Mead, and the soft grasslands of Potwell Dyke, in rural Nottinghamshire, and is flanked by the ruins of the Palace, built between 1379 and 1396 and largely demolished in the 1600s.

The ruins attracted little attention over the centuries. The area was walled off and left to become what is described in Ms Connely’s newly published book, A Year in the Cathedral Garden, as “an overgrown and thoroughly dishevelled piece of land”. In 2011, it came under the scrutiny of the Minster’s head of education, Diana Ives, when she peered over the ivy-clad wall and envisaged a garden that the community could share.

Work began in 2014, and the garden opened to the public in 2018. It first enjoyed a spell as the Education Garden: a walk through time of garden design. Ms Connely was not employed at Southwell Minster then, but applauds the vision behind the Tudor knot garden, the Gertrude Jekyll garden, the medieval herb garden, and the rest.

Claire Connely, head gardener of the Palace Garden, Southwell

But, when the Tudor and medieval gardens fell victim to the the box-moth caterpillar, and the Jekyll garden needed high-level maintenance, it was time for a rethink. In one of those glorious moments when all things come together for good, the National Lottery Heritage Fund-enabled restoration of the Chapter House and its beautiful 13th-century carvings, the Leaves of Southwell (News, 17 February), unlocked funding to restore the ruins.

It became the Palace Garden, rebranded to celebrate the Leaves. “They’re the local ones the stonemasons would have seen every day and probably used for medicine,” Ms Connely observes. “It’s lovely to have that translated into the garden, and to see each one in real life here.”

A graduate in garden and landscape management from Askham Bryan agricultural college, she has worked twice for the National Trust: first at Nymans, in West Sussex, where she was responsible for the ongoing restoration of the 1920s Pulham rock garden, and then at the walled kitchen garden at the centre of the Averbury stone circle.

She came to Southwell directly from “three glorious years uncovering lost gems and encouraging the garden to behave a little less wildly” in the forgotten gardens at Saltmarsh Hall — a 17-acre private wedding venue on the banks of the Ouse.

But nothing could compete with Southwell: “My own ruins! I couldn’t resist.” The mellow stone is a stunning backdrop, she exults, “golden in the autumn, when the light hits. A kind of a micro-climate, too, with the trees on one side and the ruins on the other.” The ruins lie adjacent to the Song School, “my beautiful soundtrack”.


THERE is a scent of lavender on the warm breeze as we stand by the Peace bed, a soft haze of purple and blue and planted with a fig tree and an olive. The abundant, flamboyant white roses in the deep beds in front of the ruins signify the York connection, and Desdemona is Claire’s favourite: “She smells divine. She’s the kind of rose you’d see in a vase in a Dutch Master’s painting.”

The deep beds in this section will be planted with dahlias for a riot of colour in the autumn. The deep medieval latrine among them leads Ms Connely to observe: “It would have been the gardener’s job to dig it out. . . I have big plans to sweep it out and put a lot of ferns in it, so that when you look down, it’s a tapestry of green.”

Then come the rich, red Rosa “Dublin Bay”, so happy here that they flower from April to December. Beyond the ruins come the newly planted beds of the monastic herb garden, with heartsease to cure melancholy; wild strawberries; the apothecary rose. Monks, she observes, “mostly seemed to have had trouble with their bowels”.

Pat AshworthRose border under the palace walls

There are mugwort, represented in the Chapter House carvings, as well as lungwort, marsh mallow, and greater celandine, a yellow dye that Claire has an artist’s eye on: “I’ve got this notion that one day I’ll crush it into a paste and use it to paint the ruins.” That’s if she can stop the rabbits eating it.

Hops, also represented in the Leaves, are growing close by, bright green and flourishing. There is a carved boar — the work of a local artist, Jason Sherwood — rooting in the shade of a mighty oak: “He is so charismatic. It’s quite fun in here when you’re weeding.”

Sheltered and embracing space for concerts and events at the far end of the garden borders on the Mead and the Dyke. Near by, the perennial wildflower meadow is in its second year of flowering: last year, awash with poppies; this year, joined by campions, corn cockles, and the bright blue of cornflowers. The circular bench was crafted by Men in Sheds — an Age UK workshop project to empower older men who are isolated or experiencing big changes in life (News, 19 October 2018) — and installed to mark the late Queen’s Jubilee.

“It’s done very well flowering,” Ms Connely says with satisfaction. “This autumn, I’m going to sow a lot of parasitic yellow rattle, which hopefully will weaken the grass so that the wildflower will keep coming through.” A labyrinth by the meadow mostly attracts children, who “don’t really get the idea of walking slowly and contemplatively”, she says with affection. So, she has planted it with deschampsia grass, to make it more like a maze for them.

A carved hare by another local artist, Peter Leadbeater, crouches in the woodland, evidently more at ease than the stone hare in the Chapter House, depicted being nibbled by greyhounds. The woodland walk was planted with 1000 bulbs last year, and the same is planned for this year — daffodils and narcissi will, it is hoped, produce “a rush of light”.

Apart from having professional help two days a week with the mowing, she relies on 15 garden volunteers, whom she cannot praise highly enough. “They’re passionate about gardening and passionate about this place. To have the enthusiasm and knowledge of lifelong gardeners is wonderful,” she says. “People who love the garden breathe life into it with the joy it brings them and the memories they make there.”

It all accords with her conviction that community gardens should be looked after by the community. She remains bemused by the warm reception of her book, subtitled Ramblings, robins and rakings at Southwell Minster, drawn from her jottings and daily postings on Instagram. While she grew up expressing a love of all things green through painting, drawing, and photography, she “just thought I was keeping a little diary for myself”.

The entry for 23 May 2022 is characteristic of its prevailing joy: “Rosa ‘Dublin Bay’ is the crimsoniest of crimsons. I adore the contrast of that deep red against the warm, sandy-coloured stone. I can’t recommend this rose enough if you are looking for something striking to grow up a majestic ruin — or any wall will do really, but if you could get your paws on a majestic ruin I’d definitely opt for that backdrop.”


The Palace Garden at Southwell Minster is open every day of the year and free to visit. A Year in the Cathedral Garden, by Claire Connely, is available directly from Southwell Minster, for £12 plus £3.50 p&p.


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