A visit to Canterbury Cathedrals NGS Gardens

A visit to Canterbury Cathedrals NGS Gardens
A rare opportunity to see the private gardens open for @NGSOpenGardens in May
Exceptional tranquility in the heart of the city

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One fine day in May I set off for a truly wonderful set of NGS gardens I hadn’t seen in about 2 years. I last visited when I lived relatively locally and I remember the day was freezing. It was the 31st May but I had a coat & jumper on, so different to this visit!

This time I was in shorts and it was still too hot, I say too hot, I’m lying, there’s no such thing! I did worry that the heat would have sent the Irises I remembered so fondly over though, I needn’t have worried…. I’m getting ahead of myself though!

I met Philip Oostenbrink just before he took over as Canterbury’s Head Gardener, he has an incredibly dry wit and an easy smile. His love of plants shines through and working at Canterbury has allowed that passion to grow, his love of the Cathedrals grounds and the team he’s built up is easy to see. So I was keen to not only catch up and have a natter but also to see how the gardens had grown in the intervening 2 years.

We met just before his talk and he’s a mine of information now on the grounds history, of which there’s a lot!

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No.1HG, Protector of paradise, as us mere mortals know him

One of the things I found interesting was the challenge of removing the Ivy from the stonemasonry around the grounds. It’s not just a case of pulling it from the walls as it can do so much damage to the old flintknapped buildings, pulling the mortar out from between stones, the work has to be scheduled to fit with the Cathedrals stonemasons… imagine gardening in that way!

Also it has been recently recognised there are some very special magnolia trees within the grounds. Bred by a now long gone local nursery its hoped the cathedrals collection can be studied more by the Magnolia society.

The Cathedral hold in its library one of the original prints of ‘Geralds Herbal’, those of you who have read some of my older blog posts will have head me talk about this amazing and sometimes hilarious book. Written in 1597 it has some very curious ideas about plants and often refers to the ‘Doctrine of signatures’. This was a method of divining what uses the plants had medically, it was thought a clue would be left by God somewhere in its makeup. Hence Spleenwort which resembles a spleen (if you have a good imagination) is used to cleanse the spleen. The wort part of the name signifies its beneficial. If you come across the word bane however avoid it as it is harmful. Hence wolfsbane (bad for wolves) and hensbane (bad for chickens). You can book an appointment to view this amazing book with the Cathedrals library!

The reason I mention this though is with relevance to the Cathedrals relatively new addition of a medieval style herb garden. Located where the monks dormitories once stood until a 2nd WW bomb flattened all but a few column bases and very near where the infirmary would have been. It has a snazzy little smart app where you can hold your phone near the label and view a page from the Herbal! I have absolutely no clue how this works so I suggest finding a small child and asking them!

After the talk I headed straight across to the plant stall, of course! I know Phillip has a love of unusual plants and was hoping to find something exotic. His staff didnt fail me, I was tipped off that the herb stall had a few coffee plants (possibly Coffea canephora?) and tea plants (Camellia sinensis) for sale so I hotfooted it over there before they sold out! By this time the gardens were well populated and the various stalls were doing a brisk trade My avarice satisfied I then returned to the gardens, with the plants snuggled in my camera bag, to No1 on the list, which confusingly is named No15!

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There are 2 sections effectively to this garden a beautiful, quaint highly terraced backyard full of colour and very much on a domestic scale. Then through a lovely rose arbour into the main part of the garden.

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The front of the house is festooned by a gorgeous climbing rose, pure white & highly scented. Absolutely covered in blooms!

Stretching away from the house and terraced up to the city walls is a fabulous herbaceous border with hidden paths. I loved this border on my first visit and it did not disappoint!

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Next on the tour is the Memorial garden, a place of quiet contemplation which I think is open to the public at all times. at the furthest point to the entrance gate is a small doorway, down here you can find the entrance to the Deacons walk. Now gated and somewhat unused there is an attractive sprinkling of wildflowers giving it a secretive and wild feel.

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The friends garden just outside the memorial garden is a lovely little space edged with borders containing a lovely array of plants, I was very taken with the oriental poppy’s. I think this one is Royal wedding but I could be wrong… either way its lovely!

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Following the map past the ruins of stonework, which I believe are the infirmary ruins, into shady cloisters that surround north side of the cathedral you catch glimpses of the  herbaceous borders that crowd up to the ancient walls. You continue through past the chapter house, above you beautiful ornate ceilings and in front the most exquisite stained glass frames the view of a large green. Secluded completely from the hustle and bustle of a city which surrounds you. It’s easy to forget how close the vibrant city of Canterbury is when you’re here!

This leads you to the entrance of the 4th garden on your tour, the Archdeaconry. The huge yew tree which dominates the garden also lends itself to the style of the circular way the grass is cut. It resembles when viewed from above a stone dropped into a pool, the ripples spreading outwards forever.

Everywhere you look are ancient walls, blocks of carved stone reminding you that this area is one of the oldest sites of worship in England. The history that is contained within these precincts is incredible. Princes, Kings & Queens of England have all sheltered beneath its roof’s, some of the most momentous moments in our fair land have taken place in this now peaceful oasis. Walking here you are walking on the same paths they have trodden and its hard not to think of these things whilst strolling and admiring these beautifully kept grounds.

Here also is the mythical Mulberry tree, supposedly the site where Thomas Becket’s murderers hid their swords before their heinous crime. This is of course a myth, the tree itself although hugely old can be no older than perhaps a 100 years at best, certainly not a 1000… but it could of course be a cutting taken and grown from the original Mulberry … lets say it’s that for the sake of romantic fiction!

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The tree is in a little side garden to the main Archdeaconry, the garden itself is built in older ruins, the remains of flintknapped walls and columns are sympathetically clothed in plants. I lingered for a while admiring a large unusual Callistemon with lovely large pale yellow flowers, possibly Callistemon pallidus. In the process of writing this I’ve discovered another plant name change! Apparently Callistemons are now Melaleuca and the  specific epithet pallida refers to the  pale colour of the flowers. This drew the attention of many visitors and I found I was being something of an impromptu tour guide myself!

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As you leave the Archdeaconry there is a display of classic cars and an excellent, and very popular, Tea/cakes pavilion with ample seating. It’s a good point in your tour of the gardens to take a break and reflect on the wonderful historical architecture and plants you’ve just seen.

I brought my Dad to Canterbury a few years back to see the Cathedral for his birthday, I pointed out some of the graffiti that adorns the walls. I love that there is so much! He could not be convinced of its legitimacy as some are dated back over 400 years, granted it is hard to believe that you’re looking at a mark left by a random person but in some small way they, notable for no other reason than the time they spent carving their initials and a date into the wall, have achieved a weird sort of immortality just by this very act.

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Fully revictualled and refreshed your map directs you onwards to the last few gardens, next on the list is the Deanery. Its kind of mind blowing when you consider that a garden in the middle of Canterbury, which if you walk the streets outside of the Cathedrals grounds are a higgle piggle of houses and shops built atop each other, could possibly measure an acre! The building itself, in parts, dates back to the early 1500’s and the garden has a very naturalistic theme with a wildflower meadow and chickens wandering around.

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It’s really worth taking a moment to appreciate the wealth of roses here, the deadheading must take hours! The scent though is incredible!

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Having now thoroughly lost my way regarding where I was on the map I followed other wandering visitors and found the exit / entrance to the rear of the deaconry once more. I took a moment to appreciate the tiny corridor which, absolutely stuffed with plants, must be a marvellous place to spend a summers eve. The warmth of the day’s sun reflected back from the stone walls, the scent of the plants concentrated in this warm, still environment. It would be easy to imagine relaxing with a glass of wine and good company here.

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It’s definately worth giving yourself a good few hours, possibly even a full day, to really appreciate the gardens here. Especially given that they’re not normally accessible to the general public. There are lots of little secret hidden portions which I shall allow you to discover yourself!

I shall however leave you with a few pics from around the grounds…

Opening times for NGS can be found here Canterbury NGS open gardens

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Oh!

And did I mention there are owls?

THERE ARE OWLS!!!!

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