Who says a garden can’t talk? Lyveden New Bield

How’s this for a bit of magic?

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Lyveden New Bield is perhaps one of the most important gardens in Britain, and I’ll take a bet that many of you have never heard of it before.

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Or non-gardeners anyway. And why should you? The house is a ruin, and the garden unfinished.

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But… but … but… there’s a story here. Of course, there is.

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Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire was the summer house of Sir Thomas Tresham, from an Elizabethan family of staunch Roman Catholics. Because he was imprisoned for his faith for many years, he directed much of the work in the garden by letter from his book-lined cell, and you can still read the letters at the British Library. (There’s one particularly poignant note from his wife telling him how much she is missing him but rather than keeping it close to his heart, he’s used the envelope to scribble down his plans for the garden. Gardeners never change!)

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When he died in 1605, he was seriously in debt and work on the garden and house came to a halt. The house is not a ruin – it was left roofless!

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This meant that the garden remains as a perfect Tudor garden, without any of the ‘improvements’ so many other gardens enjoyed. Particularly as two months after Thomas’s death, his son, Francis, was exposed as a member of the Gunpowder Plot.

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And indeed there’s a bit of a plot about Lyveden New Bield itself. The lodge and garden are full of Roman Catholic symbolism, perhaps an example that it is best to keep secrets in the open. Obviously there are no original plants remaining but significant plants that Tresham notes in his letters (with their Catholic name in brackets) would have been Campion (Mary’s Rose or Lady’s Candles), Anemone (Candlemass Caps), Raspberry (symbol of Christ’s Passion), Wormwood (Mary’s Tree) and Hawthorn (Mary’s Mayflower). You can still see traces of the laybrinth which represented ‘a spiritual journey on the one true path’…

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… and indeed this was how the garden was found again. Oh how I love this story. An aerial photograph was taken by a Luftwaffe cameraman in 1944, and the images were then left in the US National archive in Maryland before copies were ordered and studied by the National Trust.

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The ten concentric rings you might just be able to make out would have been planted with cherry and plum trees, roses and raspberries. Wouldn’t that be fine to see again? The garden is now Grade 1 listed, and there’s certainly a lot of work happening. I’m hoping that the National Trust will plant the fruit varieties Tresham notes in his letters. Apple varieties included Great Green Costard, Dr Harvey’s and RUsset, there were Windsor, Madingley, Norwich and Hawksbill Pears, and Walnut and Moiled Plum. What’s a moiled plum? I feel the need to search one out.

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We walked up the curving paths of all four ‘snail-mounts’, imagining our skirts swishing from side to side as they would have done in Tudor times…

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And thought about taking a boat out for fish…

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But as you can probably tell from these photographs it was a bit cold! Luckily, although we weren’t expecting it, there was a great cafe here for hot chocolate and soup, and when we went to nearby Burghley House, just look at the skies. A bonfire of beauty…

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I’m still mulling over my creative response to Lyveden New Bield, in some ways there were too many stories here to pick just one, so here’s a poem by another Catholic nobleman of the time, Robert Southwell. He had found refuge with Henry Vaux, Thomas Tresham’s brother-in-law, so I am guessing that they met. Perhaps to talk gardens and poetry, as well as religion. I hope so.

Times Go by Turns
By Robert Southwell

THE lopped tree in time may grow again,
Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower;
The sorriest wight may find release of pain,
The driest soil suck in some moistening shower.
Times go by turns, and chances change by course,
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

The sea of Fortune doth not ever flow,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb.
Her tides hath equal times to come and go,
Her loom doth weave the fine and coarsest web.
No joy so great but runneth to an end,
No hap so hard but may in fine amend.

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay.
Thus, with succeeding turns, God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.

A chance may win that by mischance was lost;
The net, that holds no great, takes little fish;
In some things all, in all things none are crossed;
Few all they need, but none have all they wish.
Unmeddled joys here to no man befall;
Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all.

3 thoughts on “Who says a garden can’t talk? Lyveden New Bield

  1. your blogs feel like an extension of Digging Up Paradise..the book that keeps on giving. It is amazing that there can be so many ‘secrets’ in a garden. Thankyou

  2. i have never been to lyveden new bield but I do have a slightly painful memory of it anyway. When I first went to work for a gardening magazine the very first piece I edited was about this garden. I thought I did a very careful job of it but the author, perhaps put out at being handled by the new kid, squabbled horribly over every word change and eventually insisted on being handed over to a more senior member of staff. What a pig! And I was devastated! So although I love the look and story of this garden every time I see mention of it it slightly makes me squirm. Love your gorgeous account of it though. Wouldn’t change a word!

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