I am a student member of the Landscape Institute and joined the Yorkshire and Humberside branch on a day out to Mount Grace Priory in Northallerton, North Yorkshire.
Mount Grace Priory is a medieval Carthusian monastery established in 1398 and was a home and priory for twenty-three monks. Part of the priory was remodelled as an arts and crafts manor house in the 17thcentury. Now in the present day it is open to the public to visit and walk round the gardens and the former priory. It is a scheduled monument and the buildings are listed grade I and II*.
The place has recently undergone a major reworking to make the garden and priory more accessible and more attractive to visitors. We were given a tour around the site, specifically focusing these new interventions, by the head gardener and a member of the English Heritage team.
We met at the new café that was built as part of the works and is positioned on the way into the priory and gardens but before the pay barrier. It is a contemporary timber structure designed by the architects MawsonKerr and constructed from 30-year-old oak boards that were being stored by English Heritage. This minimised the use of new hardwoods. The eco credentials go further with the use of reclaimed local slates for the roof and external wall.
“From the outset the project has been envisioned as a contemporary building which is respectful to the context, the design refers to traditional wood working techniques, vernacular forms and traditional materials evidenced in the Monument.”MawsonKerr Architects
We wander up the grassy slope towards a newly planted orchard and meet our guides for the day. Previously, the priory and gardens were maintained by an external contractor, however, recently to coincide with the recent works an in-house team has been recruited. The team is led by a newly appointed head gardener who works with one other full time gardener and a team of volunteers.
After introductions and a brief overview of the history of the site we headed behind the walls and into the priory. To get into the priory you must walk through the house which has a small shop as well as being a place to buy your entry ticket.
The priory is impressively in-tact for a ruin and show the layout of the monastery. The tower over the priory itself is still standing and is visible from around the site.
Through a small archway, you enter the ‘Great Cloister’ which is the central courtyard for the monk’s cells. It is a big open space enclosed by the imposing sandstone walls. It feels sheltered from the outside world which is how Carthusians live, as hermits.
Carthusians are silent monks who live in individual cells. One of these cells has been restored, giving us, the visitors an insight into the life of its inhabitants. The cell consists of a two-story square building surrounded by a small enclosed garden or a hortus conclusus if you want to be fancy. This cell is where the monks would have spent most of their time, they only used to come together for meals and nocturnal liturgical hours (times where they pray together). At the entrance, there is a L-shaped hatch which was used to pass food and other essentials into the cell without the need for communication.
The garden was very interesting, it is only small and surrounded by tall sandstone walls. The main planting bed is bordered with low box hedging and has been planted and laid out based on extensive research.
Although the bed and box hedging has been laid out according to archaeological evidence it is uncertain what plants were growing and how they are arranged. The gardeners have instead planted a demonstration of the kind of plants that were grown at the time. These gardens were not primarily for food production. They had functions as spirituality, health and utility too. Medicinal, aromatic herbs and flowering plants were grown to aid contemplation. If you are interested in gardening like a monk then English Heritage have written a good article explaining how they used to live and garden (http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/how-to-garden-like-a-medieval-monk).
My favourite part of the small garden was just as you enter the garden there is a small border sandwiched between a sheltered pathway and narrow paved path. The planting is exciting and has a medieval feel. This is created by the large Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) as you walk in. I am particularly keen too on the covered walkway which merges the interior and exterior spaces.
Around the corner of the garden is a small lawn with a Medlar (Mespilus germanica) tree.
After a quick visit to the privy (out of toilet paper) we headed out of the monk’s cell back into the ‘Great Cloister’ and walked towards the ‘Well House’. The priory has an impressive system of channels to provide water to the different cells and importantly wash away waste too. From this location there is an impressive view of the priory.
We out of the walls of the priory to an impressive view of the surrounding landscape. There is steep bank that the team are trying to turn into a wild flower meadow, so far it has been unsuccessful and they are planning to lay wildflower turf down. One member of our group suggested an alternative approach that included introducing yellow rattle.
From here we headed back downhill towards the garden. For visitors, it is difficult to access the garden as the only route that is open to the public is all the way back through the house.
The garden has recently seen significant change. The help of well-known gardener Chris Beardshaw who took a creative lead on the project, the new garden brings out the Arts and Craft style of the manor house. 27,000 spring bulbs were planted in November 2017 and planting out the new beds continued until spring 2018.
The garden is tiered across a substantial level change, the first of the terraces is a well-kept lawn.
As you walk down the steps to the lower part of the garden you can look across at the garden which has been well thought out and reflects the Arts and Craft style well.
In the lower parts of the garden there is a shaded spot which creates a good view back up to the house. I like the little stream that runs down the hill creating a bit of movement and sound.
Part of the new masterplan was to create an accessible experience for visitors with limited mobility which is challenging in a historic site but this has been accomplished by a new footbridge between the café and house and a gate at the bottom of the garden. Although the priory, house and gardens are not completely accessible these interventions are a great improvement and ensure that all visitors are welcome without damaging the character of the attraction.
The garden was our last stop on the tour from there we dispersed and further explored and revisited parts of the priory. It was also an opportunity to speak to the team at Mount Grace and ask questions.
The three of us who are students at Leeds Beckett are very grateful to the Yorkshire and Humber branch of the Landscape Institute for organising the event and helping us get there.