Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vicar's garden

In French, the expression "jardin de curé" (clergyman's garden) designates an ancient horticultural style and layout inspired by so-called medieval gardens. In the following 15th-century miniature, presenting the engagement ceremony of a noble couple at Dourdan (probably Pierrefonds castle near Compiègne), the walled corner of a medieval garden/orchard appears in the center right.

Such gardens, often associated with monasteries, evoked allegorically the Garden of Eden. In France, they were generally laid out in a geometrical pattern... as opposed to what the French refer to as "English gardens", with no rigorous layout. More recently, they have become down-to-earth vegetable plantations, or maybe botanic treasure houses for the cultivation of aromatic and medicinal plants.

In a recent post [display], I spoke of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Henry Latton [1737-1798],  the vicar of Woodhorn in Northumberland.

We've known for a long time that the clergyman, besides his adoration of the Lord, loved horse racing, and was a keen punter. A quaintly irreverent biography states: "Mr Latton was not destitute of amiable qualities, but was unhappily attached to the pleasures of the turf, and finished his course at Newbiggin races." Indeed, it's said that he was killed (by a horse? by bandits?) while attending the races at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, just a mile southeast of the coastal township of Woodhorn. Personally, I like to imagine that my pious ancestor had been blown out of his mind by the exhilarating spirit of Pascal's Wager [look this up if you're not familiar with it] and that, after betting fervently on the existence of God, he turned quite naturally to the turf.

Well, besides God and horses, Henry Latton appeared to have been keen on gardening, too. Thanks to my South African relative Richard Frost, I have copies of two simple but wonderful handwritten documents, dated March 1780 and April 1785, that appear to be specimens of the good parson's gardening records. [Click to enlarge.]

The first paper reveals that his garden contained a host of different kinds of plants, including vegetables and flowers: melons, beans, peas, spinach, radishes, parsley, nasturtiums, watercress, cabbages, onions, cauliflowers, broccoli, turnips, rhubarb, tulips, jonquils, lettuces, cucumbers, etc. The second paper mentions payments of 7, 5 and 6 shillings. It's interesting to notice that both papers, separated by a period of five years, mention individuals referred to as G Pattison and Mrs Muckells. The latter seems to have been the vicar's seed supplier, whereas the former was probably his gardener.

The medieval church of St Mary the Virgin, in which Henry Latton was the vicar for over a quarter of a century, still stands today... although its external features were largely restored in 1842. Today, it's a museum, and it still houses a medieval church bell inscribed Ave Maria which is said to be one of the most ancient bells in the world. So, maybe one day I might have an opportunity of wandering across to Woodhorn and hearing a precious ringing sound that surely entered the ears, daily, of my ancestor.

We might imagine that the vicar's garden was not far away from his church. A photo of a Woodhorn park, today, suggests that the natural environment is fertile.

But other images indicate that the earth of this Northumberland village has been worked primarily for riches of a different kind: coal.

Meanwhile, I like to think that Henry Latton the gardener would have appreciated the tone of the blog post I wrote this morning, on the theme of the awakening vegetal year. Admittedly, glancing through the Antipodes blog, the vicar of Woodhorn would surely disapprove (to say the least) of his great-great-great-great-grandson's confessed atheism. Inversely, I disapprove of the vicar's gambling, because I don't believe that our earthly existence is a matter of trying to win anything whatsoever (even eternal bliss) through senseless bets. So, we're quits.

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