What Katherine did

PUBLISHED: 15:18 08 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Sarah Hart visits the garden and home everyone wants to see this summer - Katherine Swift's glorious Dower House

Sarah Hart visits the garden and home everyone wants to see this summer - Katherine Swift's glorious Dower House

Katherine Swift came to Morville to find a home. She sought an old building with enough land from which she could dig a large garden from scratch.
The Dower House at Morville Hall, and its accompanying 1.5 acres of cattle-chewed meadow, proved just the place.
At the time Katherine was employed as the Keeper of Rare Books at Trinity College, Dublin. So it was her husband Ken who did the house hunting 'from North Yorkshire to South Devon. From Lincolnshire to the Welsh border'. On Fridays Ken would meet her off the plane at Heathrow clutching a wallet of photographs he'd snapped of possible candidates.
Katherine first visited the Dower House, a few miles north of Bridgnorth, alone at night. She 'felt rather than saw' in the blackness 'the untenanted Dower House; dark, its windows yielding nothing'. She sensed the high wooded hill 'black against the first stars' that loomed behind the curving walls, cupolas and pavilions of the indomitable Morville Hall. High up, a clock struck the three-quarters. A church, she hadn't expected that!
This is how Katherine remembers her encounter with the house 20 years ago in her first solo book, The Morville Hours, written in the form of a Medieval Book of Hours and published in May to great national acclaim.
And so she and Ken sold their home in Oxford and moved to Morville in August 1988 with 'two removal vans of books, three cats and two carloads of plants'.
Immediately Katherine, always an impassioned gardener, got stuck into the back-breaking work of fashioning a beautiful garden from the rough grassland.
First in were the yew hedges that now tower over seven feet tall. They form the curtain walls that enclose and divide up this magical garden into a series of rooms, each echoing a different era in the meandering history of Morville Hall and its intriguing occupants.
There's the Cloister Garden, with its double row of yew hedge and medicinal herbs. A thousand years past an Anglo-Saxon religious foundation of secular clerics occupied the site, superseded by the 12th Century Benedictine Morville Priory. After Dissolution Bridgnorth MP John Smyth bought the ruins and built a fine Tudor mansion. So we have the knot garden with its interlacing pattern of low box hedging and sweet smelling herbs. Then there's The Plat, based on a 17th garden book, bristling and bobbing with old English plants and trees that would have been known to John's great-grandson George Smyth, a Royalist who perished at the 1642 Battle of Edghill. And on Katherine pressed taking her design cues though the ages.
The garden, open to the public for part of the year, has gradually came to national prominence in magazine and newspapers articles this summer its story spread further by The Morville Hours becoming a Radio Four Book of The Week.
The idea for the garden came when Katherine, a rare book librarian at Oxford University libraries for 20 years, compiled a thesis on the great library collections of the 17th and 18th centuries.
"At the time, when people were creating big aristocratic libraries of old books, they were also making wonderful gardens and collecting rare plants and trees," she explains.
It dawned on her how changing fashions in gardening mirrored the thinking of each era. Through garden history the pendulum swung from enclosed spaces, times of uncertainty and refuge seeking, to rambling open gardens looking outward onto grand vistas, times of exploration, prosperity and confidence. This is where Katherine's house search began. She yearned to reflect the history of a house in its garden.
"It had to be somewhere that could really let my imagination run, and it had to be somewhere we could afford which is why we ended up leasing the Dower House from the National Trust," she says.
"I worked out of doors from dawn until after dark every day all the way through the year in all weathers and seasons."
In her book she writes: "The sound of the church clock became the regular accompaniment to my daily labours...It provided a sort of basso continuo to life at Morville..."
The old monks came to mind (the Norman church, St Gregory's, being their surviving remnant) their Hours of Divine Office that set the rhythm of their days, their lavishly illuminated calendars modulating their rituals of prayer, their labour on the land through the months, the seasons. The idea of Katherine's book evolved.
"Most gardening books are about how to do it or about what gardens look like. Nobody really writes about it from the gardener's point of view, how it actually feels," she says.
It also occurred to her how the working of the land, the seasons affected or punctuated all other aspects of life. And so The Morville Hours, written over 15 years, is interwoven with strands of the history of Shropshire, of Morville village, its occupants past and present, Katherine's life, the lives of her parents. The human relationship with the land binds them all together.
Katherine writes: "I came to Morville to find a home. I'm digging in. I travel in time now rather than space, my expeditions only as far as the end of the garden."
As its name suggests The Dower House, connected as a wing to the main Hall, was built for a dowager. Ceilings are high, windows are tall. In the mid 18th Century Morville Hall was modernised. Sash windows and added architectural features gave the stone structure a Georgian appearance.
Inside Katherine, who now lives at the Dower House with partner Sandy Saunders, has furnished it delightfully and sympathetically. White linen-covered sofas and white walls bounce light to soften the darkened oak floorboards, beams and wall panelling.
The house smells irresistibly of old books and lavender. Almost every room is ringed by heaving bookshelves. Most of the volumes appear to be on gardening, from modern glossy to the very old, their leather bindings cracked, split and worn with age.
The lavender wafts from the knot garden, just outside the front door. The lavender has travelled with Katherine from home to home over 40 years. Each time she moved she took a cutting with her, just as her Pa did all his gardening life.
Katherine has dedicated The Morville Hours to two local girls, Harriet Brooker, 11, and Sophie Hartles, 13, with whom she and four other villagers have become earnest students of bell-ringing. Next spring they will ring out the 18th Century bells of St Gregory's for the first time in 50 years following an epic campaign to raise £80,000 for the repair of the old bell-frame. No doubt that will be a chapter for the new book she's already writing.

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