The Dower Home Backyard at Morville: The place meticulous historic analysis meets painstaking gardening


The historic Dower House Garden in Morville, Shropshire, has been carefully recreated by its owner, believes Non Morris. Photographs by Val Corbett for Country Life.

The lavish, arched front door, framed by Morello cherries and pale strands of pale yellow roses, stays open this summer, just as it has since Katherine Swift arrived at the pretty Shropshire Stone Dower House 30 years ago to plant a garden. The house is part of a residential community near Morville Hall, a short walk from the peaceful 12th century St. Gregory Church.

The development of this richly layered, carefully tended garden is in Dr. Swift’s book The Morville Hours. Both the garden and the book tell the story of this small settlement and the people who have lived here from their monastic beginnings to the present day.

Garden history, literature and personal stories are the inspiration for the Dower House Garden. © Val Corbett for rural life

“It started as an exercise in gardening history,” explains Dr. Swift, “but became intertwined with the stories of everyone who lived here and the story of how I made the garden and the story of my parents and their love affair and why.” They ran to Shropshire the summer before the outbreak of World War II, after having known each other for only three weeks. “

Morville House's formal fruit and vegetable garden

A hazel brown structure in the formal Morville fruit and vegetable garden. © Val Corbett for rural life

As an unstoppable storyteller, her enthusiasm is infectious: “For me, every plant has a personal story too, like the white lilac my father grew in Somerset and I climbed in from the bedroom window when I was five or six years old and it was too sunny to go to bed early. ‘

Then of course there is “the story of the lilac itself and its journey from the Middle East and the people who first brought these plants and seeds to this land …”

Dr. Swift’s own story in Morville began when she was the Keeper of Early Books at Trinity College Dublin. Her husband, Ken, who had stayed at Oxford, met her every Friday evening at Heathrow with a wallet full of photos of houses he had looked at – “places to garden”. He knew that if he found the right one, it would surpass the job she loved.

the Victorian rose border at Morville House

Morville House is the Victorian rose border. A hazel brown structure in the formal Morville fruit and vegetable garden. © Val Corbett for rural life

One Friday night he said, “I think I found it” – and he was right. Despite initial hesitation about getting a 20 year lease rather than buying a home, she was delighted and arrived with “no income other than writing” and the prospect of a rocky, 1½ acre field that could be converted.

Every part of the garden has been carefully examined through original sources. Research for the Knot Garden led her to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where she studied Elizabethan gardening manuals. “Not only did I read Thomas Hill’s Labyrinth of the Gardener, I read every single copy they had because there were different images of knots every time it was reprinted.”

The design of the garden as a whole was easier: “It is completely logical, everything is drawn from the lines of the house and the pattern just made itself.”

Morville. © Val Corbett for rural life

Her approach afterwards was practical and tireless. ‘Everything was made from seeds or cuttings. Rachel next door gave me some spare box plants that I used to take 1,500 cuttings the size of my upper thumb joint. «

Nine inch yew seedlings now form the 9 foot double hedges of the medieval cloister garden, and the gleaming orange trees of Seville that give structure to both the early 18th-century Knot Garden and Canal Garden were grown from the kernels of a batch Jam she made in her first winter.

The apple and pear tunnels in the Edwardian fruit and vegetable garden are made up of double cordons that she trained from annual whips. Amazingly, she had never grown anything from seed.

The Auricula Theater at Morville House

The Auricula Theater at Morville House. © Val Corbett for rural life

At the heart of the garden is the maze, a simple but powerful design created by mowing grass at different heights. In the course of time its paths were shaped by the passage of feet.

Two Robinia pseudoacacia, which are laden with white flowers in summer, rise above the labyrinth hedges. The acacias line the serpentine path of the New Flower Garden, which is planted in a naturalistic style inspired by Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Héloïse.

This is a hidden, romantic garden with lilacs, cow parsley and roses from the 18th century. At the end of the path there is a temple dedicated to the hours, the classic goddesses of the seasons. In front of the temple is an elegant multi-stemmed mulberry that is backlit by the evening sun.

Roses are important in the whole garden. Dr. Swift fell in love with old-fashioned roses at Mattocks Roses in Oxford and recommends Edward Bunyard’s Old Garden Roses (published by Country Life in 1936) as “the best book I know about learning to appreciate roses”.

All the roses that were woven into and out of the lattices in the monastery garden date from before 1500 (with the exception of the striped Rosa ‘Mundi’; she didn’t arrive until the 17th century, but she didn’t have the heart to close it remove).

The formal orchard and vegetable garden, inspired by Gertrude Jekyll, includes some of Jekyll’s favorite hikers such as Rosa ‘Félicité Perpétue’ and R. ‘Adélaïde d’Orléans’, and in the William Robinson-inspired game garden, Dr. Swift selected some fine rose species, in particular the graceful Rosa macrophylla, with clear pink ruffled petals and “large clusters of long, thin hips like chili peppers”.

Morville Hall Topiary

Topiary in Morville Hall. © Val Corbett for rural life

The contrast between formality and wildness is celebrated throughout the garden. Snowdrops, daffodils and fritillaries live in long grassy areas in spring. In June the monastery garden bubbles with ox-eye daisies and the bleached grass of the Lammas Meadow is brilliantly sprinkled with the orange hawkweed ‘Fox and Cubs’.

Self-sowing is encouraged, not least by thimbles that happily zoom up from the base of each hedge. “You can never have too many,” notes Dr. Swift.

Finding the right balance is crucial in Morville. Knowing when to tackle that strawberry-colored honeysuckle-laden medieval arbor before it gets too messy, but not so early that it looks too “done,” is an art that she carefully hands over to her team of gardeners and volunteers .

Arbor in the cloister garden of the Morville Hall.

One of two oak arbors in the Morville Hall Cloister Garden. © Val Corbett for rural life

So it’s a surprise to discover that Dr. Swift still mows everything himself. “It’s a really good thing because I systematically go around the garden, look at everything and make lists and lists.”

The Dower House in Shropshire is open from April to September on Wednesdays, Sundays and bank holidays on Mondays for groups by appointment and for the NGS, subject to restrictions

How to make a lawn seat

  • The three-sided lawn seats in the monastery garden were inspired by illustrations in medieval manuscripts. The shape was and is popular because it is suitable for having conversations, playing music – and flirting.
  • Originally, the turves for the seats were brought from a meadow outside the garden that was already full of wildflowers. To achieve the same effect, after the seat is built, plant aromatic herbs such as thyme or pink in the lawn.
  • For an all-encompassing grass effect, simply stack the turves on top of each other, with the grass side on top.
  • A more formal effect can be achieved by making a paneled wooden box and filling it with earth. Then a single layer of thick turves is placed on top.
  • For privacy, put a grille behind the seat and / or a canopy over your head. A simple canopy would have been made by lashing rustic poles together, or, as in Morville, a carpenter could have made a more elaborate structure. In both cases, sweet-smelling climbing plants like roses and honeysuckle would have been planted over the canopy to create an arbor.
  • Lawn seats cost little or nothing and last for decades. If necessary, top up with a layer of new turves every few years. Otherwise, maintenance is minimal. Just let the grass grow quite long and keep the turves watered during dry spells.

The Snake Mound and Snail Mound in the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Dumfries, Scotland, created by Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Surrealism, philosophy, nature and gardening come together in the garden of cosmic speculation, as Annunciata Elwes explains.