My father always used to say that if you hung onto something long enough it would eventually come back into fashion. It appears the same could be said of gardening. Reading Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening, it seems that even fads and fancies of gardening taste have their roots in history.
Very little is new from the idea of a British wine industry – the Romans established vineyards and lifted restrictions on wine production – to seed swapping among enthusiasts, medieval monks we are told “exchanged and bought seeds across the Continent”.
Meanwhile, today’s assertion that growing things is good for physical and mental well-being echoes advice by Shirley Hibberd in 1877 that “Contact with the brown earth cures all diseases”.
Even the Dig For Victory campaign of World War 2 had its origin in a similar drive during the First World War when city parks produced vegetables and some gardens were turned over to medicinal herbs, themselves reminiscent of the ‘physic’ gardens of medieval times.
The book takes us on a journey through time from the earliest growers – broad beans go back to the Iron Age – to the ordered and organised Romans who “created our first plant-filled spaces intended purely for enjoyment”, the first use of gardens for self-expression under Elizabeth 1, to twentieth century modernist designers such as Brenda Colvin.
While Uglow deals with big movements and landed gentry, such as Lady Rolle, who planted a 500m-long monkey-puzzle avenue at her Devon home, sparking a craze for the trees, the history does not neglect more humble growers. We learn of catching bats with Victorian under-gardener William Cresswell and meet Friar Daniel who is believed to have had 252 different varieties of plants in his 14th century Stepney garden, “perhaps the first botanical garden in Britain and the friar our first gardening expert,” comments Uglow.
The text is peppered with facts: wheelbarrows arrived in the 1190s, possibly introduced by Crusaders who saw them in the Middle East; Catholics, barred from worshipping under the Stuarts, planted knot gardens with coded religious meanings; rhubarb in white wine was once used as a hair dye. These snippets and the engaging tone lift the book beyond a mere historical account.
A Little History of British Gardening was first published in 2004 and has now been updated and reprinted, with what Uglow describes as “some weeding and tidying of the text”, although the unfortunate placing of Hidcote in Oxfordshire rather than Gloucestershire remains.
At the outset, she says that “Gardens are like a gate into history, but still with a link to the present”. There’s a strange sort of comfort in discovering that in tending our plots we are continuing something that has been done for centuries.
• A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £18.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Chatto & Windus.
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