There are three original gardens within Westminster Abbey: the Garth, the Little Cloister and College Garden. St Catherine's Garden lies in the area of the ruined monastery and was more recently created. Each Garden had a separate function: the Garth with its square of turf, bounded by Cloisters, gave the monks somewhere to rest their eyes and minds as they walked around it. Metaphysically speaking, green was symbolic of rebirth, and therefore appropriate for spiritual refreshment. The Little Cloister Garden with its fountain and borders of scented plants was an area set aside for recuperation after illness. There would have probably been seats in this garden, and may have well been turf-topped ones, which were common in medieval times. The College Garden was the Infirmarer's Garden, used for the purposes of growing medicinal herbs and foods for the general well-being of the occupants of the Abbey. It is very unusual (possibly unique in England) for an Abbey or Monastery to still have its infirmarer's garden attached and kept as a garden.
The Infirmary Garden originally contained an orchard (hence the name of the nearby Abbey Orchard Street). Though the orchard would have grown apples, pears, plums, figs, mulberries, nuts, medlars and vines, it did not exist merely to provide food. It was also an area of beauty, neatly laid out with plentiful paths and containing roses and lilies. This area was also known as the Cemetery Orchard for the monks were buried there. Symbolically, life and death were dovetailed in this garden. Vegetables such as broad beans, leeks, onions, garlic, coleworts (kale) and root vegetables were grown in a separate plot. There were also fishponds, beehives, and an area for growing medicinal herbs. The value of herbs to medieval people cannot be overestimated. Their bland vegetable and starch diet needed herbal flavouring to make it palatable. Herbs had enormous symbolic meaning, many being named after the Virgin Mary such as 'Lady's Bedstraw', Galium verum. Illnesses were treated by diet, blood-letting, and the application of herbs - surgery was only attempted in cases of direst need.
The Gardens were tended by a Head Gardener and two undergardeners. They were monks and expected to attend matins and compline, though they were asked to leave their muddy boots and capes outside. In addition to providing the Abbey with food, the Gardener also gave away fruit from the orchard to local people on 25th July every year, St James' Day. Up to 1300, England had a Mediterranean climate, ideal for fruit growing, and especially vines and wine making. After this the weather became cool and damp. The Gardener had one day off a year, called his 'O' Day. He could choose when he wanted to take it, and the other monks gave money for him to spend on his special day.
The Hidden Gardens of Westminster Abbey - video broadcast on ITV's This Morning, Monday 25 October 2010
Brother William's Year - a book written and illustrated by the Abbey's Head Gardener.
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