This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
I fancy the young men who learn gardening in these days, can scarcely take the same delight in their profession as did the young men forty or fifty years ago; or perhaps it may be that the older ones of to-day do not know what the younger ones are doing. At any rate, at the time of which I am now thinking it was not the fashion for young gardeners to think their school education finished as soon as the school-room ceased to enclose them. When passing through the Midland counties of England, I had a vision of one who once in a while dropped in on me, of a long winter evening, in the warm greenhouse "stoke hole," and who, by the light of a piece of wax candle stuck in the mouth of a porter bottle, helped to conjugate Latin verbs together. My young friend was now in charge of Newstead Abbey, and one of the best-known and respected among the intelligent class of British gardeners. Besides the weight of this early attraction, I had never seen these beautiful grounds, so much of which is familiar to every one who has read anything of the history of Lord Byron. I switched off, therefore, at Nottingham, and, armed with a card of admission from Mrs. Amelia Jane Webb, who with Captain Webb delights in nothing so much as sharing with others the treasures of history and art that abound in the Abbey, I took a"fly" for the long ride into the country, in spite of the assurance that we would save much time by rail.
The road took us round a cemetery in which most of the dead were in natural caves in the rock. The entrances to some of these caves presented a sight I had often read of but never seen, and I think it one of the most beautiful sights I ever saw in nature - the iridescent moss. As we looked in the entrances to some of these hollows, at some little distances, the sides would glisten with red and green and gold, which would all disappear as you reached the spot, and leave nothing but the appearance of green paintlike slime, but which, under a lens, could be seen as a minute moss. Columns of red and white sandstone here and there supported the roofs, and made beautiful cathedral-like resemblances, in keeping with the graves. The grounds are wisely kept as nature washed them out for us, and the chief floral adornments are the yellow bedstraw,the furze, and the broom; and in spite of the beauty of many an artifical cemetery, there did seem to me a singular appropriateness in the return of "dust to dust, and ashes to ashes," in a place so fresh from the hand of nature as this.
We pass on through Sherwood Forest, made memorable by Sir Walter Scott, and the many stories of Robin Hood and his men; but little is left to suggest the tales of the olden time but tavern signs, and the names of old ruins or villages, as we pass through. The "Forest" must have disappeared long ago, and the places where the good old monks " Sang and laughed, And the rich wine quaff'd, Till they shook the olden walls,"' are gradually disappearing too, in spite of the traditional regard for old ruins in England. But we found the old abbey still there. This is built on this ancient royal forest land. King Henry had slain the Archbishop a Becket of Canterbury, and, as was the custom at that time, had to bring forth fruits worth}' of repentance before his sins could be forgiven, so he built this glor-rious pile and presented it to the church, in whose possession it remained until King Henry VIII.'s time.
I was fortunate in finding my friend, Mr. John Lawrence, at home. The gardens are kept up very much as the old monks left it, and it was particularly interesting to notice in their work thus fortunately preserved for us, what good gardeners they were. The huge terraces must have involved an immense amount of manual labor, which, if really performed by the novices, shows that they did not altogether despise hard work in their efforts for a better life. We are told by history that it is to the labor and skill of the old monks that we owe many of our enjoyable fruits and vegetables. The long, straight garden wall border, in which they made their experiments, now so many hundreds of years ago, possessed a great charm for me. They were also adepts in fish culture. They managed always to keep a good supply of the best in the "slew pond," and this so artistically arranged by their great skill in combining the beautiful with the useful, that I have rarely seen a sheet of water that seemed to make everything about it so beautiful.
They, however, unlike so many wealthy people of our own time, knew the advantages of good advice, and in the planning of their grounds had the assistance of the celebrated Le Notre, who designed the Palace Grounds of Versailles, and assisted the great Cardinal Woolsey in his gardens at Hampton Court. These sheets of water are rectangular, but the branches of neighboring trees, stooping down to kiss the placid waters, have extended some more and some less, until the margins are bayed out and inletted in a manner sufficient to satisfy the devotee of the most irregular in garden art. A great amount of this overhanging foliage was of the yew, some of the trees known to be at least 700 years old. These dark green masses gave a peculiar tint to the waters that can scarcely be described. Water birds, with their young, were darting in and out undir the living shade, seemingly so little in fear of interruption, that at first I thought them tame. The breast-works of some of the dams were so completely overgrown with cotoneaster, creeping on through the centuries, that the only knowledge of their existence came from the foaming water as it dashed through the scarlet-berried branches.
The landscape gardener may make a place which will be pronounced perfect, but the charm which age brings is Nature's own.
The fern garden seems especially a favorite with English ladies. It affords scope for a nice combination of earth and rock with the shade and romance of the wild woods; and here, also, I found one beautifully designed. There are piles of rocks and caves, and everywhere, inside and out, the filmy foliage of some beautiful fern. Even history is made to lend a hand in the intellectual feast in many memorials; and among them all I could not help feeling a more than usual interest in a small carved seyenite column from Thebes, perhaps among the oldest pieces of workmanship of civilized man. We may have advanced some in the arts as we have had opportunities afforded us, but here is the evidence that when the human race was being rocked in its cradle, it knew how to do first-class work.
The grounds are full of interesting memorials. Livingston was a guest of Captain Webb, and here wrote the last work he ever published. As is the prevalent custom in this country, his presence here is marked by a tree planted by his own hand - in this case our famous mammoth of California. The memorial tree of all others that interests the traveler is one planted by Byron before he left the home of his fathers. This is an English oak, and is now (1 feet 9 inches round, not a slow growth, as so many think is the fate of all oaks, by any means. If the relic-hunters had their way, there would not be much growth left to tell of its increase, but not a twig is allowed to be broken off. It so happened that a violent rain storm the night before had placed a very little twig with a couple of leaves or so on the mossy lawn below, and for all my smiles at those who"gathered old sticks," and pulled mortar out of old walls, my companion felt highly privileged when she was permitted to bring the treasure away to her home in the New World. The celebrated twin tree on which Byron cut the initials of himself and sister, is not an oak as stated in some of the biographies of the poet, but a beech.
Augusta's branch has been long since dead, but the piece is preserved by Captain Webb, as is everything belonging to the poet or any one connected with him. A straight walk through a dense wood, the walk made more dark than it would be. by being taken through a matted mass of Rhododendrons, is a particularly gloomy place, but was a favorite haunt of the young poet. The gloomy effect is heightened by full size statues (of course, copied from life) of satyrs and imps of various kinds, and it is said to be next to impossible to get any of the neighboring peasantry to go through the place, and among whom it is reverently known as the Devil's woods.
A cold English rain, thin shoes, an umbrella, and rheumatic limbs to carry it along, are not very favorable to garden sight seeing, so we had to make up the rest of our day in exploring the rich treasures of the old Abbey itself, and admiring the magnificent scenery as displayed from every window, as we wandered from room to room, and all made by the art of the landscape gardener, a wonderful tribute from the hand of man!
But I must drop for the present the large country seats, and say a word or two of the beautiful public gardens with which England abounds, and which, indeed, constitutes some of her proud institutions. We leave New-stead Abbey, and, retaking our"fly," conclude to go around Robin Hood's barn, instead of along the side of which we came; for we suppose it is pretty well known that this celebrated structure comprised the many thousand acres of Sherwood forest, and that the King's deer were always stored therein for Robin, whenever venison was scarce. We reached Nottingham at night fall after a charming drive, and put up at"The George," uncomfortably crowded by Americans, chiefly drawn there through that city being the center of the lace trade. The good lady - most of the English hotels seem kept by ladies - by hook and by crook, managed to make up a suite of rooms for us, and we were made quite comfortable. Staying over Sunday in this town, it was interesting to notice that no one, not even the poorest, seemed dressed without a rose in his button-hole or her bosom. My readers will take notice that I say a rose, and not a rose-bud; but I will not risk their good opinion of me by giving the circumference of the roses in inches.
The fact, however, will give a good idea of the climates of the two countries. Under such circumstances with us, the rose would be a withered corpse of a flower in ten minutes. It was a pleasant sight to see the town and its people on this fine summer's day. Almost everywhere that I have been, in the Old World, on Sunday or in week days, I see in every town some signs of wretchedness, together with evidences of culture and wealth. I suppose Nottingham must have its poor quarter as the rest, but if so, I could not find it. Neat lace curtains in every window; some love for art in humblest homes; neatness of dress and appearance in the poorest, and flowers in yards and windows everywhere My chief visit to Nottingham was to see its public gardens of which I had read in my American home, and I thought no wonder that such a town had a garden of so much reputation, when I saw and talked with people that lived therein, for, as I have before noted in these recollections, the measure of an Englishman's refinement can always be taken from his garden.
I fancy, however, it will be best to defer an account of these public grounds till the next number, when I may perhaps work up those of several of the English and French cities into one chapter.