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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 September 2017 by Tim Ingram

Canterbury Cathedral Gardens with the Kent HPS.

(This was written for the Hardy Plant Society in Kent but hopefully will interest viewers here too - A visit to the Precincts in Canterbury)

Canterbury Cathedral Gardens 


Many years ago we met a visitor to our NGS days, Tessa Till, who was married to the then Archdeacon of Canterbury Cathedral, Michael Till. Until then I knew nothing of the gardens that surround the Precincts in Canterbury. Ever since I've wanted to see these gardens, and a visit recently with the Kent Group of the Hardy Plant Society was just to good to miss.

What is so fascinating for someone in a society such as the HPS (or AGS), who knows the many and varied gardens of other members so well, is that similar sense here of discrete gardens around the Cathedral associated with a different kind of 'society' - a religious one. At first sight as you walk around the Cathedral you can only have eyes for the majesty and craftsmanship of the building itself and all that history that lies behind it, but as you look through garden gates and behind walls that very personal individuality of 'the garden' becomes evident. The importance of gardens - and your own garden - is as strong as the heritage of a great building such as Canterbury Cathedral. 

The gardens open every year in early summer for the Kent NGS, but the great advantage of visiting with the HPS was to have a conducted tour with the Head Gardener, Philip Oostenbrink, who has been there for two years after previously helping to run the gardens at Hadlow College and as a nurseryman. Philip introduced a lot of the history and detail of the plantings and, more revealingly again, their ongoing nature. He made the interesting point that the Cathedral allows considerable freedom in the styles and use of plants, and the great variety of different situations surrounded by wonderful stonework, and in places ruins, gives scope to grow many very different plants.

We started not far from the entrance to the Precincts, off Burgate Street, in this garden which looks out onto the whole Cathedral, and is next to the Conference Centre.

The building in the middle distance (part of the adjacent King's School) has one of the largest specimens of Magnolia acuminata in the UK in its grounds, which I will show a little later. (The Cathedral has a fine collection of different magnolias, including a number bred by the local nurseryman, Amos Pickard, and one aim is to plant more with this same direct connection). These gardens are to sit and relax in and have that comfortable familiarity that results from use rather than design, very secluded from the bustling paths alongside. 

The 'Peace Tree' here in the main lawn of the Precincts, is a Japanese cherry, presented by Canterbury C.N.D. and planted on Nagasaki Day as a sign of hope.

Not far from this is one of seven rather magnificent specimens of London Plane (Baobab Plane) in Canterbury with this remarkable swollen base to the tree trunk which is thought to have been caused by viral infection. The significance of where these trees are planted, and estimates of their ages, is intriguingly discussed by Sadie Palmer here:

In the past it was possible to enter the Precincts from the east through the formal square War Memorial Garden directly adjacent to the old town wall that surrounds much of the Cathedral, and also from the north via the King's School, but now the only access is from Burgate Street. This map gives an overview of the Precincts and the first picture I showed is around the point marked 3.

The War Memorial Garden contains an old(ish) mulberry though to have been descended by vegetative propagation (so the story goes) from an old tree linked to the murder of Thomas Becket. Certainly there are other old mulberries, one in the Archdeacon's Garden and another mentioned in the Deanery Garden, old even in 1851 according to a book written by Augustus Hare in 1878. White mulberries can fruit for several hundred years and especially in such places can probably reach great ages. This one in the Memorial Garden doesn't look too healthy, and may have suffered even more as result of the serious drought in late summer/autumn 2016 and this spring, but still makes a lovely canopy of foliage over the path.

This very good form of Origanum laevigatum, 'Herrenhausen', is on the corner as you enter the Memorial Garden highlighting the value of this genus for late-summer colour, especially in a warm and dry climate. This and related plants in the Lamiaceae are genera we would really like to explore and grow more.

From the records held at the Cathedral, Philip showed us this receipt  of payment made for planting 22 young oaks (dated Noveember 26th, 1663). Amongst the items are three entries for 'drinking money'. The oaks are no longer present and I'm not sure about the drinking money?!

The specimen of Magnolia acuminata on the other side of the wall from here is one of the largest in the UK ( and shows the same swelling to the base of the trunk as the London Planes. Stem hypertrophy (butt swelling) is found in various trees subject to flooding, but these more abnormal basal swellings are like the burls found on many trees resulting from unnatural cell division and enlargement, probably due to hormonal imbalance (and similar to callu and galls on the much smaller scale). On the magnolia these occur all along the branches and trunk too. The trees though look perfectly healthy and are rather impressive.

Walking into the Precincts from Burgate Street you are faced with the full view of the southern side of the Cathedral, but as you walk around to the east and northern sides a much more complex combination of smaller buildings, cloisters and ruins from earlier ecclesiastical history, make more intimate and quiet area and on a more human scale.

(This map can viewed more clearly here:

At the eastern end of the Infirmary Hall (now ruins) is this Chancel window, adventurously planted beneath with Mediterranean-type plants including olive, Tetrapanax and Agave. The south-facing position and warmth of the walls makes this very warm and protected but I was amazed to see the shrubby Echium on the left below the olive, an indication of the past couple of relatively mild winters we have had in the south-east. This must look incredible in flower and stop visitors in their tracks.

And here, walking on round to the Green Court in front of King's School and the Deanery Garden to the east of it, we passed Campsis on the wall and a striking specimen of Convolvulus cneorum on the steps at its base. The convolvulus is hardy and long-lived growing in stonework and walls, and a similar plant grows high up in a wall at Sissinghurst Garden.

(to be continued...)

The Deanery Garden is the largest of all in the Precincts, extending over an acre and a half - pretty remarkable in the centre of a City as compact as Canterbury - and is itself divided into various very contrasting parts. 

Here on the west side before entering the main garden it is overlooked by the Cathedral and planted largely with David Austin roses and a small collection of unusual trees.

For the alpine gardener there is this tempting pile of rocks next to the narrow entrance at the southern corner of the house.

And a nice detail on a shaded table - these baskets of ferns.

The garden behind the Deaneryis quite a surprise, opening out into this wide lawn with Musa and Trachycarpus dominant against the rather lovely flint wall.

To the side is an area with glasshouses and frames and a cut flower and vegetable garden, which must especially recall medieval times when gardens around the Cathedral would have been very productive and providing herbs and medicines.

For a nurseryman - and any practical gardener - these are the places that can draw you in most; the hidden heart of any garden where plants are propagated, grown on, overwintered, kept - until a place in the garden can be found for them.

I particularly liked this narrow shady border full of ferns under a magnolia against the easternmost wall that surrounds the Precincts, and these are plants, as I have mentioned before, that we would like to grow more of in the shadiest parts of our garden. Close by is an area of cut meadow grass full of spring bulbs and some naturalised orchids. And in the narrow north-west facing corner of the garden a rather wild - even unkempt - orchard, that somehow made a balance to so much else; that part of any garden that goes its own way and can be (in a curious way) often more comfortable than more formal and gardened parts because it tells you something about limits. Some seats placed here gave that impression.


And on leaving the Deanery Garden can you imagine a more perfect setting for a white phlox than against a flint-stone wall like this?

Moving back directly to the north of the Cathedral, near to the Chapter house and Library, Philip took us to the newly planted Herbarium or Healing Garden on the ruined site of the Medieval monk's dormitory. This is overlooked by a fine specimen of Acer pseudoplatanus 'Leopoldii' with oddly variegated leaves, giving the whole tree a golden cast. So many variegated plants are prone to reversion with the green shoots eventually out-competing the variegated ones that to see a mature tree with such stable variegation is surprising, and this is a big tree!

The nearby library holds an original copy of Gerard's Herbal, and the garden is an interactive one in which visitors can call up appropriate images from the Herbal on their smartphones whilst viewing  the authentic plant in the 'herbarium'. The setting is perfect - warm and surrounded by walls, and secluded away from anywhere else.

Most exquisite of all are two polished stone sculptures, impossible to pass without touching and stroking their surface - Gemini. These were created from the same block of Egyptian stone, known as Hammamat Breccia, excavated from a remote site recognised as a source of the earliest quarried decorative stone in the world. Their purpose is to signify the "generative life force of the splitting cell".

We finished in the Great Cloisters adjacent to the entrance to the Archdeacon's Garden and house, not visited on this occasion but open for the NGS days with three other private gardens as well as the Deanery. This is a great incentive to return next year to see and learn more of such a marvellous and rather hidden place. Just here is this very fine illuminated glass that resonates beautifully with the delicate stonework.

I will finish with this picture of Philip Oostenbrink who was our excellent, kind and informative guide, and who has interesting plans - including for a small rock garden - in further hidden corners around the Cathedral, which really does provide such a unique and enviable setting for plants.

This was one of the most enjoyable visits to gardens that I remember (hence this quite detailed review) because of that essential connection between the heritage of the Cathedral and our simple love and reliance on plants. I am reminded of the carved stonework representing plants on the Cathedral at Strasbourg, which was described in an exhibition when we visited there a couple of years ago ("Nobody sees a flower really, they are too small, there isn't time..."). A garden is full of significance.

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