Dean Garnier’s Garden

3 September 2017

Standing on Colebrook Street behind the River Cottage Canteen the temptation to go to Costa and sit in the dry with a cup of coffee was strong. By now I’d been walking around Winchester in the rain for almost two hours and there is only so much dampness even I can stand. Abbey Passageway to my right would take me along the side of Abbey Gardens and back to the High Street. This was where Mitch and I found the Nunnaminster graves the other week. The passageway and gardens are said to be haunted by a ghostly nun and this dismal day seemed just right for meeting ghosts. 

There is no pavement outside the gate from this side of Abbey Gardens. Unwisely, I was standing in the middle of the road looking down the passageway half hoping the nun would appear so I could take her photo when a car leaving the car park made me dash to the nearest pavement. This was when I remembered the secret garden I discovered last May. Maybe the coffee could wait a little while after all.

The hidden passageway was almost in front of me and I couldn’t resist another look. Half way along is a fenced off opening giving a tantalising view into the beautiful garden of a house, built and lived in by architect Henry Holland in around 1790. This strange window into his garden looks over a pond, perhaps part of the old mill stream culverted under Colebrook Street. At the far end is a parapet that could be a bridge and a half concealed sculpture on a pedestal. The impression of shadowy things, half hidden always captures my imagination and makes me long to go inside. Perhaps that was his intention?

The far end of the passageway is flanked by two doors. In all probability they are just gates leading into the gardens on either side but they add to the air of mystery about the place. Between them is an ancient stone wall with an arched gateway clothed in ivy. This is the Water Gate entrance to the Inner Close of Winchester Cathedral.

Until that moment I’d been meaning to turn around and head back to the High Street for coffee but now, on a whim, I decided to keep going forwards instead. Through the gate is a path leading behind the cathedral. There are ancient graves scattered on the grass and a high flint wall dividing the area from Holland’s garden. Perhaps I should have tried to get inside and look at the graves but something else kept me going forwards.

The path leads around the side of the cathedral to an archway. Halfway along is a door. It feels a little like a secret passage and adds to the air of mystery that begins with the secret garden. Winchester is riddled with places like this, they seem like gateways to the past, places where bumping into the ghost of a nun, a beggar, or a king wouldn’t be such a surprise.

Today I passed through unmolested by appropriations of any kind. It was almost a disappointment. Now I was in the Inner Close, right beside Dean Garnier’s Garden. Unconsciously, this was where I’d been heading all along. Smiling, despite the rain, I climbed the old stone steps.

Of all the gardens in Winchester this must surely be the prettiest. The first thing I noticed was the medlar tree with its strange fruit like giant rose hips. These fruits, or pomes, only become edible in winter after they’ve been softened by frost and look, to the untrained eye, as if they are rotten. Before then they are hard and acidic. One or two pretty white flowers still remained on the tree, looking a little like dog roses.

Last time I was here it was spring and the garden was filled with flowers, red valerian, honeysuckle, viburnum and roses. There were still a few Japanese anemones and some hydrangeas along the path now but, other than that it was mostly greenery. For me though, part of the attraction of this little walled garden is the sense of history and the crumbling old buildings.

This part of the garden, known as the Dorter Garden, was once the dormitory of the Monks of St Swithun’s Priory. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 The Dean and his twelve cannons were each given an individual house and the dormitory became part of the Dean’s garden. There are several wonderfully dilapidated buildings along the southern edge of the garden, the largest of which was once the Deanery bakehouse. This quaint little house with its moss covered tiles and patchwork walls of stone, flint and brick is one of my favourite things about the garden. It could have come straight from the pages of a fairytale and I long to go through the low wooden door and look inside.

Of course these buildings and the garden were all here long before Thomas Garnier became Dean of Winchester in 1840. He was a keen botanist though, a founding member of the Hampshire Horticultrual Society, so must have been pleased to have such a lovely garden to tend. In Garnier’s day the Dorter Garden was a rose garden and, from it, he would have had an magnificent view of the south transept of the Cathedral.

The next part of the garden, therough an arched arbour, is the Presbytery Garden. In spring and summer there are roses growing here, just as there would have been in Garnier’s time. The stone bench with its hidden fox and cryptic Latin inscription ‘only she did not know’ was dry under the shelter of the beech tree but I had no time to sit today.

On the other side of the tree another bench marked the entrance to the third and final part of the garden, the Lady Chapel Garden. Before I passed through the gap in the yew hedge into it though, I walked across the Presbytery Garden to look at Charles Normandale’s sculpture of stainless steel fish. The swirl of fish, like a fountain bursting from the slate pedestal, was inspired by a water source uncovered in the grounds.

There were still a few flowers blooming in the Lady Chapel Garden, mostly penstemons and Japanese anemones. This was, I think, the monk’s wash house. Behind the garden wall is the Lockburn Stream, a medieval culvert used as Winchester’s main drain until the 1870’s. The monk’s lavatory would have stood over the stream.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas Garnier was an anti-muckabite, a campaigner for Winchester’s first proper sewerage system. This particular corner of the garden can’t have smelt too pleasant after all. The smell of the Lockburn Stream wasn’t the only problem, with an open drain running through the centre of the city, cholera was rife. When the sewage pumping station was finally built the road it stood on was named Garnier Road in his honour.

My quick tour of the garden was almost over and the rain seemed to finally have stopped. It might not have been fun getting wet all morning but, as I walked back towards the entrance I admired the way the rain made everything sparkle. It shone on the wet flagstones and dripped from the clematis climbing the arbour and the grey skies gave a brooding look to my photos.

This is a garden where the buildings are as much a part of the charm as the flowers. The unrivalled views of the cathedral and the old deanery, parts of which date back to the thirteenth century, make a wonderful framework for the plants and the volunteers who maintain the garden do a marvellous job.

As I looked back at the garden from the entrance I wondered what Dean Garnier would have made of it. The current garden was created in 1995, more than a hundred years after his death, and it’s certainly very different to the one he would have looked out on. Knowing his love of plants, I’m fairly sure he would have loved it and been pleased to know it was dedicated to his memory.


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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

2 thoughts on “Dean Garnier’s Garden”

    1. Walled gardens are quite common here but not many have such ancient walls as this one. High walls create a microclimate and enable more types of plants to be grown.

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