In 1988 Katherine Swift took a lease on the Dower House at Morville Hall, a National Trust property in Shropshire, and created a one-and-a-half acre garden in what had been a field. In The Morville Hours (2008), she placed that garden in its landscape and wrote one of the finest books about the history, philosophy and the practice of gardening you are likely to read. She is currently working on a sequel, and The Morville Year is a very welcome interim volume, gathering the columns she wrote for The Times between 2001 and 2005.
The book is arranged by month, starting not in January but in March: as Swift characteristically points out, until the calendar was revised in 1752, the new year began on 25 March (Lady Day), the beginning of the growing season and the date from which leases and agricultural tenancies are traditionally still reckoned. The year unfolds, ending with another March and the promise of renewal. Gardening in the coldest county of England, Swift is particularly alert to the seasons and the weather, and she appreciates every aspect of the turning year. Each new angle of the sun, movement of cloud or change of light or temperature brings out some particular feature of the garden. The notion of ‘winter colour’, so often urged upon us by other writers and broadcasters, is not for her. ‘Winter lays bare the bones of a garden,’ she writes. ‘It is a time when one can appreciate the curve of a hedge, the siting of a path or walk, the relative volumes of the various spaces, without the distraction of flowers.’
The wonderful thing about these pieces is that they not only describe what is going on in Swift’s own garden but range across history, painting, landscape, language, geology, herbalism, cosmology, phenology and literature.