Violets and mistletoe
Steffie Shields highlights a famous Lincolnshire antiquarian’s passion for gardening
By all accounts, Dr William Stukeley (1687-1765) was an eccentric whose insatiable curiosity took him far from home. His detailed site surveys of Stonehenge and Avebury Circle, and his rationale that they were pre-Roman, brought great acclaim, and recognition today as one of the first professional, scientific field archaeologists. Stukeley’s letters to friends, littered with references to his garden, and his copious drawings in Stamford Museum, have provided a touch-paper to ruminations about a man who was local, who walked the same ground, observed the same topography, the same plants… Not unlike Prince Charles at Highgrove, his close scrutiny of his environment led to absorption, and comforting experimentation, in garden design to add ‘his story’.
A keen observer from the cradle it seems, as a boy Stukeley enjoyed exploring the woods around Holbeach. He trained as a doctor and practised medicine at Boston, later moving to London. Journeying extensively with friends, Stukeley made drawings of gothic churches and historical monuments, and recorded his travels in ‘Itinerarium Curiosum’ (1724). His descriptive observations of plant life and the topography of several grand gardens, including Belton, Chatsworth and Grimsthorpe, are also intriguing. He told a good tale about the distant past, from barrow to Roman road and temple, earning distinction in London’s highest academic circles. Besides joining the Royal Society, he was also founding secretary of the Society of Antiquaries. But life was not just about writing learned papers, or becoming expert in early coinage. He once delighted the members’ meeting by taking in a profusion of purple pasque flowers, Pulsatilla vulgaris, that he had found growing wild on local moorland. They were sent for planting in Chelsea Physic garden.
When the capital’s attractions palled, his Lincolnshire country roots proved a big pull. In 1727, a letter to his close friend Samuel Gale reveals, a move to Grantham clearly lifted his spirits:
‘Tis certain this country, above all I know, is exceedingly delightful for hunting, riding, air, prospects etc, nor doe I except even my darling Wiltshire; every day I am more & more ravished with it, & with [the] antiquitys [with which] it abounds. The great Ermin street runs just above us; … .Belton House, a delicate seat & park, 2 mile Sison [Syston] park the like distance….& all the roads around are thick with violets… The particular situation of Grantham is most admirable, a very large concavity, hills quite around at the reasonable distance of a mile, & a fine meandrous river [Witham] running through it at the bottom of my garden.’
The decision was undoubtedly influenced by Grantham’s proximity to Woolsthorpe, where Sir Isaac Newton resided. Thanks to Stukeley’s biography of the respected mathematician, we learn how the discovery of gravity happened:
‘After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea (sic) under the shade of some apple trees, only he, & myself … he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it.’
Stukeley took Holy Orders around this time. So this story, a fall with a small f, has a certain biblical nuance that only a reverend gentleman, and freemason, with a highly refined sense of things spiritual, could conceive. A ‘eureka moment‘, a tale, or tool, to help our understanding, is as much a trigger to our imagination as is the apple tree, a rare variety, ‘Flower of Kent’, still surviving at Woolsthorpe Manor.
Stukeley’s stone house, long since built over, stood on the corner of Castlegate and Avenue Road, the garden and orchards leading down to a clump of willows on the river below Harrowby Hill, near enough to hear the rushing cascades and millraces. He seemed happiest here, working outside, sleeves rolled up, laying out grass walks, entertaining eminent friends, planting a wide assortment of fruit trees, including walnut, mulberry, medlar, and cherry, to provide ‘an agreable shade….a sylva academi for philosophers to walk in.’ The surrounding wall, with alcove seats built into the corners, was not too high, so as to see the surrounding hills.
‘To the south of the house is my hermitage vineyard, so calld because the walls are all planted with vines, & in the wall I have built a grotto or cell sufficiently romantic.’
Overgrown with moss, harts-tongue fern, ivy and camomile, an iron cross purloined from the ruins of Oseley Abbey in Oxfordshire added to the effect, along with a herb garden and a grass amphitheatre with a ‘Druidic temple’, an oval grove of trees, an ‘antient appletree oregrown with sacred mistletoe’, reminiscent of Eden. Stukeley enjoyed collecting mistletoe during exploratory excursions into Grimsthorpe park, (where it still grows profusely). The strange milky-berried parasite suited his passionate interest in all things Druid. Newton’s death motivated a memorial, where else but in the garden, below the Milky Way, the stars they used to ponder together.
‘I painted his profile, as big as the life, in a niche in one of the wings of the garden front of my house at Grantham, facing the fine prospect of Harrowby hill; underneath inscribed GENIO LOCI. (The genius of the place).’
Later, living in Barn Hill, Stamford, as Rector of All Saints, and funded by welcome finances from a second marriage, Stukeley contemplated another, more elaborate Gothic garden. A remnant of Stamford’s Eleanor Cross that he had uncovered, outside the town, took pride of place. He built a Temple to Flora at the top of the sloping garden, complete with bell–tower, a grotto by a spring, and a triumphal Roman archway, Charles Gate, with rustic niches and a Latin inscription set into the boundary wall. Another Stukeley tale, this was where, in May 1646, the fugitive King Charles I is said to have entered Stamford. So, a century later, he thought it appropriate to mark the anniversary.
As chaplain to the Duke and Duchess of Ancaster, his knowledgeable, enthusiastic ideas were used to advantage in Grimsthorpe Castle’s gardens. One Stukeley drawing, a ‘view from Grime’s Walk’ suggested terminating the view beyond his designer friend, Stephen Switzer’s bastion garden with a rotunda temple with urns and pyramidal roof built on a tumulus, ‘perhaps … the burial place of Grime…who denominated the place Grimsthorp, or Grime’s farm, probably some great Saxon or Dane’. He advised another noble friend, the Duke of Montagu, recommending serpentine rides through Boughton’s woods and designed an amazingly intricate Gothic bridge to create a strong focal point in the park (unexecuted; a fine model exists at Boughton). Then, after returning to London, a cottage garden in Kentish Town was equally filled with stone carvings, stained glass and Latin texts, including over the front door, a reference to his Druid nickname ‘Chyndonax’:
Me dulcis saturet quies; O may this rural solitude receive,
Obscuro positus loco And contemplation
Leni perfruar otio all its pleasures give,
Chyndonax Druida The Druid priest!
As we too enjoy ‘garden snooping’, and try to find meaning in our surroundings, entertaining stories add a frisson of drama, or magic. Sweet violets perfume a garden walk, and remind me of my mother who loved them, just as a glimpse of a primeval ball of mistletoe fills our mind’s eye with pictures and people of the past….
• Sunday 13 March 2011, 2.30pm Lincolnshire Gardens Trust Spring Lecture by Steffie Shields, William Stukeley and his Heroes, plus tour of the gardens and tea, at
Easton Walled Gardens, NG33 5AP.
To book, please contact LGT Secretary, Tel: 01790 753561 or Email: email@example.com LGT
Members £10; Non-members £12