Nancy Feeman is working with us on the development of an English garden at the Thomas More College's new Groton campus development in Massachusetts. She describes a recent trip to the UK and a visit to one of the great botanical gardens there, in Wales, called Bodnant Garden. She writes: During the past couple of years I have attended the Way of Beauty Course and Retreat at Thomas More College summer programs and have enrolled at the distance-learning college in England, the Maryvale Institute on the course called Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic Perspective (available now in the US through the Maryvale Institute center at the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas). This summer I traveled to England for the final weekend of the Maryvale course and was blessed to be able to make a pilgrimage to St. Winefride’s Well (the Lourdes of Britain) and to Bodnant Garden in Wales. Before I left I would probably not have called the trip to the garden a pilgrimage but now I am not so sure.
Wales is a country with more sheep than people (that is what the cab driver told me, so it must be true!), and Bodnant Garden is a hidden treasure in the northern part of the country. Walking into the garden is like walking into an earthly paradise surrounded by the rural idyll of the sheep pastures and farms on the mountains. This is the beauty of nature, but is different to an earlier experience of mine of walking through the Himalayas where the nature, while beautiful also and awe inspiring, is untouched by man (except for the surrounding rice paddies). Here everywhere has been shaped by man and made beautiful, more beautiful, through God's grace and the vision of those who worked on it.
The garden is set on a hill and separated into levels. On one level there is a rose garden and the colors are planted together moving from white to yellow, orange, pink and red. We watched as the gardener held the rose branch so tenderly before he clipped off the flower. The water garden holds perfectly formed water lilies, seven plants on each end of the pool. Benches are on platforms throughout the garden and have been placed in the most perfect viewing spots beckoning to us as we passed, just asking to be sat upon (which we did every time we saw one!). Here there is no separation between gardens and woods as one area of garden flows naturally into the next. The woods are managed and have been filled with hosta, hydrangea and many other plants. Even the brook at the bottom of the hill is lined on each side with enormous blue hydrangea. Walking up the hill on the opposite side there are fields and one gardener carefully and methodically raked the grass. It seemed to me that he should be wearing a Benedictine habit!
I have recently discovered the writing of the famous garden designer from the first part of the last century, Gertrude Jekyll. Her joy in her work is infectious and it is informed by her Christianity. She declares regularly that gardens are a hymn of praise to the Creator; and it would be difficult to wander through Bodnant Garden without giving thanks and praise to God.
Since my return home my heart always skips a beat when I see a lace-cap hydrangea that I remember so clearly from Bodnant and my visit has inspired me to learn more about gardens. I hope to reflect in the future on the manner in which gardens, especially their history and design, have a part in the philosophy and spirituality of the Way of Beauty; and am looking forward to seeing how the development of a English garden, that has begun at the Thomas More College's new, as yet undeveloped, campus in Groton, Massachusetts, takes shape as we work on it.