THE ROMAN GARDEN IN ENGLAND

It would appear, judging from the specimens one sees, that the building
of garden apartments, or summer-houses, is a lost art. But then leisure,
as an art, has also been lost; and no man unless he understand leisure
can possibly build an apartment to be entirely devoted to it.

Imagine the man of the day who could write of his summer-house as the
younger Pliny wrote: “At the end of the terrace, adjoining to the
gallery, is a little garden-apartment, which I own is my delight. In
truth it is my mistress: I built it.” The younger Pliny, of to-day, is
scouring the countryside in a motorcar, his eyes half-blinded by dust,
his nose offended by the stink of petrol; his thoughts, like his toys,
purely mechanical.

There are still a few quiet people, and some scholars, whom the
Socialist in his eager desire to benefit mankind at reckless speed, and
at ruthless expense of humanity, would like to blot out, who can enjoy
their gardens with that curious remoteness which is the privilege of the
person of leisure.

The art of leisure lies, to me, in the power of absorbing without effort
the spirit of one’s surroundings; to look, without speculation, at the
sky and the sea; to become part of a green plain; to rejoice, with a
tranquil mind, in the feast of colour in a bed of flowers. To this end
is the good gardener born. The man, who, from a sudden love, stops in
his walk to look at a field of Buttercups has no idea of the spiritual
advancement he has made.

All this ambles away from the main topic, but so closely does the peace
of gardens cling, that thoughts fly over the hedges like bees on the
wing and bring back honey from wider pastures and dreams from larger
tracts than those the garden itself covers. A man might write a romance
of Spain from looking at an Orange.

The Romans, who left an indelible mark on England in their roadways and
by their laws, built in this country many villas whose pavements and
foundations remain to show us what manner of habitations they were.
Besides this we have ample records of the shapes and purposes of these
villas, with long accounts of baths, furniture and the like, such as
enable us to picture very completely the life of a Roman gentleman
exiled to these shores.

Houses, parks, and fields now cover all traces of any gardens there were
attached to these Roman villas. Many a man lives over the spot where the
hedges and alleys, the flower beds and walks, once delighted those
gentlemen who sat drinking Falernian wine poured from old amphoræ dated
by the year of the consul. Where sheep now browse gentlemen have sat
after a feast of delicacies—Syrian Plums stewed with Pomegranate seeds;
roasted field-fares, fresh Asparagus; Dates sent from Thebes—and, having
eaten, have enjoyed the work of their topiarius, whose skill has cut
hedges of Laurel, Box, and Yew into the forms of ships, bears, beasts
and birds.

Differing from the Greeks, who were not good gardeners, the Romans, with
a skill learnt partly from Oriental countries, made much of their
gardens, and laid them out with infinite care and arrangement. They
raised their flower-beds in terraces, and edged them with neat box
borders; they made walks for shade, and walks for sun; planted thickets,
alleys of fruit trees, orchards, and Vine pergolas. They had, as a rule,
in larger gardens, a gestatio, a broad pathway in which they were
carried about in litters. They had the hippodromus, a circus for
exercise, which had several entrances with paths leading to different
parts of the garden.

It is not too much to presume that the Romans, who spent their lives in
our country, and build magnificent villas for themselves, and brought
over all the arts of their country, brought, also, their methods of
gardening, and planted here as they planted in their villas outside
Rome, all the flowers, fruits and vegetables that the country would
produce.

Tacitus was of the opinion that “the soil and climate of England was
very fit for all kinds of fruit trees, except Vine and Olive; and for
all kinds of edible vegetables.” In this he was right but for the Vine,
which was planted here in the Third Century, and we know of vineyards
and wine made from them in the Eighth Century.

Of gardeners there was the topiarius, a fancy gardener, whose main
business it was to be expert on growing, cutting and clipping trees. The
villicus, or viridarius, who was the real villa gardener, with much the
same duties as our gardener of to-day. The hortulanus is a later term.
And there was the aquarius, a slave whose duty it was to see that all
the garden was provided with proper aqueducts, and who managed the
fountains which, without doubt, formed a great part in garden ornament.
I imagine, also, that the aquarius would have control over the supply of
hot water which must flow through the green-houses where early fruits
and flowers were forced; such fruits as Winter Grapes, Melons, and
Gherkins; and of flowers, the Rose in particular, for use in garlands
and crowns.

Violets and Roses were the principal flowers, being often grown as
borders to the beds of vegetables, so that one might find Violets,
Onions, Turnips, and Kidney Beans flourishing together.

Besides these flowers there were also the Crocus, Narcissus, Lily, Iris,
Hyacinth (the Greek emblem of the dead in memory of the youth killed by
Apollo by mistake with a quoit), Poppy, and the bright red Damask Rose
and Lupias.

In the orchards of Rome were Cherries, Plums, Quinces, Pomegranates,
Peaches, Almonds, Medlars, and Mulberries; and in the vineyards were
thirty varieties of Grapes. Those kinds of fruits which were hardy
enough to stand our climate were grown here, and to judge from all
account only the Olive failed to meet the test.

Not only were flowers and fruit grown in profusion but Herbs, Asparagus,
and Radishes had their place.

Honey, which took a great place in Roman cookery, and in making possets,
and in thickening wine, was provided by bees kept especially in apiaries
built in sheltered places, with beds of Cytisus, and Thyme and Apiastrum
by them. The hives were built of brick or baked dung, and were placed in
tiers, the lowest on stone parapets about three feet above the ground;
these parapets being covered with smooth stucco to prevent lizards and
insects from entering the hives.

The descriptions by the younger Pliny of his villas and gardens are so
delightful in themselves, besides being of great value, that I am going
to quote largely from them.

The village of Laurentium where Pliny built his villa was on the shores
of the Tuscan Sea, and not far from the mouth of the Tiber. The villa
was built as a refuge after a hard day’s work in Rome, which was only
seventeen miles away. “A distance,” he says, “which allows us, after we
have finished the business of the day, to return thither from town, with
the setting sun.”

There were two roads from Rome to this villa, the one the Laurentine
road—“if you go the Laurentine you must quit the high road at the
fourteenth stone”—and the Ostian road, where the branch took place at
the eleventh.

After a description of the house and the baths he writes of the garden:

“At no great distance is the tennis-court, so situated, as never to be
annoyed by the heat, and to be visited only by the setting sun. At the
end of the tennis-court rises a tower, containing two rooms at the top
of it, and two again under them; besides a banqueting room, from whence
there is a view of very wide ocean, a very extensive continent, and
numberless beautiful villas interspersed upon the shore. Answerable to
this is another turret containing, on the top, one single room where we
enjoy both the rising and the setting sun. Underneath is a very large
store-room for fruit, and a granary, and under these again a dining-room
from whence, even when the sea is most tempestuous, we only hear the
roaring of it, and that but languidly and at a distance. It looks upon
the garden, and the place for exercise which encludes my garden. The
whole is encompassed with Box; and where that is wanting with Rosemary;
for Box, when sheltered by buildings, will flourish very well, but
wither immediately if exposed to wind and weather, or ever so distantly
affected by the moist dews from the sea. The place for exercise
surrounds a delicate shady vineyard, the paths of which are easy and
soft even to the naked feet.

“The garden is filled with Mulberry and Fig trees; the soil being
propitious to both those kinds of trees, but scarce to any other.

“A dining-room, too remote to view the ocean, commands an object no less
agreeable, the prospect of the garden: and at the back of the
dining-room are two apartments, whose windows look upon the vestibule of
the house; and upon a fruitery and a kitchen garden. From hence you
enter into a covered gallery, large enough to appear a public work. The
gallery has a double row of windows on both sides; in the lower row are
several which look towards the sea; and one on each side towards the
garden; in the upper row there are fewer; in calm days when there is not
a breath of air stirring we open all the windows, but in windy weather
we take the advantage of opening that side only which is entirely free
from the hurricane. Before the gallery lies a terrace perfumed with
Violets. The building not only retains the heat of the sun, and
increases it by reflexion, but defends and protects us from the northern
blasts.”

[Illustration: ENTRANCE TO THE GARDENS, AYSCOUGH FEE HALL, SPALDING.]

After a further description of this gallery written with some care,
Pliny begins his praise of his garden apartment. No man but a man of
true leisure could have dwelt so lovingly on a description of a
summer-house. Herrick loved his simple things as much, and sang them
tenderly. The small things that come close to us, to keep us warm from
all life’s disappointments, these are the things our hearts sing out to,
these are the things we think of when we are from home. “At the end of
the terrace, adjoining to the gallery, is a little garden-apartment,
which I own is my delight. In truth it is my mistress: I built it; and
in it is a particular kind of sun-trap which looks on one side towards
the terrace, on the other towards the sea, but on both sides has the
advantage of the sun. A double door opens into another room, and one of
the windows has a full view of the gallery. On the side next the sea,
over against the middle wall, is an elegant little closet; separated
only by transparent windows, and a curtain which can be opened or shut
at pleasure, from the room just mentioned. It holds a bed and two
chairs; the feet of the bed stand towards the sea, the back towards the
house, and one side of it towards some distant woods. So many different
views, seen from so many different windows diversify and yet blend the
prospect.

“Adjoining to this cabinet is my own constant bedchamber, where I am
never disturbed by the discourse of my servants, the murmurs of the sea,
nor the violence of a storm. Neither lightning nor daylight can break in
upon me till my own windows are opened. The reason of so perfect and
undisturbed a calm here arises from a large void space which is left
between the walls of the bedchamber and of the garden; so that all sound
is drowned in the intervening space.

“Close to the bedchamber is a little stove, placed so near a small
window of communication that it lets out, or retains, the heat just as
we think fit.

“From hence we pass through a lobby into another room, which stands in
such a position as to receive the sun, though obliquely, from daybreak
till past noon.”

There is one thing in this description that is very noteworthy, the
absolute content with everything, the lack of any note of grumbling.
After all, the pleasures of that garden apartment were very simple; he
took his joy of the sun, the wind, and the distant sound of the sea.
Heat, light, and the pleasant music of nature; the bank of Violets near
by, the prospect of the villas on the shore glimmering amidst their
greenery in the sun; the songs of birds in the thickets of Myrtle and
Rosemary, there made up the fine moments of his life.




Such little houses were copied from the Eastern idea, such as is pointed
to several times in the Bible. The Shunamite gives such a house to
Elisha:

“Let us make him a little chamber, I pray thee, with walls; and
let us set him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a
candlestick, that he may turn in thither when he cometh to us.”

Whether a Roman living in England ever built himself such a house it is
difficult to prove, since, so far as I can find, no remains of such a
place are to be seen. But, when one considers the actual evidence of the
Roman Occupation, the yields given by the neighbourhoods of Roman
cities, the statues, vases, toys, the amphitheatres for cock-fighting,
wrestling, and gladiatoral combat, then surely there were gardens of
great wonder near to these cities where men like Pliny went to sit in
their garden houses and enjoyed the cool of the evening after a day’s
work.

I have always made it a fancy of mine to suppose such an apartment to
have stood on the spot where a garden house I know now stands. I have
sat in this little house, a tiny place compared to Pliny’s, and pictured
to myself the surrounding country as it might have looked under the eyes
of our Roman conquerors. Not far distant is a Roman town, outside which
is a huge amphitheatre; the Roman road, via Iceniana, cutting through
the western downs and forests. Over this very countryside were villas
scattered here and there, bridges, walls, moats and camps. Even to-day,
not far away from my summer-house, are two small Roman bridges, over
which, in my day-dreams, the previous occupier of the site has often
passed.

Here, from this summer-house, I look upon an apiary, a bed of Violets, a
little wood that gives shelter to the birds, a running stream where
trout leap in the pools. My Roman friend, had he built his house here,
would have looked, as I look, at green meadows, and across them to a
wild heath on which rise the very mounds he must have known, British
earthworks, and the heap-up burial places of great British chiefs. Round
about the house grow many flowers that would seem homely to my ghostly
friend, Roses, Lilies, Narcissi, Violets, Poppies. Here he might have
sat and contemplated, as Pliny did, and taken his pleasure of the sun,
the wind, the birds. The sea he could not have heard, since it is eight
miles away, but he could well have seen storms come up over the western
downs, known that the Roman galleys were seeking shelter in the coves
and harbours, and noticed how the gulls flew screaming inland, and the
Egyptian swallows flew low before the coming tempest.

This house that I know is a simple affair, compared to the elaborate
design of Pliny’s; it is a small thatched single apartment built in the
elbow of the garden wall. It is not tuned to trap the sun, or dull the
sounds of the violence of the winds, but its solitary window opens wide
to let in the sound of the bees at work, the thrush singing in the Lilac
tree, or tapping his snails on a big stone by the side of the garden
path. It has a shelf for books, two chairs, a writing table, and an
infinity of those odds and ends a person collects who deals with bees.
Withal it is pervaded by a very sweet smell of honey.

Then there are ghosts for company if the books, the birds, and the bees
fail. There is my Roman to speak for his villa, for the glories of the
town near by. There is the British chieftain whose mound is not two
miles away, a mound where his charred ashes lie, but the urn that held
them is on a shelf overhead. There are Saxons who have trod this very
ground, and Danes and Normans, men also from Anjou, Gascony, and Maine,
and a host of others. Then there are the flowers themselves with
romances every one.

If I have a mind to following fancy and turn this into a veritable Roman
garden, I can link my fancy with Pliny’s facts and see how it would have
been ordered and arranged. I can see the villa portico with its terrace
in front of it adorned with statues and edged with Box. Below here is a
gravel walk on each side of which are figures of animals cut in Box.
Then there is the circus at the end of a broad path, where my Roman
friend could exercise himself on horseback. Round about the circus are
sheared dwarf trees, and clipped Box hedges. On the outside of this is a
lawn, smooth and green. Then comes my summer-house shaded with Plane
trees, with a marble fountain that plays on the roots of the trees and
the grass round them. There would be a walk near by covered with Vines,
and ended by an Ivy-covered wall. Several alleys (my imagination has
traced their courses) wind in and out to meet in the end of a series of
straight walks divided by grass plots, or Box trees cut into a thousand
shapes; some of letters forming my Roman’s name; others the name of his
gardener. In these are mixed small pyramid Apple trees; “and now and
then (to follow Pliny’s plan) you met, on a sudden, with a spot of
ground, wild and uncultivated, as if transplanted hither on purpose.”
Everywhere are marble or stone seats, little fountains, arbours covered
with Vines, and facing beds of Roses, or Violets, or Herbs, and always
is to be heard the pleasant murmur of water “conveyed through pipes by
the hand of the artificer.”

The more I think of it the more I see how exactly the garden I know
fulfils this purpose. Except for a greater, a far greater display of
flowers, Pliny would be quite at home here. There is an abundance of
water; the very site for the horse course; winding alleys, straight
paths, and several pergolas for Roses.

A noticeable thing in the planning of a Roman garden, and one that is
too often absent from our own, is the great attention paid to the value
of water. In many places where there is an abundant supply of water,
with streams running close by, or even through the garden, we find no
attempt made to use the value of water either decoratively or for useful
purposes. We are apt to dispose our gardens for the purposes of large
collections of flowers, whereas the Roman with his small store of them
was forced to bring every aid to bear on varying his garden, such as
seats, fountains, and little artificial brooks. The cost, even in small
gardens, of arranging a decorative effect of water, where water is
plentiful, would not amount to so very much, and in many cases would be
a great saving of labour. We use wells to some extent, and, to my mind,
a properly-built well-head, with a roof and posts, and seats, is one of
the most beautiful garden ornaments we can have.

The well-head itself should be built of brick raised about eighteen
inches above the ground, and should be at least fourteen inches broad in
the shelf, so that the buckets have ample room in which to stand. The
coil and windlass are better if they are both simple, and of good
timber. Round this a brick path, two feet broad, should be laid. Over
all a roof of red tiles supported on square wooden posts or brick
pillars, would give shade to the well, and to a seat of plain design
that should be placed against the outer edge of the brick path. And if
beds of flowers were set about it all, as I have seen done, and well
done, in a cottage garden in Kent, the effect is quaint and beautiful.

I have no doubt that in Roman England such wells were built where the
supply of water was not equal to great distribution. But it is amazing
to think that such a tiny village as Laurentium, where Pliny had one of
his villas outside Rome, held three Inns, in each of which were baths
always heated and ready for travellers, and that it has taken us until
the present day to bring the bath into the ordinary house.

Naturally, when one casts one’s eyes over a picture of a Roman garden in
England, and compares it with a garden of to-day, the very first thing
we find missing is that mass of colour and that wonderful variety of
bloom that constitutes the apex of modern gardening. Where they were
surprised, or gave themselves sudden shocks to the eye, it was by means
of little grottos, fountains, vistas at the ends of long alleys, statues
in a wild part of a garden, or unexpected seats commanding a prospect
opened out by an arrangement of the trees. We prepare for ourselves
wildernesses in which the Spring shall paint her wonderful picture of
Anemones, Daffodils, Crocuses, and such flowers; where Blue Bells and
Primroses, Ragged Robin, and Foxgloves hold us by their vivid colour.
Our scarlet armies of Geranium, our banks of purple Asters, or the
flaming panoplies of Roses with which we illuminate our gardens would
seem to the Roman something wonderful and strange. Yet, in a sense, his
taste was more subtle. He held green against green, a bed of Herbs, the
occasional jewel of a clump of Violets, more to his manner of liking.
And he arranged his garden so as to contain as many varieties of walks
as possible.

In the evenings now, when I am, by chance, staying in the house whose
garden holds that summer-house I love, I can see my old Roman of my
dreams wandering over his estate, and I almost feel his presence near me
as his ghost sits on the wooden seat by the lawn and his eyes seem to
peer across the meadows back to where Rome herself lies over the eastern
hills. An exile, buried far from Rome, his spirit seems to hover here as
if he could not sleep in peace away from the warm, sweet Italy of his
birth.

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