The Original Herb Garden

Herb Garden in Summer

The Herb Garden in Summer. Copyright: 2011, Tracy Anderson

The herb garden on the site today represents aspects of a typical medieval monastic herb garden. Lewes Priory originally had many gardens and orchards. Unfortunately we no longer know what they looked like or how they were laid out. However, a detailed and scaled drawing from the 9th century shows an ideal layout from a monastery site at St Gallen in Switzerland. If you click on the link you can see that one of the gardens on the plan, the medicinal herb garden (also called a physic garden or herbularius) is positioned next to the Infirmary (top left hand corner). A 12th century plan of Christchurch Priory, now Canterbury Cathedral, also shows the herb garden next to the Infirmary Hall.

On the Lewes site the outline of the walls of the Infirmary is marked in concrete.  When the garden was created in the 1980s it was positioned adjacent to the Infirmary. It is highly likely that the original physic garden would have been located close to here, perhaps on this very spot.

In a typical physic garden, herbs used for purely for medicinal and healing purposes would have been grown. Illustrated manuscripts, herbals and literary sources suggest that such a garden would have consisted of rectangular raised beds surrounded by paths. The layout of the physic garden at St Gallen was used as the basis for the layout of our garden. The soil in the beds would originally have been retained by walls of turf, wattle, bricks, stone or timber planking. In this garden we have attempted to imitate the building materials and there are examples of turf, flintwork and handmade bricks. Examples of wattle fencing have also been put in place.

Although the layout for our herb garden  is based on the plan of the physic garden at St Gallen, our garden does not restrict itself to herbs used for healing. We chose to include a variety of herbs that also demonstrate how they were used for cooking,  dyeing, decoration, religious ritual as well as healing. In that sense, it is a 'demonstration' garden, rather than an attempt to recreate an exact replica of a medicinal garden.

There is even an apple tree, representing the large area of the site given over to the production of fruit.  A new Orchard of rare local apple varieties was planted in February 2013 further along the East wall, near the Battle of Lewes Monument.