Marigold Webb talks to Dr Denise Inge about her garden

11:27 12 July 2011

Marigold Webb talks to Dr Denise Inge about her garden

Marigold Webb talks to Dr Denise Inge about her garden

In the first of a series of interviews Marigold Webb talks to Dr Denise Inge, wife of the Bishop of Worcester, The Right Reverend Dr John Inge about her life and the little patch of heaven where she can work, rest and pray

Denise Inges house comes with the job, her husbands job. John is Bishop of Worcester, and the Inge family lives at the hub of the diocese, in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral.

Until recently, Worcesters bishops lived at Hartlebury Castle, some 15 miles to the north. That very substantial building, with its extensive grounds, was suited to the bishops of the 18th and 19th century who lived in a more expansive style, with a large staff. Todays bishops preserve their dignity without pomp and without staff.

For John and Denise and their two young daughters, 12-year-old Eleanor and Olivia aged seven, home is a house overlooking the river Severn and the County Cricket ground. The property has featured on the 20 note, and further back still, in medieval times, it was the home of a priest whose main task was to pray for the souls of the departed. Their earthly skeletal remains were stored in the cellar below, then an ossuary.

Nowadays, Denise has to deal more with the present than the past and is well equipped to do so. She grew up the youngest of five siblings and a foster brother in unspoiled countryside in Pennsylvania, USA. There were Amish settlements close by. Her fathers ancestors were Mennonite farmers from Switzerland, who sailed for America in 1763. A distant relation was the Sundance Kid. It was a barefoot, idyllic childhood in which she spent much of her time studying nature in nearby woods or beside the big lake close to the family home.

In 1986, Denise came to England and met John, who before his ordination taught chemistry at Lancing College in West Sussex. His first clerical appointment was as Chaplain at Lancing, followed by Harrow School. Subsequent appointments were on Tyneside and Ely in Cambridgeshire and he became Bishop of Worcester in March 2008. Denise is an Honorary Fellow in Early Modern Research at the University of Worcester and a leading authority on the 17th century Herefordshire priest and mystic poet Thomas Traherne. She has been a major influence in bringing to light several of Trahernes lost works; the last two discovered in London and in Washington DC, in the first years of this century. Despite growing up during the Civil War and living through those turbulent times, Traherne wrote about happiness through his poetry and prose and Denise feels his story has never been more pressing and relevant than it is to our lives today.

My first contact with Denise and her garden was around two years ago, when she asked me for help with its layout. A plan was drawn up with the assistance and blessing of Worcester City Council and the Diocesan authorities to create a garden that was both secure and multi-purpose. Denise and Johns brief was that the new garden must be a place for peace and prayer; for hospitality and for children to play. It also had to fit into its place in the townscape. It is part of the iconic view of the city from the cricket ground, of memories of John Arlotts voice as the late sunlight played on the cathedral and the evening shadows started to lengthen around the ground.

When I visited, the hospitality plans were in full swing with three very different functions scheduled. Denise is a patron of the charity Relate and was preparing for a reception in the garden, weather permitting, to thank the volunteers. This was to be followed by a teddy bears picnic for clergy and their families and then by a charity fund-raising drinks party.

As soon as the parties are over, the garden become a place of peace and quiet once more a place where Denise, with her own busy lifestyle, can relax, contemplate and pray. The garden is now registered with the Quiet Garden Movement ( which encourages venues where visitors can rest and pray, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Denise, with the help of horticulturalist Andrew Dunn, was instrumental in the initial planning of the garden. She obviously loves to be involved in the creative side and has studied the historical layout from various maps and old prints. Where practical, these earlier styles have been interpreted on the ground. An exciting find was the discovery of the original 18th and 19th century planting lists and my son, Ed Webb has been largely responsible for sourcing some of these ancient varieties, including some of the vegetables. In keeping with the historical theme, a beehive has been installed and will no doubt produce delicious honey.

My recent visit was a revelation. The whole area had been sympathetically fenced with wattle to give the feeling of enclosure albeit on a wide scale. In keeping with Denises desire for separate spaces the garden at the back of the house facing west towards the River Severn is being formalised and will end up as an elegant town garden with lots of structural planting. The ground slopes steeply from the brick paved terrace (a real sun-trap) immediately outside the house with ancient walls on either side and a glimpse of the cathedral to the south. Here, three new terraces are being constructed with innovative wooden blocks (like Lego!) creating retaining walls and stone steps in between. It is designed to be viewed both overall from above, and garden room by garden room when on each individual terrace. Espaliered fruit trees restrict the eye, so as not to view everything at once. A mature silver birch provides shade in one corner of the lower terrace which will also be home to a small greenhouse. I really look forward to seeing this project when it is finished.

In complete contrast, on the other side of the mellow, rose-covered and south-facing wall, a completely different garden beckons. It is reached through a door in the wall at the lower end of the garden towards the river. This is a much more active and spacious type of garden with a large expanse of lawn. This is known as The Palace Garden since it was once part of the Bishops Palace, which can still be seen beyond and behind a wattle fence. This division of space is accurately chronicled on old maps and appears to be portrayed as a hedge. This has been interpreted by planting a yew hedge alongside the wattle fence, which will one day replace it. A parallel herbaceous border runs alongside intermingled with a mixture of fruit and vegetables. A particularly luscious group of huge strawberries at the front of the border were very tempting, and are tended by the Inges young daughter, Olivia, a keen gardener. Her elder sister, Eleanor prefers to relax on the swing, which has been suspended from a branch of a sturdy Holm oak. Close by is an ancient mulberry, possibly dating back to James II. Access to this part of the garden can also be reached by a winding woodland path on one side of the house through a carpet of foxgloves and ferns that takes you back to Denises childhood days in the woodlands of Pennsylvania. Such a transformation.

Over a cup of coffee and some delicious home-made drizzle cake, Denise stressed that she was not just gardening for herself and her family. She feels that they are just stewards of the garden, which not only enhances the new Bishops house, but also restores, for future generations, an historic view that was lost to the city. She believes we are all stewards of our own gardens and what particularly appeals is to be reminded of stewardship rather than ownership. The good steward will live for the future of his plot, conserving its resources. I am sure shes right, but I guess there are good and bad stewards and bad and good owners.

It seems appropriate to end this article with a 17th century quotation on happiness from Thomas Traherne.

This visible world is wonderfully to be delighted in, and highly to be esteemed, Because it is the theatre of Gods righteous kingdom.


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