The original walled garden was built c. 1500-1600 as a formal pleasure garden situated to the rear of the Great House that once stood at Cressing. When the mansion was pulled down in the later 17th century, there was no longer a call for a formal garden, and the walled garden assumed the role of a sheltered kitchen garden for vegetables, fruit trees, herbs and flowers for cutting. Despite this change in function, substantial areas of the garden’s original walls survived.
While the surviving features are respected within the garden’s present design, there was insufficient evidence to attempt any form of reconstruction. Instead its design represents several gardens in one, each with a theme demonstrating a particular usage of plants grown in the Medieval and Tudor periods. A survey of these is given below.
The Potager is a formal and geometric vegetable and pot herb garden. In late medieval times the three main staples of diet were bread, potage and ale. Potage included meat, oatmeal, pot herbs and flowers.
The Culinary Border is planted with examples of plants used to flavour food, stilling herbs (for herbal concoctions and remedies) and sallets (medieval form of salad). These include chives, dill, borage, rampions, spearmint, peppermint and sweet basil.
The Medicinal Border features plants grown for their medicinal or ‘physick’ use. They include angelica, mandrake, henbane, lungwort, foxglove, selfheal and comfrey. The plants were used in a variety of ways, in a dried form, infused in drinks, the seeds eaten or as poultices placed upon the body. The plants’ names often reflected the part of the body or illness treated.
The knot garden is enclosed by a hawthorn or quickset hedge, which was widely used at the time. Knots were a popular feature in gardens of this period and developed into complex patterns. Knots were designed to be viewed from above, in this case from the viewing platform.
The Arbour is a walkway covered with climbing plants. Arbours were a popular feature in the 16th and 17th centuries and derive from the cloisters of the Middle Ages, themselves descended from the Roman peristyle. It is constructed in green unseasoned oak with cleft chestnut trelliswork. The inspiration for the planting comes from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows
Where oxslips and nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses and eglantine.
Hops and eglantine rose along with Shakespeare’s musk rose climb over the Arbour giving off a wonderful perfume in summer time and a jewel like show of hips in Autumn.
The Nosegay Garden is full of sweetly scented plants which would have been used as decorations in the house or chapel, in nosegays, worn as garlands, or used for cosmetic purposes and flowerwater. The central feature is a bay tree which is trained as an estrade or cake stand form, which was widely used in Medieval times. The outer borders feature a collection of plants known as gilleflowers or July flowers. These include wallflowers, carnations, stocks, pinks and sweet rocket.
Orchard and Nuttery
The garden retains some features from the old garden: notably old varieties of apple, a mulberry and a medlar. To these have been added further heritage fruit trees such as the Costard apple and Black Worcester pear. The Nuttery is planted with hazel nuts, red and white filberts.
The Pool Garden demonstrates a range of plants with particular household uses including washing, pot pourri and insect repellents. The central plant in each border is a Gallica rose which has particularly fragrant dried petals and was important for pot pourri. Other plants used for this include balm, lavender, southernwood and sweet fennel. Orris was a plant with many uses. The root could be used to make ink, as an air freshener or deodorant, and the leaves could be used to cover chair seats, mend roofs and make paper.
Fount and Star Pool
The Star Pool follows a form seen in eastern rugs depicting garden designs. The four spouts symbolise the four rivers of paradise, source of the world’s waters, belonging to an eastern tradition extending back 4000 years and expressed in the description of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. The four bronze heads depict the Green Man, the vegetation sprite often seen in the carving and roof bosses of churches built in the Middle Ages. The leaves are those of native trees characteristic of Essex; hornbeam, field maple, small-leaved lime and oak.
The Flowery Mead
The Flowery Mead is planted with spring and summer flowering plants such as fritillaries, primroses, daisies, bugle and wild strawberry. The medlar tree in the top corner was blown over in the Great Storm of 1987 but is still thriving.
The border opposite the Nosegay Garden features plants commonly grown for their ability to yield dyes for food, drink and cloth and to make inks and paints for manuscripts. Different parts of the plant yield the dye and were either mixed with alum, water and other plants to create the required colour, or used alone. Examples include celandine where the petals produce a yellow dye, which was used in manuscript paint, and marjoram, where the flower heads were used to dye linen purple.
The Forecourt features plants that were commonly grown as strewing herbs. When the plants were trimmed, the clippings would have been taken to the house and strewn upon the floor to combat ‘pestilent ayres’. Queen Elizabeth I employed a strewing lady whose task it was to ensure a constant supply of strewing material. Plants in this area include hyssop, English Lavender, rosemary, rue, sage and wild thyme. The layout includes Medieval and Tudor features such as a turf seat planted with aromatic chamomile and a brick paved terrace with an arrangement of seats and pots.