A Visit to Mount Grace Priory

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Spring flowers at Mount Grace Priory
Chartreuse-yellow Euphorbia characias mingles with Brunnera macrophylla and bluebells at Mount Grace Priory

Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire is the best preserved of the nine medieval Carthusian monasteries in England. Now owned by the National Trust and operated by English Heritage, it’s a fascinating place to visit for both historians and plant-lovers.

Ruined priory buildings

The Carthusians are an order of the Catholic Church, founded in 1084 by Bruno of Cologne. The first Carthusian monastery was set up in the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France. The mountains gave their name to the monastery – Grande Chartreuse. Later, the name was also shared with the greeenish-yellow liqueur the monks made there from the 18th century onwards, with its secret recipe of 130 herbs and flowers. The English word Charterhouse, which refers to Carthusian monasteries, has the same roots too.

Brunnera macrophylla at Mount Grace Priory
Brunnera macrophylla has large heart-shaped leaves and sprays of blue flowers in spring.

The strict life of solitude and contemplation drew others to the monastery and other priories were set up, including a number in England. Amongst them was Mount Grace Priory, founded in 1398 and suppressed, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in the 1530s. It was later rebuilt as a mansion and restored in the early 20th century in the Arts and Craft style by Lowthian Bell. More recently, in 2018, its 13 acres of gardens were redesigned by Chris Beardshaw, incorporating 7,500 herbaceous plants and 27,000 bulbs.

House and terraces
The wide stone terraces descend to the lawned area.

The Arts and Craft garden style is one of exuberant planting, flowing over a more formal architectural structure, usually constructed from local natural materials. At Mount Grace Priory, the stone terraces, close to the house, are richly planted with herbaceous and alpine plants.

Gardens at Mount Grace Priory
View of the gardens from the house.

Further away from the house, the garden leads down to a more wooded and naturalistic area near the ponds. Typical Arts and Crafts plants included roses, peonies and irises and all of these can be found at Mount Grace. In May, the last of the daffodils are fading, but the fruit trees are in blossom and bluebells carpet the ground.

Bluebells in a wild area
English bluebells – Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Euphorbia and brunnera at the base of the walls.
Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii edges the stone walls

Billows of euphorbia hug the stone walls, along with drifts of Brunnera macrophylla. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii (Mediterranean spurge) is an attractive evergreen shrub, creating a long season of interest and winter structure in the garden. Its upright stems have narrow, blue-green leaves and carry large cylindrical flowerheads from early spring to early summer. The chartreuse bracts, cupping the tiny flowers, provide the display. It grows to 1.2m high.

Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’ is shorter, growing to 75cm, but has an enchanting dark eye to each flower.

Clusters of Euphorbia characias 'Black Pearl'
Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’

Bees are at work, busy visiting the dusky pink flowers of Lamium orvala. An enchanting perennial, it forms a clump of dark green leaves often edged with purple. The two-lipped flowers, the bottom lip attractively marked and mottled, are borne from late spring into summer and are a good source of nectar for bees.

A bee on Lamium orvala
A bee buzzes around Lamium orvala
Willow garden support
Woven willow and hazel structures will provide support later in the season.

Though the ferns are still unfurling and the irises and peonies have yet to flower, willow and hazel supports give structure to the beds.

Ground cover plants cover the terrace borders.
Ground cover plants provide bursts of colour in the terrace border.

There is plenty of colour though. Mossy saxifrage edges the weathered paving stones, while aubrieta and phlox tumble from the terrace edges.

Fuchsia-like flowers of the flowering gooseberry shrub
Ribes speciosum – flowering gooseberry

An interesting fuchsia-lookalike turns out to be the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum, which has an Award of Garden Merit. The shrub has bristly stems and grows to about 2m in height. Its long stamens protrude well below the deep red flower in mid to late spring.

The reconstructed monk’s cell provides a fascinating glimpse into the silent, meditative lives of the Carthusian monks. Behind each cell lie the individual gardens, where the monks would have grown herbs for medicinal and aromatic uses, as well as fruits and vegetables and probably flowers just for their beauty.

The monks' gardens
Monks’ garden with box-edged flower beds.

The box-edged flower beds today contain mandrake, henbane and salad burnet. Climbing plants clamber up the fan-shaped trellis on the stone walls and the plump peony buds hold the promise of delights to come.

Mount Grace Priory - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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The Weatherstaff Team