Restoration of the gardens at the Lord Leycester Hospital

It is argued from time to time that all talks in our Civic Society programme should deal directly with Lichfield, its buildings and its people. Certainly such topics often arouse great interest but the November meeting, when Mrs Susan Rhodes spoke of the restoration of the gardens at the Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick, provided a very strong counter-argument and gave members a memorable evening.

The Lord Leycester Hospital is situated in the centre of Warwick. Many of us may have walked past the fourteenth century buildings without any idea of what lies behind the facade of the ancient Guildhall and Great Hall. At the end of Susan's talk there was great enthusiasm for a summer visit so that members could see the buildings and gardens for themselves.

The Guildhall was built for the Guild of St George and used by the Guild until the suppression by Henry VIII. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, bought the buildings and gardens in 1571; established a home for twelve old soldiers or 'brethren' and appointed a Master to care for them - a similar concept to our own St John's Hospital in Lichfield. There is still provision for twelve brethren today but some of the number may now be women who have served in H.M. Forces. Susan went to the hospital in 1993 when her husband became the latest Master. With an educational background concerned with the history of gardens, and a lifelong love of gardening, she began the task of restoring the two parts of the garden to their former beauty. One section had been a 'sward' for recreation; the other a more formal area with flower beds, footpaths, a gazebo and a large decorative vase on a plinth. Over the centuries the gardens had seen many changes. At times they were used to produce large quantities of vegetables and fruit; at one period they provided a play area for school children; often they were neglected and left to become overgrown - as they were in 1993 when Susan Rhodes arrived.

Susan Rhodes and her fellow workers recreated the lines of former footpaths and flower-beds; rebuilt a Norman arch found during the excavations; and restored the ruined gazebo and thatched summer house. The large vase on its plinth was repositioned. It was found to be a Nilometer; possibly 2,000 years old and once used to measure the rise and fall in the waters of the River Nile. Susan researched early account books and old photographs of the Hospital, including the diaries kept by Nathaniel Hawthorne - who had been a frequent visitor to the Hospital. All gave clues for a suitable planting. Some plants were chosen for historical links with famous people - Lord Leycester's coat-of-arms provided white roses; his wife, Amy Robsart, a yellow rose which bears her name; rosemary was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Some flowers and climbing plants were included just because of their lovely colours and scents. A recent project has been the development of a knot garden at the side of the Hospital - inspired by the patterns on a timber and plaster wall nearby - this has a carved statue of a bear as a focal point.

All these projects have been carried out with enthusiasm, love and understanding and a great sensibility for this special site. No wonder the restoration has won several awards, including one from the Civic Trust. It must have enhanced the historic buildings and provided a beautiful setting for them.

Mary Lister
October 2000