ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 53, June 2000


Where Samson pruned roses

Paul Stamper enjoyed finding a 17th century garden in a thick forest

My favourite discovery was an abandoned 17th century garden at Llanforda, west of Oswestry on the border between Shropshire and Wales.

I first became interested in historic parks and gardens as a schoolboy, but it was only after an unhappy day spent doing `real' archaeology in later life that I decided to spend more time hunting them out. After 12 years with the Victoria County History for Shropshire, the job folded in the mid 1990s through lack of money and I ended up working for the local archaeological unit. Day one (wet) was spent doing a watching brief which turned up, neatly stratified a metre down, a golf ball and a wellington boot. It was hardly what I had spent all those years studying archaeology for.

So I managed to scrounge some money from English Heritage to allow me to start work identifying Shropshire's surviving historic gardens. Hardly any research had been done on the subject, but I soon compiled an initial list of about 400 from documentary sources then made visits to some of the most promising. Llanforda was one of these.

In the mid-17th century the estate had been owned by an extraordinary man, Edward Lloyd, a `patron to poets and harpists' who had a dissipated lifestyle and supported the wrong side in the Civil War. One of his vices was gardening, and after ruination in the war he vowed to do nothing but `rebuild his estate and worship God' through his garden. He went on to employ a negro gardener in the 1670s called Samson, and conducted botanical experiments, including comparisons of the growth rate of plants in Shropshire and London.

When I visited the site, though, I wasn't expecting to find much there. The house had been demolished in the 1950s and its hilltop position planted over with trees, so I didn't have much hope. But anyway I drove over, parked the car in this open rolling landscape, got booted and suited with wellies, anorak, notebooks and camera, and set out over open pasture towards where the house had stood about half a mile from the road.

Before long I came across a number of very strange earthworks. At first they looked geological but then I noticed a man-made dam across a stream with a small pond behind it. Once you spot one of these things you suddenly get tuned in and see others, and I found that the whole hill-slope was covered in these little man-made ponds - about 20 in all. What was fascinating was that when I went back to the documents, I found that in the later 17th century the family had made most of its money by investing in the North Welsh coastal fishing industry and engaging in freshwater fish farming - presumably using the network of ponds I'd seen.

I pressed on up the hill, and on the edge of the Forestry plantation I found the abandoned house platform and brick foundations of the 18th century stables, much as I'd expected. Then I walked into the wood, following a ride. And there, pressed in by the dark trees, I came across the remains of brick kitchen garden walls in a small clearing. The walls had been heated, with horizontal flues carrying hot air from a furnace to enable the owners to grow soft fruit against the wall. It may not have been the most earth-shattering discovery in the history of archaeology but it gave me a tremendous thrill.

It is an eerie experience to roam about a deserted historic site, trying to get a feel for what the place was once like. Lloyd's sophisticated botanical garden, divided into compartments and decorated with plant pots painted with the family motto in gold, must have swooped down what is now just an empty hillside on the Welsh border.

Paul Stamper is an English Heritage Inspector for the West Midlands

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© Council for British Archaeology and author, 2000