Visit the Museum Gardens of the eighteenth century poet, William Cowper, a very innovative gardener, living at a time when seeds and plants were arriving from North America. He was resident at Orchard Side in the Market Place at Olney from 1768 to 1786. We know many of the plants he grew from his letters and poems. He said of himself:
‘Gardening was of all employments that in which I succeeded best.’
In another letter Cowper detailed his gardening progress:
‘I began with lettuces, and went onto cauliflowers, cucumbers and melons.’
He even grew pineapples in the museum garden, having received from the gardener at Gayhurst House, ‘six fruiting pines’. He grew these on a hot bed of manure and earth, covered by a ‘light’ or cold frame. We do not know the layout of his garden, other than he had ‘a gravel walk thirty yards long’. He built himself a greenhouse to over-winter his evergreens, particularly the myrtles, of which he was particularly fond. In the summer months he seems to have used it as a conservatory, as we would today!
Artistic view of the Museum Gardens
Click the image below for an expanded view.
The Flower Garden
In 1994 the Trustees were awarded a grant from the Carnegie Trust to redesign the flower garden and the decision was taken at that time to have only plants in it which had been introduced to this country before 1800, the year of the poet’s death. Of course, this included all the native flowers and herbs introduced by the Romans, as well as plants introduced by successive incomers or explorers, often sponsored by the nobility. This provides a wide variety of plants in the flower garden.
The Summer House Garden
Entry to the Summer House Garden is through the gate in the corner of the Flower Garden. The Summer House Garden originally belonged to the apothecary, Thomas Asprey, who lived next door to Orchard Side. After Thomas Aspray’s death, Cowper was allowed the use of this former medicinal and herbal garden. Selected friends were allowed to visit him in the unique building in the centre of the garden, which he described as his ‘verse manufacturey’.
After the poet’s death in 1800, admirers of his works visited this small ‘literary shrine’ and many inscribed their names and dates on the walls and ceiling, the earliest found being 1802!
To help re-create the original use of the garden, a bed of medicinal plants and a long herb border have been created. Today this garden is laid out like a Victorian Kitchen Garden with heritage fruit and vegetables, as well as modern varieties (there being no date-line in this garden).
Upkeep of the Museum Gardens
The Summer House Garden has always been tenanted out and Charles Knight took the garden over twenty five years ago. The Flower Garden, is maintained by a small group of volunteers, and is self-funding from the sale of plants, flowers and surplus vegetables in season. Between them they have raised the standard of the gardens and have been opening for over fifteen years for the National Garden Scheme on the second weekend in June (see ‘What’s on’ for dates). Both gardens are managed organically, and wild life is encouraged by providing suitable habitats, with perhaps the exception of pigeons!
All visitors to the Museum enjoy the sensory pleasures of these two peaceful and tranquil gardens, with their abundant flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Views of the gardens through the seasons
The Buckinghamshire Garden Trust has carried out an investigation of the gardens and produced their report in 2019. It is available from their website www.bucksgardenstrust.org.uk along with reports on other nearby historic gardens.
Policy on dogs in the museum and gardens
ONLY guide dogs, hearing dogs and medical detection dogs are allowed in the museum and gardens. No other dogs are permitted inside the building or beyond the Courtyard.