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The Gardens of Shakespeare's New Place: February

Jane Shaw recounts tales of New Place in this February update, detailing scandalous theories of goings-on by the Shakespeares in years gone by, more ways to fight the bitter cold, and the self-destructive nature of the mistletoe...

Jane Shaw

II. February 2018

February has a reputation for filling the ditches. In every trench, furrow, and motorway verge, stems hurtle skywards, their tops brimming with bulging-buds. An ever warming sun intertwines with St. Valentine and his day, spurring on whispers of the coming of Spring. Locals stroll the streets in T-shirts and, yes, I watched open-mouthed as one maverick soul flapped into Morrisons wearing flip-flops.

New Place Wild Bank
Wild Bank, close up Hellebore

But then February – that rabble-rousing chameleon – incites change once again.

The polar vortex has split in two and deep cold air is about to swoop over the land. According to the more enthusiastic newsfeeds, we are about to become a frozen wasteland bad enough to rival that of ‘The Kingdom of the North’ in the HBO TV series The Game of Thrones

February is a challenge. "It is the poor man’s pickpurse and the miser’s cut-throat, the enemy to pleasure and the time of patience." Nicholas Breton's Fantasticks (1545-1626) contains twelve little descriptions of the months, cited by many literary experts as a ‘classic’. Instead of falling into a pit of despair over burgeoning buds and delicate plants that well may be destroyed in the coming weather, we shall focus on the sex life of the Tudors, slugs, socks, and overheard conversations at New Place...

When hidden from view within the vegetation, it is always a conundrum whether or not to acknowledge overhearing visitors’ comments that relate to the garden and Shakespeare. We often pop up or are seen under a hedge after the event and the effort of appearing oblivious to the occasional inappropriate, or even disparaging, remark is sometimes a challenge. Mostly, though, all is well.

I happened to eavesdrop on a couple’s chit-chat as I was battling with a bay tree, caught in its branches, close to Greg Wyatt’s The Tempest statue. The following conversation made me stop, watch, and chuckle out loud, which briefly disconcerted the twosome, believing themselves to be alone. It reminded me a little of a Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett sketch, a small scene within a scene.

It was all in our visitors’ gentle tone and timing.

A middle-aged couple stand close to The Tempest statue and survey the Great Garden. The man looks at his wife/girlfriend/friend and raises a cheeky-eyebrow.

“They must have done it in here, eh?”

The woman turns to him with a frown.

“You wha-?”

He releases a mischievous smile and gestures at the garden. “You know… done it in here. Shakespeare and his missus–?”

She briefly looks at him then at the lawn, the arbour in the yew hedge, and back to him. Her eyes widen, her frown lifts and she playfully hits him on the arm.

“Ooooh… got ya!” She settles back, crosses her arms, and gazes over the Great Garden again, her frown returning. “No, you daft twit, it would have stank of manure.” A moment passes and she shakes her head, her voice reduced to a murmur.

“And dresses then weren’t like now…”

Free from the trappings of heavy clothing, slugs would more likely have been at ‘it’ in the gardens of Shakespeare’s New Place. They have a quaint courting ritual, their approach much like that of men and women out on the town in the early hours of the morning – they encircle each other for a while and then produce a great big puddle of slime. As they are hermaphrodite, each has the pleasure of injecting the other with sperm before slipping away to lay roughly three dozen eggs each.

Shakespeare and Anne may well have come across slugs slithering across the floors of New Place. To combat slimy-critters and other pests that plagued Tudor houses, hedgehogs were much valued as down-to-earth pest controllers.

February’s Top Tip(s)

An invitation to a talk entitled ‘Sex and the Tudors’ is difficult to turn down, especially when it is described as ‘a rip-roaring tumble through the sexual exploits of the Tudors’. Staff and volunteers at SBT were lucky enough to have a sneak preview before tickets go on sale (£10 for Adults, £8 for SBT Friends) to the wider world on September 8th, one of the many After Hour Talks delivered at the SBT.

They are selling like pints of cold lager in a heat wave, so if interested book now. The speaker, Lesley Smith, Tutbury Castle curator, is highly informative about Tudor high-jinkery.

As a gardener I particularly enjoyed the ‘lemon and lime’ section of her discourse, an account of how Tudor women battled against the horrors of venereal disease, syphilis, candida, and so on, by using acidic fruit in areas at polar opposites to a tumbler of gin and tonic. Her dedication to discovering whether the Tudor sunshine-fruit theory worked is more than admirable.

In Shakespeare’s day, the word 'lemon' lent itself to a play on words with the use of ‘leman’ as lover. While the actual fruit was used in an effort to help women in Tudor times, its name could be manipulated to serve in a disparaging fashion as displayed in Shakespeare’s play ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’. The character Berowne uses the lemon/leman-lover pun to instigate cunning interplay over food, drink and sex. By exposing all the possibilities and associations of words, they create a smokescreen over their unsavoury banter; the victims of their mockery considered to be of no more value than a lemon. Not an edifying conversation though nowadays such clever word-play would make disquieting sexual chit-a-blab far more palatable to overhear. The hostile undertones nonetheless are still be rebuked as Holofernes’ demonstrates to Berowne and his cohorts: "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble."

So, to return to January’s top tip and the perennial dilemma of cold feet and how to keep them warm, a member of the gardening team is conducting his own, slightly unhinged, experiment of wearing layers of cotton socks, the first pair full of talcum powder. His theory is that the talc will soak up any sweat and prevent cooling of the skin by evaporation. We will see how that progresses in the ensuing Siberian plunge.

Of course, as stated by a sensible visitor, the answer to the ultimate feet warming apparel in sub-zero temperatures is held by the Inuits and anyone else who lives in the Polar Regions:

1 – kill a blubber-rich animal, such as a seal.
2 – treat and stitch their skin into inner and outer stockings, boots, and over slippers.
3 – use baby-seal material as your first layer, as it is thinner and softer than the outer boot, and will feel luxurious against the skin. Ensure the over-slippers are made with furred seal-skin.

The only problems to consider are in locating a seal, possible vegan inspired protests, and adding steel-toe caps, and a health and safety requirement on our sites...

Plant(s) of the Month

AHC Baby Mistletoe
Viscum Album, or European Mistletoe, hanging off the crab-apple trees in the Knot Garden

European Mistletoe is native to northern Europe, one of about 1500 species of mistletoe around the world. Most are tropical or subtropical, but in northern Europe we have just one – the true mistletoe of ancient legend, Viscum album.

They are a source of interest to many visitors, particularly when they are put to work as cuttings hung over doorways at Christmas time. Without a glass of mulled wine at hand, most individuals are reticent to engage in an amorous clinch, or peck on the cheek, with the person who happens to roll up alongside them. A sensible modesty, which is nullified or further bolstered by informing them of the plant’s original name 'mistaltan' – where 'mistal' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for 'dung', and 'tan' for 'twig', which combines to create ‘dung on a twig’.

It is an amusing paradox to use a semi-parasitic plant at a time of ‘giving’. Granted it can produce some of its own food via photosynthesis, but defined in human terms it is rather lazy; a lounger on the sofa, content to tap its host tree for additional minerals and water.

Long ago Druids and others of that ilk tended to worship mistletoe’s quirky traits. In Tudor times this belief continued, with some hanging it around their children’s necks to ward-off evil, though many in Shakespeare’s day traduced its character...

It is fitting to use an example from a play of his that can only be described as horrific: Titus Andronicus — Lavinia has her tongue cut out and hands cut off. Chiron and Demetrius are served up to their mother, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in a pie. Before her gruesome death Tamora describes mistletoe as baleful. It is threatening, hostile, a Gothic horror, Shakespeare attributing active evil to the plant. At that time its ability to grow on and in trees was afforded much speculation, its roots mired in sin. John Gerard, supervisor of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I chief minister, thought that it grew through vaporous moisture. He described how the flowers "be small and yellowe; which being past, there appeere small clusters of white translucent berries, which are so cleere that a man may see through them.’ He then adds, introducing a dark element, that these beautiful berries ‘are full of clammie or vicious moisture, whereof the best Birdlime is made."

Tudors used Birdlime – essentially the dung deposited by thrushes after eating mistletoe berries – to entrap birds. It was also employed by apothecaries to treat hard swellings, often added to frankincense. Highly poisonous, it could also inflame the tongue, distract the mind, and weaken the heart and wits.

It is hard not to conclude that mistletoe is a theatrical plant, a tragic drama queen, whose end is also brutal. Much like the lounger on the sofa, a self-destruct button is lodged in its DNA: as it flourishes it needs more and more water and its ‘roots’ (haustoria) become so dense that they block the supply to the branch beyond it, which then dies back. The mistletoe is deprived of its source of nutrients and effectively kills itself.

Crocus ‘Yellow Giant’ (Wild Bank)

Yellow Crocus
Cyclamen, or Yellow Crocus

There are no dark dramatic tales here. They are just out and proud, shouting loud, painting the Wild Bank bright yellow. This crocus is the ultimate sun-lover, introverted and moody with its petals clamped shut, unless it is bathed with a winter sun ray. If it were possible, this lot would rise early to save the deck-loungers around the hotel swimming pool. ‘Yellow Giant’ possesses a glow that is surely only achievable by holding a reflector board beneath the chin, or petal. With or without the sun’s help they are invigorating to behold at this time of year.

All our best wishes for March from the Gardening Team at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust.