In the heart of Warwick lies one of the county’s best kept secrets – a hidden garden enclosed by ancient town walls. Behind the rambling timber-framed buildings of the medieval Lord Leycester Hospital lies The Master’s Garden, a leafy oasis in the heart of a bustling market town.
This charming one-acre garden belongs to the aforementioned ‘hospital’, a quirky and quintessentially English institution that has provided a home for old soldiers and a resident Master since being founded by Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1571.
The garden is divided into two parts by box hedging and two great magnolia trees planted either side of a 12th century Norman arch discovered during renovation of the hospital’s chapel in 1860.
In the lower half you’ll find a lawn that Sir Robert stipulated should be left as “green sward for recreation”. It has remained thus for over 450 years, which probably makes it the oldest documented garden in Warwick. Here the retired soldiers were allowed to play bowls and billiards but not cards!
The upper half is an intimate setting of box edging and narrow paths that lead the visitor to a number of unusual and historic features. The Norman arch frames the garden’s main ornament, a huge stone vase that once graced the conservatory at Warwick Castle. It reputedly crowned a 2000-year old ‘nilometer’; a column that stood on the banks of the Nile to measure the height of its annual flood.
A red brick path connects the vase to the other main focal point of the garden, a charming thatched summer house. On either side, two perennial borders explode into a profusion of colourful blooms come spring and summer. In early June, colonnades of linked oak posts become laden with a mass of rambling roses and climbing clematis.
Against the old north town wall is a former Tudor dovecote, now converted into a gazebo for quiet contemplation. Beneath are the remains of a Georgian pineapple frame, based on a Roman-style under floor heating system. It was constructed specifically for the growing of these tropical fruits, very much in vogue in 18th century England.
On the western side of the garden, fruit and vegetables continue to be grown between four box hedges that surround a sundial. In former times each old soldier had his own plot to cultivate, the most senior having the privilege of gardening alongside the Master himself.
This tranquil garden is not planted to period but rather to association. There are plenty of Dudley’s favourite white roses and a bower of climbing rose ‘Amy Robsart’, in tribute to his wife. An abundance of trees and shrubs make it a haven for the local bird population and visitors will find plenty of secluded spots to sit and appreciate their song.
The Master’s Garden is open Tuesday to Sunday (and Bank Holiday Mondays) 10am – 5pm from Easter until the end of September. Admission £2. Guided tours for organised parties can be arranged by contacting The Master on 01926 491422.