Secret garden soothes the soul

STOKE Poges guards its secrets well.

No casual motorist driving through the scattered village and glancing incuriously at the front gates of the memorial gardens on Church Lane could possibly guess what lies inside.

And yet the extraordinary beauty and serenity of these gardens have made them a place of refuge and solace for more than 80 years.

It’s a secret stumbled upon by poetry lovers making a pilgrimage to the nearby grave of Thomas Gray.

And indeed the story behind the gardens started here more than 250 years ago when Gray completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church.

Acclaim was instantaneous and overwhelming in the mid-18th century literary world following its publication – and indeed the 32-stanza poem was to become one of the most famous in the English language, learned and recited by generations of English schoolchildren:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The poem stood the test of time – and after Gray died in 1771, aged 54, he was buried in the churchyard where he had finished his greatest work.

He had not been the most prolific of poets, but the people of Stoke Poges seem to have taken him to their hearts, and a massive monument to him was erected in 1799 by John Penn, the soldier, scholar and poet whose grandfather had founded Pennsylvania and who was now in the process of transforming his Stoke Park estate with a new mansion.

Designed by James Watt and erected in 1799, the monument today stands proudly in a field which the villagers bought in the early 1920s before giving it to the National Trust in 1925.

But if it’s the monument and grave which attract National Trust members and poetry lovers to the churchyard, it is the nearby memorial gardens which are the most spectacular attraction, with their sweeping views across to Stoke Park, nowadays a five-star hotel, spa and championship golf course.

What makes the memorial gardens so unusual is that they were deliberately designed to ensure that no building, structures or monuments of any kind would be likely to remind one of a cemetery.

Instead the aim of Sir Noel Mobbs, the local Lord of the Manor, when he acquired the 20 acres of land was not just to preserve the tranquil setting of the church but to create a ‘living memorial to the dead and of solace to the bereaved’. The gardens were opened on 25 May 1935 and their 80th anniversary was commemorated in 2015.

Designed by landscape architect Edward White, they actually comprise hundreds of individual family gated gardens set amid wisteria and rhododendrons awash with a kaleidoscope of colour at this time of year.

It’s a glorious setting on a sunny day, dotted with benches and hundreds of inconspicuous memorials, a perfect place for reflection or remembrance, an oasis of tranquillity that’s very different in atmosphere from the more sombre graves under the ancient yew which caught Gray’s imagination, where Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, / The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The gardens are maintained and managed by South Bucks District Council and underwent significant restoration work prior to 2004 where much care was taken to recreate their original design and character.

A staff of gardeners is assisted by a volunteer group and the ‘Friends of Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens’ support the gardens with fundraising and with practical help.

Now Grade I registered by English Heritage, they contain water features, a colonnade, rose garden, woodland, rock garden and open parkland with stunning views across the Capability Brown landscape and Repton bridge to Stoke Park.

April and May are the best months for spring and early summer displays, as well as October for stunning autumn colour.

It’s the perfect place to escape with a good book or contemplate the elegance of Gray’s Elegy perhaps, which is not really an elegy at all since it doesn’t mourn any one individual, but is instead more of a meditation on death and the lives of simple rustic folk.

Was there ever a better description of the weariness of the evening after a hard day’s work and that time of day when labouring folk would retire home after toiling in the fields all day? Carol Rumens explains a little more about it in her Poem of the Week feature in The Guardian back in 2011.

She describes it as “musical, eloquent, moral”: not only a beautiful poem in its own right, but opening a network of cultural pathways and awash with impressive sound effects, especially in those memorable opening lines.

There’s politics here too in his reflection on the unsung heroes of England who pass their lives in anonymity: Full many a gem of purest ray serene, / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: / Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

The poem influenced subsequent generations of writers too: one stanza gave Thomas Hardy the title for Far From the Madding Crowd, encapsulating the rural remoteness of the novel’s setting.

But whether you admire the poem’s simple lyricism of Gray’s lament, its memorable language or political undertones – what talents might have sprung from the hearts and hands of those in the ground if their lives had not been constrained by poverty – this is a perfect place to reflect on the power of those opening stanzas, which generations of schoolchildren learned by rote.

From Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
  The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
  And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
  And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
  And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
  The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
  Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
  Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
  The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
  The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
  No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
  Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
  Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens are open from dusk to dawn each day and admission is free.

Gray’s Monument is located on Church Lane, Stoke Poges SL2 4NZ. Car parking is available in the St. Giles’ Church car park which is open to dusk each day.

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