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Thatch-roofed Manx cottages are an iconic symbol of the Isle of Man. Though not many people live in them these days, a handful have been maintained for posterity on the southern-most tip of the island. Since 1938, the village of Cregneash has been open to the public as an open-air folk museum with the purpose of preserving farming culture from the 19th and early 20th century. It’s there that you can learn about traditional Manx culture, language, cookery, and crafts all in a relatively authentic setting.
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For the average visitor it’s fairly easy to overlook the small gardens scattered through the village – there’s just so many buildings to explore and farm animals to ogle. Especially those four-horned Loaghtan sheep. But as a gardener I was curious about their significance and wanted to learn more about traditional Manx ways of growing. Having both ferocious winds and cool summers, the Isle of Man can be a difficult place to garden and tips from the past could benefit gardeners growing in the present.
Red Currants and Gooseberries staked in rows near the Chapel
Luckily for me, the head gardener at Cregneash, Cilla Platt, was gracious enough to take me on a tour. I met Cilla through my beginner’s beekeeping course and she’s been wonderful in sharing her many years of experience. Though she doesn’t have keep bees in the village, Cilla comes in once a week to work on the village’s gardens along with another gardener, Jan. Both are keen growers and over their respective fourteen and four years of gardening at Cregneash they’ve learned a lot about past gardening practices from clues left in the land, structures, and photographs.
Ordinary people in the village, and perhaps on the island in general, didn’t seem to keep much record of what they grew and how they grew it. Photographs are the first point of call in learning and Cilla has a tough but fascinating job in trying to recreate some of the plantings. In reality today’s gardens are a mix of old and new but every now and then some evidence of what actually grew in Cregneash crops up. One such instance is the discovery of Wormwood growing on one of the plots. How long had it been growing there? Did the people of a hundred years ago use it? Did it have medicinal or magical value to them? These are the kinds of questions that Cilla no doubt asks herself every time she discovers a new plant.
Sheltered gardens were where tender plants and herbs were grown. Note the ‘Bink’
From what Cilla has learned so far, people in the past grew a limited number of crops that included grains, potatoes, turnips, and kale. These were planted in large fields outside the village and would make up a large portion of the basic diet. Each home in the village would also have a patch of garden behind the house, sheltered from the prevailing wind. In these gardens women would tend to their rhubarb, herbs, and flowers and also use the space as an extension of the house in the warmer months. In these gardens you can often find stone benches called ‘Binks’ where women would sit to shuck their peas and carry out their mending and sewing. The interiors of Manx cottages can be dark so it was only natural that they’d want to be outside when they could.
Many of Cregneash’s gardens are filled with mixtures of herbs, fruit, and wild plants
It’s interesting to learn that magical herbs were very commonly grown and that old pagan customs went hand in hand with Christianity. For example, Vervain was grown to ward off witches and also to make potions that would ensure a good catch when sprinkled on fishing nets. Growing alongside magical herbs were also fragrant flowers for the church since women would take turns decorating the chapel with bouquets of fresh blossoms. Manx people in times past must have had a curious blend of beliefs and amazingly some of them are still with us. Mugwort, another herb used to deter witches and evil spirits, is to this day a mandatory accessory for officials on Tynwald Day. It’s also the Manx national flower.
Garlic Mustard growing against a sunny shed door
These days Cilla and Jan nurse plants back into existence when they find them and the gardens are patchworks of vegetables, fruit, and flowers alongside wild plants and herbs. Garlic Mustard, also known as Jack-by-the-Hedge, grows any and every where it can and with Wild Garlic must have been an important seasoning. Another important herb is Woodruff which smells faintly of fresh hay when it’s green but even more so when dried. It was mainly used to fill mattresses and to strew on the floor and would have been an optimistic reminder of sunshine even in the darkest days of winter. Woodruff also has a second purpose in that its roots can be used to dye wool a lovely orangey-red.
Woodruff was used as a bedding material and also to dye wool
Though Cilla and Jan manage many of the gardens, some are taken care of by tenants living in the village. Thick stone walls surround these little pieces of land and help to not only break the wind but soak up and redistribute heat.
On the day I visited, the rocks were warm to the touch and long after the sun went down they would have continued to radiate warmth. I also suspect that the walls were used to keep lush greens and berries away from roving animals and mischievous children. Though they don’t do much to keep the hens out, as evidenced by a hen setting on a clutch of eggs in one corner. Hens then and now are a nuisance in growing spaces and in the past the residents of Cregneash would drape fishing nets over parts of the garden to keep them out.
Thick stone walls created borders for small gardens
A hen nesting in the corner of an old garden
An ancient well, probably fed by a fresh-water spring, is another site where gardening takes place, though of a wilder variety. A long stone pathway leads the way to a well where people would lean down to fill their buckets. Alongside the path was constructed a ditch that fresh water from the well could drain into.
Whether there by chance or by deliberate planting, Watercress now lines the ditch and is available for anyone brave enough to harvest it. Considering that the ditch isn’t accessible to cattle and sheep it would in theory mean that the watercress is safe from infecting people with liver flukes. It’s not difficult to imagine that the high walls that you must climb over to get onto the pathway, and the high walls that run along it, were built specifically to ensure safe watercress crops.
Watercress grows wild in the ditch leading to the old well
Flowers in the garden are also a mixture of old and new. Through the years Bluebells and Campion have colonised beds filled with Green Alkanet and heritage variety of tulips which must have been originally planted a hundred years ago. Close to the ground native yellow primroses intermingle with modern cultivars and on stone walls twine honeysuckles and fuscias. The variety is a fitting symbolism of Cregneash as a whole and again one wonders if some of the flowers and herbs were used for other things aside from their beauty on the chapel’s altar.
Flowers include Primroses, Green Alkanet, Old strawberry varieties and Turk’s Cap Lilies
Though bumblebees happily lapped up nectar from swathes of bluebells the one insect that was missing in its entirety was honeybees. Cilla claimed to have not seen a single one this spring and since the last hives in the village are now gone it makes me wonder if the high and windy terrain has created a barrier to other bees finding their way there. It’s clear that the village’s site was well chosen since the winds pick up quite ferociously as soon as you make your way to some of the outer fields and roads. Within the space of thirty feet you’ll go from freezing in a bitter wind to strolling in a light breeze. I suppose that’s another gardening lesson from the past: pick your location wisely.
Plenty of bumblebees are foraging in the gardens but no honey bees are to be seen
Another one of their techniques is one that Cilla uses regularly – adding animal manure to the soil. The land that the village sits on is composed of very heavy clay as I saw in a deep ditch in one of the fields. It’s so thick that you could practically form pots out of it – I’m actually surprised there isn’t a potter in residence spinning clumps of it on their wheel.
Though clay is rich in nutrients, it’s very thick and acidic and hard for plants to grow in. Adding manure to the soil would unlock the stickiness and together with lime (added either manually or washed down from the cottage walls) would help create a soil structure and PH balance that crops could thrive in. Years of adding manure has improved the soil in the village and transformed it into a more productive growing space. Animals were and continue to be key to Cregneash’s farming legacy.
Farm animals help improve the land with their manure
Cregneash then and now are very different places but there’s still some sense of what life a hundred years ago could have been like. In this place people were born, had children, and died and in between they worked the land. It’s initially shocking to learn that some of them didn’t step foot out of the village their entire lives but it shouldn’t be surprising since the village and surrounding land and sea provided nearly everything they needed to live. Even though they’re not here to tell us exactly how they went about growing their crops and gardens, clues are still here in the land and in photographs like the one below. There’s a lot to be said for the hardy people who clung on here on this little community and a lot to learn from how they lived.
Cregneash a hundred years ago and today
Thanks very much to Cilla and Jan for their tour and hours of fascinating information on gardening at Cregneash. I learned so much more than what I’ve been able to squeeze into this post and greatly appreciate their sharing of time and knowledge. They work the gardens every Tuesday so if you’re visiting the village make sure to say hello and perhaps take away some gem of information for yourself. Cilla is also on the look-out for gardening volunteers at Cregneash so if you’re interested you could also drop in for a chat about what you can do to help.
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