The Gardens of Cregneash

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A tour through the Gardens of Cregneash on the Isle of Man. A village preserves the way that crofters would have lived in the 19th & early 20th centuries

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 centuries. It’s there that you can learn about traditional Manx culture, language, cookery, and crafts all in a relatively authentic setting.

Tour through the gardens of Cregneash

For the average visitor, it’s fairly easy to overlook the small gardens scattered through the village – there are 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.

The Gardens of Cregneash on the Isle of Man

Luckily for me, the head gardener at Cregneash, Cilla Platt, was gracious enough to take me on a tour. I met her through my beginner’s beekeeping course and she’s been wonderful in sharing her many years of experience. Though she doesn’t 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.

The Gardens of Cregneash on the Isle of Man
Red Currants and Gooseberries staked in rows near the Chapel

Rediscovering traditional life

Ordinary people in the village, and perhaps on the island in general, didn’t seem to keep many records 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’

Most cottages would have had a small veg patch

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.

Many of Cregneash’s gardens are filled with mixtures of herbs, fruit, and wild plants

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. 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.

The Gardens of Cregneash on the Isle of Man

Magical and mystical herbs

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

Nursing plants back into existence

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 everywhere 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

Using stone walls as windbreaks

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. It’s clear 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

Growing watercress at the well

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 freshwater 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 gardens

Flowers in the garden are also a mixture of old and new. Through the years Bluebells and Campion have colonized 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 fuchsias. 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.

A Manx cat walking beside a patch of pollinator-friendly native wildflowers

The role of livestock in the gardens

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 have 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 now and then

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 mind-boggling to learn that some of them didn’t step foot out of the village their entire lives. 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 in 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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  1. Barbara Anne Kinzett says:

    Thank you just beautiful, so home sick for the land of my birth , I just wish for one more visit , so far away in New Zealand , but you bring it closer , we tend to forget what a magical place the Island is .

  2. Wow! I have only just found this article Tanya. Thank you for writing it. As you know I am lucky enough to lIve with this on my doorstep (even my hens are former Cregneash residents!). I can tell you not a day goes by when I don't look out of my window and think how privileged I am to live here! As for the gardens? Well I had better stir my stumps and get down that hill to volunteer next Spring. Lovely article!

    1. Thank you Angie :) I didn't know your ladies came from Cregneash…did they trek up to yours on their own or did you adopt them?

  3. It looks like you're stepping back in time! How lovely. I'm originally from Weymouth, Dorset and the landscape isn't too different from this.

    1. What foresight to have purchased the village bit by bit to preserve traditional culture – we're really lucky to have a folk village on the island! I'm sure there would be at least one in Dorset as well…do you remember at all Heather?

  4. I really enjoyed that – such an interesting and beautiful place. And that four-horned sheep is one wild looking dude!

  5. Oh, how I loved devouring these words and images. If there is a place on this planet I would love to visit (perhaps live, if the community would welcome me) is this place. Thank you *so much* for sharing.

  6. It was lovely to learn about somewhere else Tanya so thanks for sharing your journey. I can't believe how little has changed in the photos from a century ago and present day!

  7. I love these photos of the town now and 100 years ago! Incredible!

  8. Thanks for sharing this, I will have to go there on vacation sometime. I love old places like this, and I think we all can learn a lot from how they did things a hundred years ago. You have a very lovely blog and you always write about interesting things, but it was your booze making that got me hooked.

  9. Thank you so much for this wonderful post and photographs. I thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so I read it twice, and have bookmarked it for a return visit!

    Regards, Heather.

  10. This was like manna for my weary soul this morning! Having longed to visit the Isle for many years (I will get there before too long) this was just the most wonderful whistlestop tour of one of the many magical spots I will one day visit, beautiful! Thank you so much x

  11. Thank you for such a lovely journey back in time,what a hardy lot they were and a big pat on the back to Cilla and Jan for putting it all back together.It is so nice to see when gardens are preserved.

  12. What a fascinating and interesting piece Tanya – I loved this, seeing the old gardens and how they were worked – great stuff. All credit due to the girls who keep these gardens going.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing such a unique and wonderful tour. It was fascinating, Mary Anne

  14. What an amazing place to visit. I had a look on Street View and you can get a feel of how hard their lives must have been, especially in winter. The roofs tied down with rope show the strength of the wind. Thank you for the tour.

  15. What a fascinating post with beautiful photos. It reminds me of the wonderful Museum of Welsh Rural Life at St Fagans, which is quite similar and very worth a trip (it's free!) if you are ever down this way. They have lots of buildings which they have taken stone by stone from all over Wales, and they have the most amazing walled garden with fruit in it. The mulberry trees are the most beautiful trees imaginable. And figs and peaches growing against the walls, oh I love it! They have various vegetable patches outside the different properties. A particularly interesting bit is a row of little stone cottages, each one as it would have been in a different era, starting with the earliest. You can see how the house and garden changed through time. It really is amazing to see these museums, thank you again for this great post.

  16. Such a lovely post. So beautiful and fascinating. I love the history of the day to day-what did people plant, how did they cope with their daily challenges. Thank you for sharing. I just recently found your blog and it is my new favorite.

  17. What a lovely tour you have taken us on, really interesting and such pretty gardens and cottages xxx