Speaking English at school was probably a good plan in the long run but native language does mark a difference between who I am now and who I was when I stopped speaking Welsh as a child. There was a Welsh speaking school near Cowbridge, which was too far for me to travel to as a youngster but it felt exotic to know a different language could be spoken in school.
Visiting Cowbridge always unpeels a few mysteries for me, it is one of Wales’ oldest walled towns and is named after the Roman fort it stands on called ‘Bovium’ or cow-place. The Welsh name for the town is Y Bont-faen or stone bridge. Walking down Church Street leads to a high stone wall and behind this is the Cowbridge Physic Garden. A central plot of land which once lead off to separate houses during medieval times is now today’s Physic Garden. Ironically the last purpose of the garden was to feed the local school in 1940s when young lads would be asked to ‘dig for victory’, on this occasion the cabbage patch was the place where victory was achieved.
The Woad grown here was so in demand in the 1200’s it was rationed. Woad dyes fabric blue but was replaced by the richer colour of the Indigo plant (native to Asia) as soon as shipping links between Europe and India were established.
This market town, which is a few miles West of Cardiff, has intriguing medieval origins that are still evident today. The streets are still arranged in ‘burgage plots’ or rows typical of a Saxon borough layout which made it easier for the King to take payments for land rental. In the gardens were toilets, rubbish heaps, pigsties, stables, and chicken runs. The style of the garden was similar to monastic horticulture and was maintained by the community. The space was divided into 10 strips. There were houses or thatched cottages at the street end of each strip, while the rest formed a long garden for each dwelling.
The site is relatively small, just ½ acre but is laid out in a traditional medieval pattern and contains a variety of species native to the UK that would have been grown for their medicinal uses. The kidney bed that remains here today contains mint, borage, parsley, wild strawberry and wild carrot all thought to benefit the kidney the area of energy in Chinese medicine.
Looking at the labels on the plants I realise that everything has more than one name. Borage is also known as star flower because of the bright blue star shaped flowers to attract bees. It has been grown in the UK since at least 1200. “Borage” is derived from barrach, a Celtic word meaning Man of Courage. Another possible origin is the Italian borra or French bourra meaning rough hair or wool, which describes the hairy covering of the plant.
The stories behind seemingly ordinary plants fascinate. Liquorice (latin – Glycyrrhiza, translates into the Welsh – glabra Llaethwyg) has a chequered history. In 1305 Edward I taxed liquorice imports to pay for the repair of London Bridge. The Dominican friars introduced it to Britain and today it is still made into Pontefract cakes.
Before 1782 all supplies of rhubarb were controlled by the Chinese and Russians until Europeans managed to get samples of the crop we enjoy today. The plant is taken to improve digestion.
A nearby living history museum shows how medieval plants were used in a practical manner. Saint Fagans Museum makes plants come alive, with actors living the life of the people who would lived in a self sufficient community.
There is a big gap between how I am today compared with how I was when I lived near here as a child but trailing around a garden brings it back instantly. I almost trip over myself walking home on the same paving stones. I remember images from the museum inspiring me as to what life would be like when I grow up. One fanciful image shows Greek scholars wearing garlands of rosemary to aid their memory during examinations.
It strikes me that because something can be called by different names, this changes our perception of it. The ‘adult ‘ me uses different (longer) words to say the same things as the ‘child’ me and this paints a different picture.
On the lawn a pergola is surrounded by pleached apple trees, where trees are pruned to merge with the nearby tree to form a hedge. The Latin inscription on the sundial reads’ Vis medicatrix Naturae’ translating as ‘The healing power of nature’. Thankfully some things never change.
Find out more about when two worlds collide the work of other writers here