How a garden can become a spiritual sanctuary

An outdoor Stations of the Cross: the Calvary garden at Aber Artro, Gwynedd (Helen Harrison)

A Calvary garden, a place for the contemplation of Christ’s Passion, has been created above the River Artro in Gwynedd, Wales. It may be the first of its kind in a private garden in Britain. It is located at Aber Artro, home of Paul and Carolyn Morgan, who had been developing the period gardens around their house for some 15 years before they considered creating an outdoor Stations of the Cross in a peaceful woodland setting.

Paul and Carolyn, parishioners at St Tudwal’s, near Harlech, in the Diocese of Wrexham, say that the idea was “almost accidental”.

“My first thought for this corner was to make somewhere interesting for the grandchildren,” says Paul. “I wondered about a Welsh dragon – but Carolyn vetoed that. Then, looking more carefully, I realised the site was on a steepish hillside with a small mound overlooking the rest of the garden.

“I thought it might make an atmospheric and realistic site for a Calvary garden, incorporating the 14 stations: a place where people of all religious denominations, or of none, could enjoy peace and the opportunity for reflection.”

Gardens have an intriguing role in the Christian narrative. They are the settings for three of the most significant events in the Bible: Eden, the scene of the Fall; Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his betrayal; and the garden where Mary Magdalene initially mistook the Risen Christ for the gardener. There is also the tradition of the Hortus conclusus (“enclosed garden”), and its widespread and symbolic associations with Our Lady, in later medieval and Renaissance art.

The natural contours of the raised ground of the Aber Artro site bring to mind early descriptions of the location of Calvary. The earliest known written document of a journey to the Holy Land describes the Crucifixion having occurred on “the little hill of Golgotha”. Aber Artro’s garden site fits perfectly with the traditional description.

It is generally acknowledged that gardens are places that can help focus the mind. Walking in a garden can be a form of meditation ­– and gardening itself a way of acknowledging God as Creator. Monastic establishments recognised from the start the importance of the cloister garden, not just to exercise the body but also to succour the mind.

At Aber Artro, the Morgans carefully selected plants to reinforce and complement the story of Christ’s journey to Calvary. A collection of thorns (rubus) symbolises His Crown of Thorns. Camellia japonica “Adolphe Audusson”, which sheds its red petals in springtime, symbolises His falling while carrying the Cross. The weeping willow (Salix x sepulcralis) recalls His words, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” His wounds on the Cross are represented by the blood-red berries of Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus, “John Redmond”). Where His death on the Cross is recalled, the purple flowers of bergenia and passion flower (passiflora) appear in Lent and summer respectively.

In reference to Veronica wiping the face of Our Lord, Paul chose a Handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata). “At my age, that could have been an extreme act of faith,” says the 74-year-old, “since they usually take 25 years to flower. But there’s a new variety that flowers in three years and a cutting’s been taken which we can plant next year.”

The 14 stations are individually marked by birch plaques, heat-engraved by craftsman Gari Lewis, who also built the striking cedar cross atop the rocky hill which surmounts the site. Gardeners Eddie Gough and Rick Costa made the Welsh-slate judgment seat for Pontius Pilate (which faces two ways), and the moss-covered, open tomb.

The walk was opened in April by Mgr Alex Rebello, parish priest of St Tudwal’s and its daughter church, St David’s. Mgr Rebello and his parishioners were joined by members of other local Christian churches. Later, a Lenten lunch raised funds for Wrexham diocese’s appeal for Aid to the Church in Need.

A garden need not be of the size or scope of Aber Artro to become a place of devotion. Every garden has the potential. Many familiar plants already have traditional, religious names: Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), and Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), widely found in domestic gardens, were respectively known in medieval times as Virgin’s Glove and Our Lady’s Shoes. Simply by recalling these names, and creating colour schemes to reflect the Church calendar, every garden can become a spiritual place. As the Catholic poet Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote, in lines often carved onto garden benches: “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth.”

Aber Artro Garden is open to the public by arrangement. For further information: